Sitting along Lake Hancock between Lakeland and Auburndale, Circle B Bar Reserve is a success story that Aldo Leopold would be proud of.
Formerly a cattle ranch, the reserve encompasses more than 1,200 acres successfully restored to its original wetland habitats feeding the Peace River basin.
An extensive network of trails with an outer circuit of nearly 6 miles is atop the levees through the vibrant wetlands, where you’ll see osprey dive for tilapia, anhingas swallow their catches whole, and alligators slip off the banks.
If you’re squeamish about alligators, stay away from the waterfront trails. Ramble the Shady Oak Trail and the Lost Bridge Trail instead, and enjoy the nature center. But be sure to walk out to Lake Hancock to see how pretty a pristine cypress-lined lake can be.
We describe a route for looping the preserve. While you can hike or bike up to 6 miles if you do all the trails, you can also walk as little as a half mile along the Lost Bridge Trail.
The easiest walk, Heron Hideout, takes you out to the marsh for great birding. It’s a mile round-trip from the Nature Center parking area. Benches are placed strategically throughout the trail system.
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Length: 3.5 mile loop
Address: 4399 Winter Lake Rd, Lakeland FL 33803
Restroom: at the Nature Center
Land manager: Polk County Environmental Lands Program
Pets are not permitted. Open 6 AM -- 6:30 PM during standard time, 5:30 AM to 8 PM during daylight savings time.
Be very, very watchful of small children along the causeways through the marsh and do not let them anywhere near the water. They’ll love the Nature Discovery Center, with its treehouse to climb and fox den to burrow into.
From Interstate 4, take the Polk Parkway (east or west) to SR 540 (Winter Lake Road). Follow it west. It zigzags and makes a turn near the municipal dump before entering a tunnel of forests and swamps. Watch for the park entrance on the left.
The first parking area is a picnic spot directly inside the gate, but if you want to skip that section of the Shady Oak Trail (0.7 mile each way), keep driving and you can park near the Nature Discovery Center, from which the central trail system radiates. That’s your best birding option.
Start your circuit of the preserve with the Shady Oak Trail just inside the park entrance next to the picnic tables. Walk along a well-mowed path under the oaks, the understory thick with low vegetation.
Under a tightly knit oak canopy, a full symphony of birdsong and chatter of squirrels completes the scene. Streamers of spanish moss glisten in the shafts of light that filter through to the forest floor.
The habitat transitions as more cabbage palms poke through openings in the canopy. The open area beyond the oak hammock is where the wetlands start.
At 0.6 mile, reach the junction with Heron Hideout. If your quest is birding, turn down that path into the open impoundment, where the action is. But if you’re here to hike the 3.5-mile perimeter loop, continue straight ahead on the Shady Oak Trail.
The Shady Oak Trail becomes a loose environmentally-friendly concrete path to the Nature Discovery Center complex. If the center is open, pop in for an overview of the habitats and wildlife found at this preserve.
The paved path ends at a kiosk about wetlands. The Lost Bridge Trail veers left at 0.9 mile. Continue straight ahead beneath the oaks, heading into a hammock of very old live oaks.
Passing an outdoor classroom, the trail emerges to a grassy prairie with a view of Lake Hancock. It’s a lake with one of the densest populations of alligators in the state. Decide whether you are ready to deal with that fact.
As you join the lakefront trail, keep alert for alligators as the trail becomes a causeway between lake and marsh. Note the indentations on either side of the causeway caused by alligators regularly crossing the path. Those are known as alligator slides.
Passing a water monitoring station, the trail offers sneak peeks of the lake through the cypresses along the shoreline. Cypresses line the far shore of this shallow and broad lake, busy with birds.
Wading birds are likely to startle you as they burst out of hiding places at your approach. The marsh on the right is covered with water spangles, providing good camouflage for young alligators.
At 1.5 miles, a boardwalk stretches out into Lake Hancock with a sheltered sitting area at the end. The panorama it provides is a beauty. Beyond it, the trail continues as broad as a road. The marsh stretches to the horizon on the right.
This causeway comes out from its tunnel of trees after 2 miles, with a clear sweeping view of lake and marsh in all directions, a prime spot for birding. Passing the next bench, the causeway jogs right.
A constant breeze riffles from lake to marsh. Another bench at a culvert provides an open and busy wildlife watching area as birds and alligators wait for fish to flutter through the pipes.
As the causeway narrows and curves, a dense stand of cypress obscures the lake view. This is Alligator Alley, and it’s well named. Alligator slides are everywhere. Keep alert.
The causeway narrows more tightly. A stand of alligator flag marks a flag pond, a deeper spot in the marsh. It’s a comfort to have a few feet of elevation over your surroundings.
The waterway on the left becomes a canal topped with water lettuce. To the right, the wetland is vast and open. Flanked by canals, the causeway broadens as it reaches the main intersection in the marsh.
At this 4-way junction, there is a choice of routes. Straight ahead is the Marsh Rabbit Trail. To the left is the Eagle Roost Trail.
This junction area is extremely busy with birds. In the shallow marshes, flocks of moorhens and coots fuss at each other.
In the open water, anhinga and cormorants gather in large numbers to feed on the many fish in the water. Osprey dive in, too.
If you want to lengthen your hike, follow the Eagle Roost Trail. It sweeps over to the west side of the marsh and connects with a side trail that leaves the preserve to meet Fort Fraser Trail.
The Fort Fraser Trail is a linear bicycle trail between Bartow and Lakeland. After the Eagle Roost Trail meets it, it loops back as a causeway on Wading Bird Way to meet the end of the Marsh Rabbit Trail.
To stay with the 3.5-mile loop, turn right onto the Heron Hideout at this 4-way junction. It goes through the heart of the marsh as a causeway, heading back to the Shady Oak Trail.
Returning to the trail junction at 2.9 miles, either turn right to return to the Nature Discovery Center -- if you parked there, haven’t visited there, or need the restrooms -- or turn left to exit back to the Shady Oak trailhead.
Our most recent visit to Circle B Bar Reserve
See our photos from Circle Bar B Reserve on Flickr
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A beauty spot along Lake Mirror in downtown Lakeland, Hollis Garden is a collection of themed garden rooms
On more than 3 miles of trails, Lakeland Highlands Scrub offers a close-up look at the Lakeland Ridge, an ancient island when Florida was beneath the seas: parts of this 551-acre preserve are at 230 feet elevation.
With day hiking and cross country trails, Holloway Park & Nature Preserve is a slice of nature inside the city limits of Lakeland, just off the Polk Parkway.