A wildlife-rich hike through the floodplain of the St. Johns River, this 2 mile walk introduces you to the beauty of Black Bear Wilderness Area.
With trails largely built atop levees established long ago for riverfront agriculture, this natural area buffers the confluence of the Wekiva River with the St. Johns River.
While the trail system was later expanded to a 7.1 mile loop, this hike follows the original route out to the St. Johns River and back for an easy sampler of the preserve.
Expect some wildlife encounters on quiet days. Now that the trail is one of the more popular in the region, weekends can be very busy.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 28.833058, -81.353766
Address: 5298 Michigan Avenue, Sanford
Restrooms: Portable toilet at trailhead
Land manager: Seminole County
Open sunrise to sunset. The first part of the trail is accessible. Insect repellent is generally a must.
Leashed dogs welcome, but you probably won’t see wildlife if you bring yours. Bears and hogs have been encountered by us on this loop.
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.
Following a paved path to a boardwalk that spans a low-lying drainage area in the pine flatwoods, the trail system at Black Bear Wilderness Area starts off with a bang.
It’s a beautiful setting under the swaying cabbage palms and ancient oaks, where resurrection fern swarms up their massive limbs.
Passing the turnoff for the Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail, the accessible boardwalk ends at a berm where an old drainage canal sits off to the left.
Agriculture shaped this forest along the St. Johns, a second or third growth forest restoring nature where logging and farming changed the landscape forever.
Atop the berm, you encounter benches set about a tenth of a mile apart, an Eagle Scout project by a local scout.
These provide places for birders, and there are plenty of birds to watch. We heard and saw pileated and downy woodpeckers, and songbirds were everywhere.
Fungi swarms across decaying logs, and wild citrus trees add a sweet fragrance to the air in the winter.
The berm is deeply shaded by tall oak trees, hickories, and cabbage palms. Goldfoot fern sways in the breeze from the tops of the palms.
There are few large cypresses, but there is an impressive-sized one with a split trunk. It survived logging, since it couldn’t go through the sawmill.
After the bench at 0.4 mile, there are canals on both sides of the berm. Cedars show up in the mix of trees atop this high spot between the marshes, some of significant size.
Notice the water marks on the cypress trees? When the St. Johns River is high, this trail is under water.
To the right and left, there is more open landscape beyond the thin screen of trees separating the berm from the marshes.
There are spots where you can peek out between the trees, and see willow marshes and open marshes extending off to a distant cypress-lined shore.
Overhead, the shade is mostly provided by cedars. A few have ribbons of bark missing where bears have clawed the bark as they’ve climbed.
As the berm narrows, it gets taller. Power lines in the distance over the marsh lead to the power plant on the opposite side of the river.
A lone trail marker confirms the otherwise obvious route. Avoid stepping in fire ant nests as the footpath narrows.
Birds are especially active as the marshes open up more. Alligator flag rims the canal, these tall plants a frequent sight along the St. Johns River basin.
The farther you hike, the more crooked and rooty the berm gets. Fossil snail shells tumble out of the berm, hinting at ancient middens. Boat traffic echoes off the river.
The trail emerges at an unexpected sight: a water treatment plant off to the right, fenced and secured, and a white gravel road leading to it.
The white gravel road disappears into the water of the marsh to the left. Perhaps it was built when the water was lower.
Crossing the gravel, the trail continues as a very well-built boardwalk through a marsh where red-winged blackbirds flit and chatter.
The boardwalk continues through a cypress swamp edging another canal and berm before rising up to an observation platform overlooking the St. Johns River.
At one mile, this is your turnaround point. Built years after this segment of trail was opened, the full Black Bear Wilderness Loop continues along the riverfront berm.
There are no exit points once you’re on it, and it’s a very rugged 7.1 mile hike, not to be tackled casually.
However, another mile of round-trip hiking from this point along the river berm will net more great views along boardwalks on the river’s edge.
Turning around at the waterfront platform, make your way across the boardwalk through cypresses and swamp for the return trip along the berm.
Learn more about Black Bear Wilderness
A full loop of Black Bear Wilderness Area
See our photos of Black Bear Wilderness
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A quiet path leads through sandhill, scrubby and mesic flatwoods, providing opportunities for bird watching among a vivid backdrop of seasonal flowers.
A small but welcoming green space in suburban Sanford, Wilsons Landing Park provides accessible access to a beauty spot on the Wekiva River.
A leisurely float downriver from Wekiwa Springs provides paddlers an immersion in the beauty of a Wild and Scenic River teeming with wildlife.