CLOSED due to Hurricane Ian damage
Knitting together segments of the linear trails that run through Charles H. Bronson State Forest, the River Trail Loop shows off the heart of this biologically diverse destination.
Dedicated by the State of Florida in 2010, Charles H. Bronson State Forest protects over 11,000 acres directly east of greater Orlando.
Formerly ranchland along the river basin, some parcels are still inhabited by cattle managed by the same families that tended the land over a century ago.
This loop is part of the Trailwalker program for Florida State Forests. Backpackers have the opportunity to use any of three designated campsites to make this into an overnight trip.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 9.5 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.591674, -81.042530
Fees: $2 per person day use fee
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Leashed dogs welcome. Insect repellent a must. Primitive campsites must be reserved in advance.
Seasonal hunting occurs in some portions of the forest. Check ahead before you make plans for outdoor recreation.
The forest is laced with a network of rough forest roads. Active cattle leases mean the potential of encounters with cows and bulls along the trails.
From SR 50, turn onto Fort Christmas Rd heading north for 3.8 mile. Turn right onto Philips Road, following for 1.5 mile, where the road ends at the trailhead.
Before starting out, stop at the large information kiosk standing near the entrance gate at the north end of the parking area.
A large map of the property and trail system is tacked over a container housing multiple maps and brochures. Head through the cattle gate and turn right to begin the hike.
To access the loop, a short jaunt down the blue-blazed connector trail is needed.
Look for a post with the Florida Trail shield affixed, and the distinct trail behind it leading off into a sandhill habitat.
Oaks and pines mingle over minimal understory, allowing for a panoramic view while following one blue blaze to the next. Periodic fires are required for this ecosystem to thrive.
The forest service regularly burns this section every few years. Continue for about a quarter mile to a junction with the Florida Trail.
Turn left, following the first orange blaze to the north towards a large open area covered in palmettos.
Taller vegetation begins on the other side of the field, where cabbage palms become prevalent among stands of longleaf pines.
As the pathway narrows approaching Joshua Creek in another two-tenths mile, the landscape rapidly changes.
An extensive boardwalk crosses the creek and surrounding wetlands, passing sweetgum and swamp tupelo trees.
The trail soon passes a numbered post indicating the Joshua Creek Campsite. A short side trail leads to this cozy spot nestled under the cover of oaks surrounded by palmettos.
An overnight permit for this site can be obtained in advance from the local forestry office or online.
The pathway continues through a dense hammock, winding through a maze of tangled oaks.
Shortly after crossing Buscombe Creek on a wide boardwalk, the canopy opens to reveal a wet pine savanna.
Potentially flooded throughout the year, the trail slices through a sea of tall green palmettos and sporadic pines.
This environment is home to several carnivorous plants including sundews, bladderworts, butterworts, and pitcher plants.
Adapting to a lack of soil nutrients, these plants have a unique ability to trap insects for food.
Crossing a forest road that serves as a fire break, the footpath enters a thick stand of pines for a few hundred feet to a junction with the County Line Connector trail.
Turn right to carefully follow blue blazes through a labyrinth of slender pine columns.
Over the next mile, the vegetation gradually becomes mixed and more concentrated, with different species of trees oddly clustered together.
At the intersection with the white-blazed River Trail, turn right, heading south.
South along the white blazes about 500 feet, a curious formation can be seen from a distance.
The trail passes by a large live oak that has split into three living segments, its heavy branches acting like tree trunks with new growth sprouting skyward.
Weaving through an oak hammock for the next quarter mile, the path intersects a little side trail for another overnight accommodation, the County Line campsite.
This site is more in the open, aside from a large oak with branches hanging over the picnic bench and fire ring.
At mile four, the loop once again crosses Buscombe Creek, although the scenery on this crossing is strikingly different.
A bench sits next to the boardwalk over this blackwater creek bordered by tall cabbage palms and a large cypress tree.
As the white-blazed River Trail journeys further east, influence from the St. Johns River becomes more apparent.
Forest floor growth is minor here, and palmettos become the predominant feature.
Although the terrain is generally flat, changes in vegetation give clues to slight shifts in elevation.
As the trail meanders through these tropical surroundings, some areas clearly experience less flooding, evidenced by patches of pine and oak trees.
Near 5 miles, the trail skirts around an impressive cypress swamp.
In the dry season, this scenery is especially unique, as cypress knees protrude from the earth with no water in sight.
In a quarter mile, a sturdy boardwalk crosses Christmas Creek and the surrounding swamp. A bench on the north end provides a picture-perfect resting spot.
This walkway guides hikers through a stunningly lush array of lichen covered trees, huge cypress knees, and palms of all sizes.
Emerging from the wetlands, the pathway leads between pillars of cabbage palms with showy bromeliads clinging to their rough surfaces.
This section can be tricky to navigate, as the trail is not as well-defined, and the white blazes are similar in color to some lichens.
Within a half mile, a stile over a barbed wire fence marks the junction of the River Trail and the Florida Trail. The Northeast Loop is on the opposite side of this fence.
Turn right onto the Florida Trail, following the fence to a moss carpeted corridor through a thicket of palm fronds for 0.2 mile to the Fern campsite.
Aptly named, Fern Camp is an open space bordered by large oaks covered in resurrection ferns.
A picnic bench is situated on this quiet spot, offering a chance to relax and immerse in the woodland scenery.
In another 0.6 mile, the trail crosses Christmas Creek again in a very different setting, this time edged by pine flatwoods on your approach.
A short bridge spans the twisting creek under a canopy of oaks, through a dense understory of palmettos. Across the bridge, the trail slowly increases in elevation.
After a forest road junction and a patch of developed pasture, the habitat swiftly transitions to pine flatwoods.
This vibrant green savanna supports a variety of wildflowers, including the stunning, crimson-colored pine lily in the late summer months.
The next mile alternates through familiar habitats of oak and palm habitats, often a well-defined trail bordered by heavy vegetation.
Most of the path is dry until South Slough, where a boardwalk crosses wetland surrounded by magnolia and loblolly bay trees.
On the final stretch, the trail ascends onto a sandhill habitat of pines with an occasional oak arching overhead.
At mile 9.3, turn left onto the blue-blazed connector trail, finishing the hike at the parking area in 0.2 mile.
Learn more about Charles H. Bronson State Forest
Trails connecting with this loop
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.
3.9 miles. Enjoy the natural beauty of habitat diversity along a scenic segment of the Florida Trail connecting Chuluota Wilderness and Bronson State Forest
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
One of the lesser-known trails of Little Big Econ State Forest, Culpepper Bend leads you to an outstanding panorama where the Econlockhatchee River meets the St. Johns River.
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
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