Hang on for one wild walk as you tackle the ups and downs of a very vertical part of the Lake Wales Ridge ridges at Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park.
Protecting more than 8,200 acres of untouched wilderness in a very off-the-beaten-path location between Lake Hatchineha, Lake Rosalie, and Lake Pierce, it’s a rugged hiking destination.
The park protects the uplands and floodplain around Catfish Creek, and contains a series of tall, steep north-south ridges of sand the color of sparkling fresh snow.
The ascents and descents are so steep and white you’d think you were traversing ski slopes along the trail system.
You have to love the scrub, or a physical challenge, to enjoy this trail. Scrub is Florida’s desert, and you’re in the very heart of it here.
The forests are diminutive. Some are a bit on the crispy side, given fire is necessary to replenish the habitat, which makes them downright ugly.
The trails are deep in soft sand and broad like roads. There is hardly any shade. Thunderstorms whip up quickly on this high ground.
But the incredible sweeping views, the extraordinary contrasts between “desert” and lakes, the bountiful wildlife, strange plants, and the physical challenge make this a compelling hike.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Haines City
Length: 3.5 mile loop (6 mile loop possible)
Address: 4335 Firetower Rd, Haines City
Fees: Free. $5 per night primitive camping fee
Restroom: Vault toilet at the trailhead
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM to sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome. A small picnic area is at the trailhead.
This is a very hilly place to hike with exposed ridges and limited shade. Take plenty of water with you and use sun protection. Get out quickly if a thunderstorm threatens.
From US 27 in Dundee, follow CR 542 east to Hatchineha Road. Turn right and continue 8 miles to Firetower Road. Turn right. Continue 3 miles. The park trailhead is on the left before the FFA Leadership Camp entrance. If you reach their gate, turn around and come back, since Firetower Road dead-ends at the camp.
Starting off at the kiosk at the trailhead, follow the white-tipped blaze posts to begin your hike. The trail is a broad road in deep soft sand, as this portion is shared with horses.
Anywhere you see the posts tipped in red or red and white together, equestrians share the trail with hikers.
That’s why our recommended route follows a central loop of 3.5 miles using the blue cross-trails. Pick up a trail map from the mailbox at the first trail junction.
This is a trail system where using a GPS or map and compass is a smart idea. Park staff have posted numbers at junction posts that are keyed to the map they provide here.
Turn right at the mailbox at Marker 2 to start walking the outer loop counterclockwise. The first of many ephemeral ponds is off to the right.
The trail makes a moderate incline, paralleling Firetower Road, before it reaches a “Restricted Area” sign. Turn left.
Listen for Florida scrub-jays. You’re bound to start hearing them in this area. We’ve encountered scrub-jay families in four distinct locations in the preserve.
One interesting thing about this trail system is between the ridges being steep and the scrub forest being made up of small trees, you can see a long way from the top of each hill.
Pass Marker 4 and 5 in quick succession, crossing equestrian trails. Climb to Marker 6 to see the broad panorama of prairie and open water.
A distant gash of sand indicates a trail climbing the ridge on the far side of the next valley. You descend down a very steep slope into a lush prairie.
At the base of the hill, you come to a T intersection with a blue-tipped post, which indicates a connector trail at Marker 8.
Turn right to follow this trail along a long, rambling prairie studded with interconnecting lakes, depending on rainfall to provide depth.
The trail follows its well-defined shoreline, with sand less-trammeled and more like a well-packed beach. Lily pads float on the surface.
At an intersection with a white-blazed trail at a T junction, turn left. The shoreline swoops around to a trail junction at a shady spot with a bench at 1.2 miles.
Pass Marker 24 and head straight past the bench to continue your hike. At Marker 23, the white blazes go off to the right and left and the blue blazes lead straight ahead.
Continue straight to ascend to a very pretty overlook over a very long and slender prairie with a shimmering pond, with the crests of the ridges beyond.
At Marker 22, the blue blazed trail leads off to the left. Continue around the prairie, where you begin to see some of the more interesting and unusual plants of the Lake Wales Ridge.
The quality of the sand changes. It’s extremely white, and was one of the few parts of Florida that protruded from the sea when the state was once underwater
A steep ascent faces you. Consider making your own switchbacks as you make the climb to this lofty spot.
It lets you survey all of the hiking you’ve done so far, a view sweeping all the way back to the fire tower along Firetower Road.
After 1.7 miles, you find the memorial to Allan David Broussard, for whom the preserve was dedicated.
The family left quotes on the engraved memorial, and a scrub-jay perches on Allan’s shoulder on the bust atop the granite, looking out over this incredible panorama.
What goes up, must come down, and facing this next slope back down off the high ridge, you’ll want a toboggan.
It’s so vertical, soft, and white that it looks like a ski slope. Keep left at the fork as the descend slides down to the next prairie’s edge.
Reaching Marker 19 at a T intersection, this is a decision point. If you’re headed to either Site 1 or Site 2 to camp overnight, turn right.
To continue along the day hike route, make a left and walk along the prairie. After a few footfalls you come to the junction of the white and blue blazed trails at Marker 18.
Continue straight. Many interesting lichens and mosses, including patches of spike moss, grow under the shrubs.
At 1.9 miles the trail passes an odd geological formation that looks like a salt flat amid the sugar-white sand of the scrub, a wide, pan-like area with tiny shrubs.
Start a long ascent up the ridge, an ascent where you can see the trail kiss the sky a good quarter mile up ahead.
Colorful sprays of Ashe’s calamint, cloaked in pink blooms, attract bumblebees and butterflies.
A deer pauses at the top of the slope before vanishing into a forest only a few feet taller than you.
Reach Marker 17 high atop the ridge, with a view dropping down along the curvature of the trail. Don’t follow that road down, however.
Continue straight on the trail less traveled and stay on the ridge until it descends facing a patch of blinding white sand at a corner fence line, joining up with the outer loop at Marker 16.
Turn left and walk down to the prairie. At the fork at Marker 15, the horse trail diverges to the right, and the hiking trail continues to the left.
A hammock of older older sand live oaks encourage you to stop and rest on a bench in the shade overlooking the prairie. You’ve hiked 2.3 miles. It feels like twice that.
After ascending up and over the ridge, the trail provides you a panorama of a broad prairie rimmed in saw palmetto.
Passing Marker 17, you can hear scrub-jays in the oaks on the right. The next prairie showcases the textures of at least seven types of grasses, including big showy sprays of sand cordgrass.
This is the northern end of the long chain of lakes and prairies, obvious as the trail ascends up and around it to Marker 13.
This is a decision point. The hiking trail loops around the prairie and immediately connects back up with the route you used to enter the preserve.
Since you already know what that looks like, continue straight to start walking along the red-tipped posts of the equestrian trail. The sand is more churned up. But this route is worth it.
In a few moments, you discover why: the view behind you, back across the prairie, framed inside a small oak hammock.
It’s a tremendous sweeping view of the liquid landscape, a sharp contrast to the sand ridges all around you. Tall pines rise above the trail.
More views of the prairie lake system are behind you, so be sure to turn around and savor them.
The outer equestrian trail joins in from the right at Marker 43, where several scrub plums with weirdly jointed branches flourish.
Marker 42 is next to another pretty prairie pond. The main trail skirts around the prairie, where the live oaks arch out to provide a spot of shade.
The trail turns and follows the prairie rim, its grasses waving in the wind, and then makes a steep uphill to the right past Marker 41.
Seal the loop at the map box at Marker 2 after 3.4 miles. Continue straight ahead to exit the preserve at the trailhead at 3.5 miles.
Learn more about Catfish Creek Preserve State Park
See our photos of Catfish Creek Preserve
More trails worth exploring while you’re in this area.
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At the Osceola District Schools Environmental Study Center, trails along Reedy Creek Swamp showcase the beauty of the ancient cypress and floodplain forest.