Hang on for one wild walk! Allan David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park isn’t just “a perfect example of Lake Wales Ridge Scrub,” it’s a landscape unlike any other you’ll find in Florida. The Lake Wales Ridge is a long, slender ridge of ancient sand that stretches from around Clermont most of the way towards Lake Okeechobee. Well before any of us were born, most of it was turned into citrus groves because the sand and elevation were perfect for planting oranges, grapefruits, and lemons.
Protecting more than 8,000 acres of untouched wilderness in a very off-the-beaten-path location between Lake Hatchineha, Lake Rosalie, and Lake Pierce (and not far as the crow flies from Lake Kissimmee State Park), Catfish Creek Preserve State Park contains a series of tall, steep ridges of sand the color of sparkling fresh snow, with ascents and descents so steep 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. But the incredible sweeping views, the extraordinary contrasts between “desert” and lakes, the bountiful wildlife, strange plants, and the physical challenge make this one of my new top picks for an amazing Florida hike. It will get your heart pumping! Given the complexity of the trail system, this is only one of many trail routes you can take on a visit to Catfish Creek Preserve.
Length: 3.5 miles (up to 6 miles including cross-trails)
Lat-Long: 27.983800, -81.496800
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Difficult -- hilly and soft sand
Bug factor: Low to moderate
Leashed pets are permitted. There is a shaded picnic pavilion and composting toilet at the trailhead. Equestrian trails share portions of the hiking trails, making those sections a much tougher hike due to churned up sand. This is a very open, exposed hike with strenuous climbs. Get out quickly if you see a thunderstorm approaching. Shade is at a premium. Hiking poles are recommended due to the extremely steep slopes. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are a must to protect you from the elements.
From US 27 in Dundee, follow CR 542 east to Hatchineha Rd. Turn right and continue 8 miles to Firetower Rd. 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—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 jeep 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 are allowed and the sand tends to be churned up. An undulating landscape of diminutive scrub trees – current crispy after a recent burn – stretches off to your right, with an undisturbed hammock of older sand live oaks on your left. A red mailbox catches your eye: “trail maps.” Stop and get one. This is a trail system where carrying a map, plus a compass or GPS, is a smart idea. Markers throughout the preserve are keyed to the map, but there are also so many cross trails between major trails that it wouldn’t be hard to lose yourself in the maze. I did!
Turn right at the trail map box 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, and indeed, one lands atop a tall dead tree, seen in silhouette against the blue sky. It’s probably the sentinel of the scrub-jay family, watching out for danger from a high post to warn the others.
One distinctive thing about this preserve is because it is so high up on the Florida peninsula and it’s a scrub forest, you have broad, sweeping views of the terrain from most vantage points along the trail. You can see what’s coming up ahead, such as a prairie tucked into the swale between this ridge and the next, off on the left, and a glimpse of a shimmering lake over the horizon. Passing Marker 4 and 5 in quick succession at 0.5 mile, where equestrian trails go off to the left and right, you climb up to a vantage point at Marker 6 – with difficulty, since the sand is so soft – and can see a broad panorama of prairie and open water, and a distant gash of sand indicating a trail climbing the ridge on the far side of the next valley. You descend down a very steep slope into this lush prairie, which is reminiscent of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness—except here, the hills are monstrous by comparison. A strong breeze makes the lack of shade more tolerable on a hot day.
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 broad prairie that reminds me of Hopkins Prairie, 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. You can hear the croak of frogs and the throaty cries of sandhill cranes in the distance. It’s a Florida landscape on a grandiose, “Big Sky” scale. 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. Fishing is permitted here, as evidenced by the monofilament disposal tube next to the bench, so these lakes are not ephemeral like most in this habitat. We sat here and watched a pair of sandhill cranes slowly working their way through the grass along the lakeshore, having their afternoon meal.
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. Frogs and crickets are kicking up a chorus. The trail makes a sharp left. The fallen cones at your feet are from the tall slash pines, which provide smidgens of shade. 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. As a result, there’s a Noah’s Ark of ancient plant species here found nowhere else in the world, including 21 species that are considered endangered due to their rarity, including scrub plum (Prunus geniculata), scrub morning glory (Bonamia grandiflora), and pygmy fringe tree (Chionanthus pygmaeus).
A steep ascent faces you, steeper than any other I’ve encountered in Florida. Consider making your own switchbacks as you make the climb to this lofty spot, which 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, it’s here you find the memorial to Allan David Broussard, for whom the preserve was dedicated. Allan’s parents manage Forever Florida (through which the Florida Trail passes), their ranch, and Florida Eco-Tours, and are dedicated to the preservation of Florida’s cattle culture and wild places. 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. A rare cluster of beargrass grows near the foot of the memorial.
What goes up, must come down, and facing this next slope back down off the high ridge, I wish I had 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, make a left and walk along the prairie. After a few footfalls you come to the junction of the white and blue blazed trails, reaching the outer combination hiking / equestrian trail at Marker 18. Continue straight. Many interesting lichens and mosses, including patches of spike moss and odd looking fungi, grow beneath small woody 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. You 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. You reach Marker 17 high atop the ridge, with a view dropping down along the curvature of the trail. Here’s where I got confused. Don’t follow the curvature, which drops down into a deep valley. Instead, 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 fenceline, 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. Enough shade is cast by a hammock of older sand live oaks on the south side of the trail to encourage you to stop and rest on a bench overlooking this prairie. You’ve hiked 2.3 miles.
After ascending up and over the ridge, the trail provides you a panorama of a broad prairie rimmed in saw palmetto. Tall stalks of what-colored pinewood dropseed wave in the afternoon breeze. Passing Marker 17, you can hear scrub-jays in the oaks on the right, and off to the left is a prairie showcasing the textures of at least seven types of grasses in succession from sprays of sand cordgrass to tall stands of shortspike bluestem. 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 major 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, since hikers are permitted to use any of the equestrian trails in the preserve. Certainly, the sand is more churned up. But this route is worth it.
In a few moments, you discover the first reason 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. Unexpectedly, they are longleaf pines, especially obvious by young pines in their grass and candle stages. Well-established oak hammocks line the right side of 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. Mounds of dark raised earth recall the “living earth” found at Arches National Park, and I’d love to find out if they’re related in any way. I’ve only seen these clumps in the ancient scrubs of Florida. Marker 42 is next to another pretty prairie pond, where – if camping were allowed – I’d be tucking in under the shady oak hammock on the right. An unmarked trail leads off to the right but the main trail skirts around the prairie, where the live oaks arch out to provide a spot of shade—a classic Florida scrub scene. 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. This is the final climb out of the preserve, so take it easy. You complete the loop at the map box at Marker 2 after 3.4 miles. Continue straight, with the oak hammock to your right, to exit the preserve at the trailhead at 3.5 miles.