With a surprising amount of habitat diversity, the northerly stretch of the Florida Trail newly built through Bronson State Forest and into adjacent Chuluota Wilderness Area is quite the delight. Hiking this section southbound gives the distinct feeling of going downhill, as habitats transition from the high, dry scrub – including a significant stretch of rare rosemary scrub – down through pine forests and into the floodplains of Bunscombe Creek and Joshua Creek. Well-designed and well maintained, this is an extremely pleasant section of the Florida Trail that’ll have you smiling over the natural beauty you’ll find around every bend.
Length: 4.3 miles
Lat-Long: 28.623217, -81.063275 (Chuluota trailhead)
28.591853, -81.042476 (Joshua Creek trailhead)
Fees / Permits: $2 per person fee at Joshua Creek Trailhead
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Please check hunting regulations before visiting, as hiking access / camping may be limited during certain hunting seasons. Be sure to wear blaze orange if hiking during hunting season.
A campsite at Joshua Creek provides an overnight destination for backpackers. For a shorter hike in this section, a 2.2 mile round-trip from the Joshua Creek trailhead, see Florida Trail, Bronson State Forest.
Joshua Creek Trailhead: From Chuluota, follow CR 419 (Chuluota Road) south to Lake Mills Rd. Turn left and follow Lake Mills Rd for 1 mile. Turn right on Fort Christmas Road and drive 5.8 miles to Philips Rd. Turn left. Continue 1.5 miles along Philips Rd to the sign for Bronson State Forest. Take the jeep track to the left of the sign. It empties into a very large parking area with a couple of picnic tables. Be sure to pay the day use fee and sign into the register before you leave a car here.
Chuluota Wilderness Trailhead: From Chuluota, follow CR 419 (Chuluota Road) south to Lake Mills Rd. Turn left and follow Lake Mills Rd for 1.8 miles, passing Fort Christmas Road, to Curryville Road. Turn right on Curryville Road, which is a dead end road, and continue 2.5 miles to the trailhead entrance for Chuluota Wilderness Area on the right.
Start your hike at the north end of this segment, the Chuluota Wilderness Area trailhead. The entrance to the trail has a Florida Trail sign. The footpath winds through sand pine scrub, which was rather roughed up when we walked through it – rototilling and burning in numerous places along this part of the hike to ensure that the scrub remain short enough to entice Florida scrub-jays to make a home here. Crossing a forest road, the trail tunnels into the young sand pines. It twists and winds between the rusty lyonia and sand live oaks amid an extremely thick understory, entering an extremely mossy area with deer moss in seafoam-colored bubbles popping up along and in the trail. Within 0.3 mile, the forest has taller, older sand pines as the canopy as you enter a rosemary scrub, one of Florida’s rarer habitats, with clusters of large Florida rosemary bushes thriving. The Chapman oaks and sand live oaks are decorated in swaths of shield lichen. Towhees call to each other through the understory.
Crossing a broad firebreak, the trail continues into an area charred by fire. The fire was so hot it burned even the taller pines to a crisp. Still, life remains – spiders string their shimmering webs across crispy branches, and saw palmettos are emerging from the ashen forest floor. After a half mile, you cross the next firebreak and head into more rosemary scrub; rusty lyonia makes up the low understory canopy here, the corridor tightly defined by Florida rosemary bushes. The trail twists and winds as it keeps losing elevation through the scrub. The sand pines become more densely packed together, and the rosemary lessen but become larger, with individual bushes standing alone. As elevation keeps dropping, the trail appears to be headed for a wall of pines. You duck under a branch with a prominent orange blaze, and there is a gopher tortoise burrow off to the right. The habitat transitions from scrub into hardwood hammock with saw palmetto, cabbage palms, and oaks, with intrusions of sand pine scrub.
The trail crosses a forest road used as an equestrian trail, part of the loop trail system in Chuluota Wilderness Area. Off to the left you can see a round red marker with an arrow. You’ll want to stay with the orange blazes that mark the Florida Trail. Just beyond the trail junction there are quite a few skinny snags of sand live oaks covered with red blanket lichen, and we spied a camoflauged hog trap, fully loaded with treats for trapping. Descending through hickory and water oaks, southern magnolia and a smattering of sweetgum, you can see a bayhead off to the left as you walk through the shade. Watch for the double blazes at the sharp turns along this section.
Ducking under a fungi-covered limb of a sand live oak, you come up along the edge of the scrub, broad and open to the right, while still in thick vegetation along its rim. At 1 mile, the trail makes a sharp left and heads into a tunnel, narrow and twisting, with a canopy close overhead. Be cautious of the roots underfoot! The trail seems to double back, snaking through the thickness of the vegetation. Gaining elevation, you emerge under the pines for a glimpse of a cell tower in the distance, then plunge back into the scrub corridor with rusty lyonia, limbs laden in lichens, knitted a canopy overhead as the trail descends. Sunlight streams through and illuminates stringers of Spanish moss and old man’s beard, standing out in sharp contrast to the backdrop of green leaves. Off to the left you see another bayhead swamp in the distance, with loblolly pines towering overhead. It’s a free-fall descent from the scrub and into a mixed hardwood forest dense with hickories, a touch of fall color on the leaves, the forest rich in texture and color. Passing a big snag, you’re surrounded by larger hardwood trees. Heading due east beneath the limbs of grand live oaks, off to the right you can see the green grass of a cow pasture just beyond a fence. This is ranch country, and indeed, the Bronson State Forest is named for Charles Bronson, former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and a member of a long-standing ranching family in this region.
At 1.7 miles, the trail draws close to the boundary line with the adjacent ranch and its barbed wire fence. Turning away from the fence, the trail descends to the first footbridge along this section along a brief mucky, fern-covered patch of earth and a tributary flowing downhill. Descending into a carpet of pine needles, the trail continues edged by wax myrtle and oak. Emerging onto an old forest road, the trail follows it for a short while, then reaches the property boundary between Chuluota Wilderness Area and Bronson State Forest at a nice rest stop, a covered bench. Pass through the fence on the right to enter Bronson State Forest. After a short distance, the trail parallels an old forest road and it dips on and off of it to avoid mucky spots between the wax myrtles in the floodplain. The trail twists and turns frequently. Watch the blazes!
Emerging from the bayhead, the trail zigzags through the pines. At 2.2 miles there is a major trail junction with signs: “To River Trail / White via County Line Connector / Blue.” Straight ahead, stick with the Florida Trail through young, tall pond pines. They’re distinctly different from the other pines you’ll find in this area, notable for the needles that protrude directly out of their trunks. The trail enters a hardwood hammock with trees that look like sculptures furry in ressurection fern. Working its way through a bayhead area, the trail gets mushy underfoot, surrounded with loblolly bay and wax myrtle, the earth dark and soft with lots of gatorbacks to trip over. Ascending back into hardwood forest with a loose canopy of oaks, look off to the left to see a ribbon of green, a veritable river of ferns through the bayhead. The aroma of fall leaves rises from the forest floor, which is full of roots to trip over.
Anchored by a particularly large and sprawling southern magnolia atop a small hill, a lengthy boardwalk lifts the trail slightly above the floodplain of Bunscombe Creek, which is quite marshy. Plants poke right up through the boardwalk, making footing a bit tricky. Once the boardwalk ends, it’s easy to follow the footpath, but footing is difficult as the trail zigzags through dense saw palmetto in the forest understory, with masses of sweetgum balls underfoot. Well routed to keep hikers in deep shade, the trail stays under the canopy of the hardwood forest with sparkleberry and other river bluff plants in this upland between the two creeks that drain into the Econlockhatchee River. As the trail exits a stand of sand live oaks, it jogs to the right and you see an expanse of pine flatwoods off to the left. The dense young pine forest becomes very fragrant after a rain. Step gingerly between the cow patties!
At 3.3 miles, you cross an old sand road that is also part of the White Loop trail – the equestrian trail – through the state forest. The trail drops down through an oak hammock with well-established live oaks. The most ancient of the oaks are swaddled in resurrection fern and bromeliads, some of which dangle like hanging chandeliers. You reach a nicely painted sign for the “Joshua Creek Campsite” and a blue blaze leading to the right. It’s one of the shortest blue blazes ever, reaching the campsite within moments. Logs on end serve as seats around a fire ring. This nice clearing is a short walk from the ever-flowing water source of the creek itself.
Back at the main trail, turn right. The boardwalk begins, and like the last one, it is two boards with a gap between, slippery in many places. The boardwalk ends briefly at an island in the middle of the Joshua Creek floodplain and resumes, ending soon after you cross the tannic, sand-bottomed creek. The trail climbs up a slope through a saw palmetto thicket and emerges into the open with blue sky overhead in a pine savanna, where scattered longleaf pines shoot up through the dense saw palmetto and prairie grasses. Dropping through a small drainage, the trail rises up into an old pasture dotted with colorful wildflowers, incuding paw-paw and wild bachelor’s button.
Entering a sea of saw palmetto and gallberry, notice the pond pines that rise towards the sky. As you gain a little elevation, the habitat shifts to sandhills. You reach the intersection with the blue blaze to the Joshua Creek trailhead at 4 miles. Turn right. The trail zigzags between the stands of oak trees, attempting to optimize the shady spots between the turkey oaks. A scattering of cow bones lies across the footpath. Longleaf pine in all of its forms erupt from the mounds of wiregrass. Once pasture, this is sandhill reclaiming its own. You complete your hike as you emerge from the forest to the fence along the Joshua Creek trailhead at 4.3 miles. Pass through the gap in the fence and be sure to sign out of the trail register as you leave.