Remnants of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, ancient dunes that once marked the oceanfront in Southeastern Florida, pop up now and again in the most unexpected places. Blazing Star Preserve is one of those spots. It’s in the thick of an older residential community in Boca Raton, so it’s downright puzzling that it survived decades of development that surround it.
Being next to I-95 probably helped – perhaps the land was once slated for a retention pond, or an off-ramp. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. This slender slice of the ridge, 26 acres in all, offers a bounty of scrub forest atop sparkling white sand, and a mile-long loop to explore it.
Location: Boca Raton
Length: Up to 1 mile
Lat-Long: 26.344462, -80.119093
Type: Stacked loops
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low
Restroom: None. Visit nearby Sugar Sand Park for a restroom.
Hiking access only; a bicycle rack is available. Pets are not permitted. The park is located at 1751 W. Camino Real Rd, Boca Raton and is open 8 AM to sunset.
From I-95, exit at Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton and head west for half a mile to Military Trail. Turn left and drive half a mile, passing the entrance to Sugar Sand Park. Turn left onto Camino Real and drive 0.7 mile to the preserve entrance and parking lot on the left. If you go under the interstate overpass, you’ve missed the turn.
The trail starts at a kiosk with information about the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and scrub habitats, and a map of the trail system–two stacked loops offering either a half-mile or mile-long walk in the scrub forest atop the flattened remains of ancient dunes. Not much sand pine scrub forest remains in this part of the state, since the well-drained sands were popular for development. The trail is mostly in the open, and as it draws close to the western boundary of the preserve, you catch a glimpse of the train tracks that separate this forest from adjacent Sugar Sand Park, and perhaps of a train rushing past with commuters on board. A trail junction to the right heads towards the Interstate; continue straight.
After 0.2 miles, you pass a bench, and the trail curves to the left away from it, out into more open scrub. You see lights from the ballpark at Sugar Sand Park in the distance. The broad footpath works its way into the thick of the scrub forest, with diminutive sand live oaks, myrtle oak, and Chapman oak on both sides forming a dense, impenetrable thicket that you can see over. The bleached bones of sand pine snags, likely the victims of hurricanes, stand out against the blue sky, with slash pines poking up between them and silver-hued saw palmetto. This variant of saw palmetto is mainly found on ancient sands such as these that make up the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, and offers a different tint to the landscape; it dominates the understory here. Cicadas and crickets keep up a constant chatter.
Slash pines and sand pines, the latter distinct with its softer needles and small, tightly closed cones, rise out of this thicket to provide tiny patches of shade. As the trail meanders through the dense understory – mostly with no canopy overhead – look down to notice the little things, like the fetterbush with its rusty tips, or the prickly pear cactus, or the Florida rosemary with its dark green needles. In several spots, it appears that gopher tortoises have been chewing their way through the low grasses; you may see evidence of tracks, or the opening to a burrow. It’s the little things that count when you’re exploring a sliver of wilderness in an urban setting, and chief among them here is the namesake of the preserve, blazing star (Liatris), unmistakable tall, slender stalks that show off purple blooms in late summer and fall.
At 0.3 mile, you reach a trail junction. Turn left. I was surprised to find a bromeliad clinging to a small oak tree in this desert-like environment, but there it was, sporting fading blooms. Running down another straightaway of scrub, the trail enters a patch of shade provided by a small oak hammock and tall slash pines, with bracken fern peeping up from the pine straw. A five-lined race runner slips quickly into the leaf litter. There is a marked descent in elevation as you head towards the back corner of the preserve, and the scrub forest yields to a dense, tall thicket of Brazilian pepper, which I hope is slated for removal. In the meantime, it provides shade as the trail zigzags through it, past woodlands phlox and more bracken fern.
The footpath may be moist underfoot as you reach the back fence of the preserve, along the railroad tracks, and start on the return loop after 0.5 mile, with southern marsh ferns and cinnamon ferns growing in the damp spots. Rising up out of the Brazilian pepper, you’re back in the scrub again and adjacent to a ramp along I-95. It’s pretty noisy, and remains that way as you work your way back along the loop. Lantana grows in huge clumps, and love vine clambers up some of the trees on your right. Grapevines seek to smother the understory scrub plants. Yes, this preserve is still in need of invasive species removal, and more than likely, volunteers to make it happen.
To get away from the traffic noise, and return on the route you came in on, take the first right and you’ll loop back around to the second trail junction. You can also walk the full outer loop, staying within sight and sound of the Interstate, and it also works its way to the front entrance through a stand of slash pines, emerging at the first trail junction. Either way, a walk to the end of the preserve and back takes a mile.