A sprawling wildlife management area encompassing more than 9,600 acres along SR 46 between Mims and the St. Johns River, Buck Lake Conservation Area includes a diverse array of uplands and wetlands habitats. The East Loop isn’t especially pretty except at the macro level, as it is within sight of a major power line. Look down, and you’ll find an array of scrub wildflowers. The main reason to hike it, however, is for the wildlife. Gopher tortoises trundle through the soft sand, and Florida scrub-jays have been sighted along this short loop.
Length: 1.5 miles
Lat-Long: 28.670766, -80.890360
Fees / Permits: Free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low
Leashed pets are welcome. The trail system is shared with equestrians and bicyclists, both of whom tend to stick to the powerline trail – it has a firmer surface, unlike the soft sand of this loop.
Buck Lake WMA allows hunting during certain seasons. Check hunting regulations online and the kiosk at the trailhead to be aware of when hunting seasons are. If you plan to hike during hunting season, wear blaze orange clothing to be seen.
From I-95 exit 223, Mims, drive 1.1 miles west along SR 46. The trailhead entrance is on the north side of the highway. A dirt road leads 0.4 mile back to the trailhead parking area adjoining the power lines.
Start your hike at the kiosk, and keep alert for wildlife. On our hike, we immediately saw a rather large and presumably old gopher tortoise ambling straight for us towards the trailhead. The yellow-blazed East Loop turns to the right immediately after the hunt check station beyond the kiosk. The trail follows a berm above a canal, likely built decades ago for drainage of the landscape for development along SR 46. On the left, topping swales in the scrub ridge, are silvery-green saw palmetto, especially pretty against a blue sky.
After 0.2 mile, watch for a double yellow blaze guiding you left off the berm and into a corridor carved into dense scrub vegetation, the understory thick with gallberry and tall grasses. Only the occasional longleaf pine or cabbage palm offers shade. Look off to the left and you’ll see patches of open, sandy prairie hidden behind the taller grasses. By 0.4 mile, the grasses are quite beautiful. The scrub oaks to the left are the proper size for scrub-jay activity, and indeed, this is the point where we saw our first one along the loop, dipping and diving from pine tree to oak. Unlike those found at Lyonia Preserve, these scrub-jays are not acclamatized to visitors and won’t stick around when they see you.
After a half mile, you reach a four-way trail junction. The loop continues to the left and uphill, although you can’t see any markers from this vantage point. Turning left, you’re ascending a steady uphill through diminutive Chapman oaks up an ancient ridge of high, dry sand topped with scrub forest. Wildlife trails meander through the understory. It takes a while before you see a yellow blaze on the slenderest of sand live oaks. By 3/4 mile, you pass a blaze post on the left just before meeting a T intersection of trails. You can see a taller oak scrub off in the distance straight ahead. Turn left.
Golden aster grows densely throughout the understory in this section, and blooms each fall. Wiregrass edges the trail, which continues through this desert-like habitat of bright white sand. You see a blaze on a sand pine, the first sand pine encountered on the loop. The grasses in this part of the loop are particularly showy. Keep alert for scrub-jays as you rise up a slight elevation and the distant power line becomes obvious. The support beam straight ahead is topped with an enormous nest, perhaps an eagles’ nest.
The trail continues to rise through the scrub, with taller sand pines on the left as you draw closer to the power line. Pass a side trail at 1.1 miles to the left as the track winds around, continuing uphill. At 1.3 miles, you reach a T intersection with the white-blazed trail under the power line. Turn left and continue along the power line to return to the trailhead.