At Castellow Hammock, you’re stepping into Florida’s past as you follow the nature trail into a remnant of tropical forest. Part of the Dade Archipelago, a series of rocky islands that once protruded from the River of Grass of the Everglades, Castellow Hammock is a tropical forest now surrounded by the farming community of the Redland.
Mastic, gumbo limbo, West Indian mahogany, paradise trees, and Jamaican dogwood knit a dense canopy overhead, with wild coffee and giant sword ferns carpeting the forest floor. The winding natural surface trail leads over surface limestone outcrops with many deep and narrow solution holes, which host microclimates where rare fern species thrive. Here, too, you’ll see Liguus, the colorful tree snail of the Everglades and Keys that flourishes only in hammocks like these. For a short trail, it packs a serious immersion into a rare habitat.
Length: 0.6 (from trailhead) to 0.8 mile (from outside the gates)
Lat-Long: 25.558771, -80.451649
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: annoying
Restroom: Yes, when the nature center is open. Drinking fountain outside
Open 9 AM to 5 PM. Closed Mon-Tues. Managed by Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation
If the nature center isn’t open and it’s between 9-5, park outside the gates and walk in. Do not block the gates or the road.
This is not an easy trail, despite its short length. There are rocks and roots everywhere, so footing is tricky. Mosquitoes emerge from pockets of water cupped by solution holes. Trees crowd closely, and some of them – like poisonwood – you don’t want to touch. In summer, the forest is thick with golden orb spiders that build their webs across the trail. Wear a hat, carry a hiking stick, and bring more water than you think you need.
From US 1 in Goulds, take Hainlin Mill Dr west. Once you pass Monkey Jungle, continue 1.5 miles to 162nd Ave (Farmlife Rd). Turn left and drive 0.5 mile to the preserve entrance on the left. You can also use Hainlin Mill Dr to head east from SR 997 (Krome Ave) to Farmlife Rd, if you’re approaching from Homestead or US 41 at Dade Corners.
It takes only a moment out of the car to engage your senses as you walk towards the nature center. Lining the path, the approach showcases tall tropical trees and a colorful butterfly garden, where trees like lignum vitae and Geiger tree offer up fragrant blossoms. It’s soothing to sit and watch Gulf fritillaries, yellow sulphurs, tiger swallow-tails, and an abundance of red hairstreaks hover in packs above an array of blooms.
The tropical forest, however, is behind the nature center. If the center is open, take the time to walk in and acquaint yourself with the native habits of this region and their relationship to the Redland, a historic tropical agriculture community in this southwestern corner of Miami-Dade County. An interpretive guide to the trail is available inside the nature center, with numbered stops corresponding to markers you’ll see along the trail.
The trail begins at the northeast corner of the nature center, immediately enveloping you in the darkness of the tropical forest as you duck and stoop to enter this unusual ecosystem. Although it should be cooler inside the forest, the slender trees are so dense that they block any breezes you felt outside the forest, so it feels warmer. Even on this short walk, take breaks and drink plenty of water in hot weather. It’s during these warm days you’ll see a lot of activity out of the Liguus tree snails, a species of special concern native to the Everglades and Keys, as they slide along smooth-barked tropical trees in search of tiny lichens for a meal.
Zigzagging into the heart of the hammock, the trail passes by a parade of interesting botanical sights. Look for microscopic mushrooms clinging to rotting logs, giant patches of lichens decorating the trunks of paradise trees, and the mottled orange-black bark of pigeon-plum and poisonwood. They’re tough to tell apart at the bark level, but if you can see the leaves, poisonwood leaves are rimmed in yellow. The sap is ten times as irritating as poison ivy.
At 0.2 mile, the trail comes within sight of the edge of the hammock, along the edge of a nursery, with sunlight streaming in from the south. Overhead, look for tamarind trees, distinctive with their hanging fruits, and paradise trees with leaves that look very fern-like. You’ll hear the cries of birds echo between the trees. You pass a distinctively odd looking gumbo-limbo with a big bulge in its side like a cartoon head. Look carefully at the surrounding tree trunks for snails. At Marker 11, the trail goes right between a fallen tree, a cut sliced out for your walking pleasure. Marker 13 appears to be a fallen mahogany. It appears many of the largest trees took a hit during Hurricane Wilma, but the lower canopy closed in to fill the gaps.
Unusual rock formations begin to rise from the forest floor—jagged teeth of the bedrock of the Everglades, protrusions of Miami oolite, the limestone karst you’ll also see beneath the River of Grass. Around a sharp bend is a massive West Indian mahogany. Where the trail seems to vanish at a clearing, it in fact turns sharply right into a narrow corridor between tall ferns and wild coffee. Marker 16 is amid the coffee, where an oversized firebush attracts zebra swallowtails. A butterfly drifts past, its wingspread bigger than my hand.
As the trail narrows tightly down beyond Marker 17, it gets wilder, although a smidgen of gravel underfoot acts like breadcrumbs marking the route ahead. Jagged karst pokes up through the footpath like cypress knees in stone. A primitive and endangered whisk fern sprouts from the crook of a tree. Solution holes, off to the left, are part of the undulating landscape where bedrock meets air. Walking between another gap in a fallen tree, Marker 18 at 0.3 mile is a place to pause and look down into a deep solution hole surrounded by ferns. Strangler figs tempt with roots created none-too-sturdy bridges meant for a squirrel. When there’s water at the bottom, this cleft in the karst becomes a mosquito breeding pool.
Past the solution hole, the trail turns sharply left into a low-canopied child-sized corridor with a hat-snitching tree. Duck! Jagged karst continues to protrude from the footpath. Reaching a small opening in the canopy where ferns are thriving, the trail turns right to face an enormous gumbo-limbo tree and beyond it, a strangler fig of incredible size. Giant sword fern surrounds you, shoulder-height, before you enter another narrow corridor.
The trail becomes narrower and more difficult to follow. On my first visit to the park, the trail continued into a loop through the hammock, but that loop is now closed off by a temporary fence, creating a dead-end just past a satinwood tree near Marker 20. Turn around at this point and retrace your steps, noting how different the forest looks from the return perspective, taking the time to enjoy the details.