Trot out your sense of adventure for an immersion into one of the wildest trails you’ll find near Orlando, the new 7.1-mile loop in the Black Bear Wilderness Area in Sanford. Sturdy boardwalks bridge a series of historic levees, some of which are broad and others extremely narrow. Along the loop is a simple primitive campsite in a palm hammock. Expect abundant wildlife, including the namesake bears, if you walk softly.
Length: 7.1 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate to high
Land Manager: Seminole County Natural Lands Program
If the St. Johns River is in flood stage, do not attempt this trail. Dogs are welcome, but you probably won’t see wildlife if you bring them along. Spray yourself liberally with bug spray before setting out. Expect wildlife encounters, including bears. If you decide to make use of the primitive campsite along the loop, you’ll need to bear bag or use a bear canister. Bring a hiking stick or two with you, you’ll need it for balance. Watch where you step: pygmy rattlers and cottonmouths may be encountered here.
Prefer a shorter hike? Try the 2-mile Black Bear Wilderness Walk.
From Interstate 4 exit 101C at Sanford, take SR 46 west for 1.5 miles to Orange Blvd. Turn right. Continue 1.3 miles to New York Street on your left. Turn left. Drive 0.5 mile to where New York Street and Michigan Avenue meet. The trailhead is straight ahead of you.
Since Black Bear Wilderness Area first opened, there’s been a trail, but the expansion of the trail into a 7.1-mile loop is relatively new and took a great deal of effort in building boardwalks that could survive the periodic floods of the St. Johns River. There are 14 boardwalks along the loop, and they are all numbered. Most of the loop is in deep shade.
An overview map of the loop is shown on the kiosk at the trailhead. Sign in to the trail register before you depart, and snap a photo of the map. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get lost unless you intentionally head off-trail and into the woods, which you can’t do once you’re on the dike system along the St. Johns River since it’s a marsh on either side. The trail is marked with signs every half mile (complete with lat-lon coordinates) as well as blue arrow markers.
To start your hike, follow the gravel path to Boardwalk 1, which spans a low-lying drainage area that was once crossed by a series of bog bridges. The new boardwalk gives the entrance to the trail system an entirely different feel, making it more accessible to visitors. When you reach the Y intersection in the boardwalk at the Loop Trail sign, keep left. Although following the loop clockwise means you’re counting down boardwalks and mileage markers, it’s the best way to end your hike with the best views and a cool breeze at your back.
The boardwalk ends and deposits you on the first levee. Lined with cabbage palms, it’s an instant immersion into the jungle-like floodplain forests of the St. Johns River, with views down into the forest on the right and a dark canal on the left. It feels like one of the old tramways used for logging the cypress throughout this region, but sits rather high up. You reach a bridge over a tannic stream between this levee and the next one. Soon after is the first of the official trail mileage markers, this one for 6.5 miles. Start your countdown.
The footpath narrows considerably, and there is a spot where it drops into a break between this levee and the next one where you could find yourself wading. Climbing back up on the narrow berm, the trail tunnels deeper into the forest and then surprises you by dropping into an open area where the back of someone’s yard is within view of Boardwalk 14, which crosses a flowing stream before depositing you on a forest road after 0.7 mile.
You’ll make your best time along this forest road, which is along the perimeter of the preserve, it seems, since there is now old barbed wire between the road and the canal. But because of the broad nature of the path here, this is your most likely place to see a bear, like we did. Or deer, or boar. Keep alert for movement ahead and to your side in the forest. Passing a mouldering “No Tresspassing” sign, the trail emerges briefly under a set of power lines to cross the gravel road that connects the water treatment facilities inside the preserve. From the looks of the floodgates and walls visible to your left as you re-enter the forest, these facilities are much older than the Natural Lands Program in Seminole County. And they’re posted. Stay on the trail.
The forest road ends at 2 miles in a clearing with a bench. It took us a moment to figure out where the trail went next, which was a clamber up a narrow berm on the left side of the clearing past the bench. A blue arrow marker confirmed the route. Here’s where things start to get very interesting. This next levee is topped with cabbage palms. Some had to be removed to allow passage along the levee, as it narrows. A pause for a photo stirred up a swarm of wasps from a nest in the footpath. We moved on quickly. You’re in a young forest of palms, pines, and oaks, with a ditch down to the left. The footpath starts slipping off the levee sideways in places, and there are plenty of roots underfoot to trip you up. It began to remind us of how you’d have to watch your step on the Appalachian Trail.
By 2.5 miles, there is no longer a forest on the far side of the ditch, but a broad opening and a nearby marsh filled with the nodding pink blossoms of largeflower hibiscus. The closer you draw towards the St. Johns River, the narrower and more difficult to traverse the levee becomes, changing from sand to muck underfoot. It becomes extremely slippery after a rain, especially with the footpath at a 45-degree angle in some spots. There is now water on both sides of the levee. Although it doesn’t feel like it, this levee runs in a straight line paralleling the floodplain of the Wekiva River, which is off to the left on the far side of that broad open space.
When the levee makes an obvious curve after Boardwalk 13, you’ve reached the St. Johns River, the Wekiva basin receding in the distance. The berm is especially slippery here on the curve, which leads to the next major stretch of trail down near river level. A curving waterway slips into the marshes on the right while the levee keeps serving up challenging slopes to walk on. You can see the sun sparkle on the St. Johns through a screen of cypress trees to the left. A spill of fossilized snail shells across the path is a reminder of the middens found in these river forests. The levee drops low into the marshes along the river before you cross Boardwalk 12 and enter a tunnel of vegetation surrounded by the marshes. A few moments past Boardwalk 11, where you can filter water at the near end, the primitive campsite is on the right, down below the levee in a forest of cabbage palms and live oaks. A small shelter provides a spot to duck in from the rain; bring your own camp chair. You’ve hiked 4 miles so far.
Beyond the campsite, the boardwalks occur more frequently, bridging the gaps between levees. Fungi swarms across decaying logs in this always-humid environment. A live oak leans low across the trail and you must duck under it. Between Boardwalk 10 and Boardwalk 8, the trail is narrow and rooty again, but not so steeply sloped. In this dense forest, the trees echo with the clamor of tree frogs after a rain. The trail draws close to the river after crossing Boardwalk 8 and its flag pond, and even closer on the far side of Boardwalk 7, after 4.9 miles. It’s here you’re right above the river on a bluff, and the vegetation opens up to provide the best views of the St. Johns along the entire hike, continuing down through and over Boardwalk 6.
The canoe landing is a part of Boardwalk 5, at 5.2 miles. It’s not somewhere you’d launch a canoe, but a place for canoeists to stop and rest. The floating dock has a ladder leading down to river level. This is the highest of the boardwalks along the loop. Soon after, traversing the levee gets tricky again. Large live oaks provide a beautiful canopy overhead, but challenge you with a tangle of roots extending over both sides of the berm. The dropoffs on either side become steep. Combine that with mud, and it’s easy to start sliding down towards the canal. Take your time through this section. Boardwalk 4 traverses a pretty flag pond, with a picturesque cluster of cypress knees beneath the cypresses on the right as you leave the boardwalk. The trail stays low and near the marsh up to the next crossing.
At 5.8 miles, the far end of Boardwalk 3 used to be the end point for the trail. This next little stretch of levee is tall and tricky, as a couple of large trees grow across the entire top and you’ll need to walk across their roots, which get slippery as ice when wet. The path pitches to the side at sharp angles, and there is a divot missing from the top of the levee, where it has fallen into the river. A plastic fence marks the spot. You get one last panorama of the St. Johns before reaching the observation deck and Boardwalk 2, which is in deep shade.
Leaving the river, steps lead down to Boardwalk 2, which crosses a canal under the cypress trees and through a marsh thick with alligator flag. On the other side of a gravel road (which leads to a water treatment facility on the left), the boardwalk begins again to get you over a canal and to the final levee. This is the section of trail that’s been around the longest, so it’s well-beaten down and, unlike the levees you’ve been traversing, broad enough that you don’t have to worry about slipping off it.
Canals parallel both sides of the levee, with alligators frequenting the canal on the left, especially where the water lettuce is thick. Large old cedar trees provide shade. Be cautious of fire ant nests built between roots and against tree trunks along the footpath. Wild citrus trees add a sweet fragrance to the air in the winter. Snakes may sun in the dappled light beneath the cedars.
As the berm continues to widen, large live oaks shade the footpath along with clusters of cabbage palms. You encounter the first of three benches, set one-tenth of a mile apart, placed there as an Eagle Scout project many years ago. Since there hasn’t been a bench in nearly five miles, it’s nice to finally encounter one.
By 7 miles, you reach Boardwalk 1 and the beginning of the loop. Continue straight ahead along the boardwalk and the gravel path to exit, reaching the trailhead at 7.1 miles.
|1.0||cross gravel road|
|6.1||observation deck and Boardwalk 2|
|7.0||Boardwalk 1 and loop junction|