Bounding the edge of Orlando Wetlands Park on its north side, Charles H. Bronson State Forest provides compelling hiking through ancient oak and palm hammocks.
To get there, however, you need to put on some miles in adjoining public lands. This route ties together a scenic loop inside Orlando Wetlands Park with the River Trail and the Florida Trail.
The result? A double loop through lush jungle-like habitats for a satisfying but often rugged day hike in a remote corner of this lightly traveled state forest.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 7.5 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.5698, -80.9966
Address: 25381 Wheeler Rd, Christmas
Restroom: At Orlando Wetlands Park
Land managers: City of Orlando & Florida Forestry Service
Phone: 407-568-1706 (Orlando Wetlands) & 407-971-3500 (Bronson)
Open sunrise to sunset. Hiking only. No dogs or bicycles permitted. Insect repellent a must.
Bronson State Forest allows seasonal hunting. Check on hunt dates and wear bright orange if you choose to hike during hunts.
From the intersection of SR 50 and Fort Christmas Road in Christmas, follow Fort Christmas Road north. Pass Fort Christmas Park on the left and turn right at the curve onto Wheeler Rd, passing under the Orlando Wetlands Park sign. Follow this entrance road to where two trailheads face each other. Seminole Ranch Conservation Area trailhead is on the right, and the Orlando Wetlands trailhead is on the left. Use either one, keeping in mind the Orlando Wetlands Park trailhead is gated in the evenings but Seminole Ranch is not.
Walk up to the interpretive pavilion inside Orlando Wetlands Park and sign in on the hike register. Continue past the restrooms and picnic pavilion to pick up the main trail,
At a Y intersection in front of the environmental education center (presently under construction), stay to the left. This main route, Wetlands Blvd, heads due north.
Various side trails branch off it. Continue straight north along Wetlands Blvd, enjoying the expansive views across open waters and wetlands.
Soon after you pass Alligator Alley on the left, the trail comes to a T intersection with Bald Eagle Blvd at 1.1 miles.
There is a shaded picnic bench here and you can see a small white building to the left. Head towards the white building, which is a water monitoring station.
Walk behind the building and you’ll see a bridge over a canal. Cross the bridge. It provides access to the Perimeter Trail along the north fenceline of Orlando Wetlands Park.
Turn right and follow the Perimeter Trail east. Within a tenth of a mile, there is a stile leading over the back fence of the park.
An FNST sign and white blaze on the opposite side marks the south end of the River Trail. Crossing the stile at 1.3 miles, you enter Bronson State Forest.
The white-blazed River Trail begins in uplands of pines and oaks and is very easy to follow, despite not seeing heavy use.
It edges a small grassy wetland before crossing a forest road and entering a string of old-growth oak hammocks. Silvery-hued saw palmetto arcs beneath one showy cluster of oaks.
Wildlife may make itself known in this lightly traveled corner of the forest. We’ve seen herds of deer, wild turkeys, and gopher tortoises along this part of the River Trail.
The oaks crowd in closer, squeezing the footpath beneath their showy canopy. Look up to see orchids and resurrection fern overhead.
A transition from oak hammocks to a dense understory of palms occurs as you draw close to where trails meet.
By 2.2 miles, you reach the prominent junction of the River Trail and the Florida Trail at a stile. This is the connecting point with the River Trail Loop.
The Florida Trail heads north to Joshua Creek and south to Wheeler Road from this junction, while the River Trail continues northwest to the Econlockhatchee River.
To continue along the Northeast Loop, do not cross the fence. Turn right and follow the orange blazes into an oak and palm hammock.
After slipping away from the fence, the trail zigzags a little before it crosses a forest road and enters a denser corridor on the other side.
The surrounding habitat features ancient live oaks laden with bromeliads and ferns. Cabbage palms make their presence known as the trail narrows through tight corridors.
Cross a small bridge over a seasonal drainage. Large trees crowd more closely as the blazes lead through them in a swoop to the southeast.
Beneath tall sweetgum, oak, and red maple trees, the trail is very obvious. Chinks of blue through the winter canopy belie the location of the open St. Johns River floodplain nearby.
Once it arcs through a grand forest of ancient oaks and palms, the trail narrows to a slender thread in a floodplain forest, tacking from blaze to blaze across hummocky ground.
It’s here that mudholes can catch you unawares, particularly in spots where the drainage patterns from marsh to river basin are obvious. Use caution.
Past a permanent survey marker at 3.4 miles, the next half-mile of trail tends to be very damp, although it is punctuated by small islands of oaks and cedars.
Sawgrass and ferns creep into the trail as it barges its way beneath cabbage palms along the edge of a series of wetlands that lie to the west.
Following a raised berm around a wetland on your right, the trail reaches a stile on a fence bisecting a wetland.
Cross over the stile and continue into a dense stand of large live oaks and cabbage palms.
Exiting Bronson State Forest at 4.3 miles, the only landmark to tell you there’s a change in land management is an old stile with the fence cut away and an aged Florida Trail sign on the post.
Entering Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, the trail winds into a seasonally flooded marsh with dark earth and aquatic plants scattered across it when the footpath is dry.
Reaching the outflow of Orlando Wetlands Park at 4.7 miles, the orange blazes cross it southbound atop large culverts.
Leave the Florida Trail here and turn right. You’ll see a set of steps leading up and over the back gate of Orlando Wetlands Park, connecting to the Perimeter Trail.
An old Florida Trail sign hangs on this unique stile, and a faded map of the park is mounted at the property corner.
Compared to other trails in Orlando Wetlands Park, the Perimeter Trail is a tunnel in the woods, trapped between the outflow creek and the fence line with Bronson State Forest.
The water, once effluent from the city sewers of Orlando, looks clear enough to drink after a month of natural treatment in the wetlands. We’ve seen alligators lounging in it.
By 5.1 miles, the Perimeter Trail meets a bridge. For the most scenic walk back to the Orlando Wetlands Park trailhead, cross over the bridge.
It connects you to the North Woods Trail, which again was an original piece of the Florida Trail built after Orlando Wetlands Park first opened.
It immediately leads into a lush cabbage palm hammock, far drier in nature than the ones closer to the floodplain but with palms and oaks of impressive stature.
The first quarter mile is an immersion in the ancient hammock. Crossing a forest road, pass an “Orange Mound” sign near where the original FT campsite was sited along this trail. It is no longer in use.
The trail curves into another piece of oak and palm hammock, the thick canopy above providing deep shade. At a bridge, the trail makes a sharp right onto a forest road edged by wetlands.
By 5.8 miles, the trail curves through the woods and emerges from the forest into a small clearing with a rain shelter. It once looked like a thatched chickee.
Scale the berm in front of it to reach the curve of Osprey Blvd, the route around Lake Searcy on the Orlando Wetlands Park system of levees. Turn left.
For the next mile, you’re walking along a man-made lake. The views across it are panoramic. Watch for wildlife, particularly alligators and turtles, close to the shoreline.
Flocks of coots compete for attention with preening anhinga perched in the young cypress trees. At 6.8 miles, the trail reaches an observation platform adjoined by the entrance to the South Woods Trail.
After a look from the top of the platform — worth the climb for the view northwest, which often yields a distant panorama of bright pink roseate spoonbills in a marsh — cross the bridge.
This final piece of woodland trail is more mucky and intimate than the North Woods Trail, edged by giant leather ferns and crowded by palm fronds.
Like that trail, this, too, is an original route of the Florida Trail. Watch for muckholes and roots that can trip you in the damp earth.
Pass a side trail with the sign “Seminole Campsite.” If you follow it out of curiosity, it leads to a clearing with rain shelters along an old group camping area.
The last stretch of the South Woods Trail is in deep shade under the densely knit canopy of live oaks and cabbage palms.
Enjoy this last immersion in the natural beauty of the St. Johns River floodplain before the hike comes to an abrupt change where human-wrought landscapes take over.
It emerges at a trail sign with kiosk and a bench. Look across the open lawn to see the interpretive pavilion adjoining the Orlando Wetlands Park restrooms.
Make a beeline across the grass to revisit the trail register and sign out as you leave, completing this 7.5-mile loop.
Learn more about Bronson State Forest
Trails connecting with this loop
For a hike filled with the flutter and squawk of birds about their daily routines, Orlando Wetlands Park is one of the best birding spots in the state. This 5-mile loop showcases our favorite route
In a lush subtropical jungle along the St Johns River floodplain, the 9.5-mile River Trail loop is an exceptionally scenic route connecting three designated campsites.
Along this 8.6-mile route spanning the eastern side of Bronson State Forest, experience the majesty of ancient oak and palm hammocks near the St. Johns River.
See our photos from the Bronson Northeast Loop
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Protecting more than 30,000 acres of the St. Johns River floodplain near Christmas, Tosohatchee WMA is a place to immerse yourself in the grandeur of old Florida and its bounty of botanical beauty
Protecting more than a thousand acres, Savage Christmas Creek Preserve east of Orlando has more than 8 miles of trails through panoramic prairie and pine flatwoods landscapes
Putting together several loops providing perspectives on pine flatwoods, prairie, swamp, and a showy pond, Hidden Pond Preserve offers a very enjoyable 1.9 mile hike.