One of the better stops for birding on the western side of Lake Apopka, the Clay Island Trail near Astatula is a popular equestrian access to Lake Apopka North Shore.
It has a very large parking area suitable for horse trailers, but no other facilities other than a picnic bench under the oaks.
As is obvious on the way to this remote trailhead in a very rural part of Lake County, the surrounding area was (and is) farmland along the edges of the lake.
To treat the runoff of pesticides and fertilizer that accumulated over decades along this side of the lake, St. Johns Water Management District is still in the process of building wetlands ponds.
Some of the flow ways look like baffles, winding back and forth to move water more slowly.
While Clay Island was cut into an island by man-made drainage canals, it is at the very tip of a natural peninsula into Lake Apopka to the south of Astatula.
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Length: Up to a 7.2 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.674532, -81.705992
Address: 22526 Carolyn Ln, Astatula FL
Land manager: St. Johns River Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. Cyclists, hikers, and equestrians share all trails at Clay Island.
While many of the trails are limerock roads, cyclists should plan for off-road conditions including loose gravel, puddles, and grassy surfaces.
The trail system is on levees and established roads atop levees through marshes and farms. There is no shade except under the observation towers. Sun protection is important.
Leashed dogs welcome. However, we saw large alligators within a five minute walk from the trailhead. Keep at least 20 feet away from all alligators.
From Apopka, follow US 441 north to Zellwood. Turn west on Jones Avenue. Pass the exit gate for Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive at Jones Avenue STA and continue 2.6 miles to the T intersection with CR 48.
Turn left, following CR 48 for 3.7 miles towards Astatula, crossing the Apopka-Beauclair Canal before you get to Ranch Rd. Turn left. Stay with Ranch Rd as it jogs through a rural subdivision.
Where you see the sign for “Scenic Drive” straight ahead on a dirt road, make a right on the paved road, Robbins Rd. Follow it 1.2 miles south to Peebles Dr. Turn left on Peebles, then right on Carolyn Ln. That road ends at the trailhead.
Clay Island Trails
Once you enter the trailhead, continue across the grassy space under the oaks to park near the gap in the fence within sight of the trailhead kiosk.
Stop at the kiosk for a map. Walk this connector trail out to the Clay Island Loop. The loop is white blazed. This intersection with Ranch Rd is the decision point for a variety of loops.
At a trail junction within sight of the T intersection, you may see cyclists and equestrians passing by. That corner on Ranch Rd with the signpost is the primary junction for the Lake Apopka Loop Trail.
Clay Island Observation Tower
1.6 miles. An out-and-back trek to the flow-way observation tower along the Lake Apopka Loop Trail provided excellent birding.
Turn right from the T junction and walk south on Ranch Rd to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail junction. Make a left to walk straight out to the lake.
On first glance, it looks boring. Straight as an arrow. But the beauty is in the marshes on both sides. Colorful wildflowers and bustling birds peep out of the shallows.
It’s only 0.8 mile out to the tower, which affords a view of Lake Apopka across farms on Clay Island being restored to wetlands.
Watch the canals below for tell-tale movement of alligators and otters in the deeper waters. Return the same way, or expand the walk by taking the trail past the tower up along the flow-way.
That zigzagging route may be deep in tall grass – a good hiding place for snakes – depending on when it was last mowed.
Returning to the trailhead via the northern part of the Clay Island Loop nets a 3.1-mile hike.
Clay Island Loop (SHORT)
5.7 miles. This is the most popular route for cyclists who enter the loop from either direction on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. It also leads you out to the shoreline of Lake Apopka.
Follow the directions above to the flow-way tower. After stopping for the view, continue past the tower another 0.7 mile through the fields to the Pump Station Kiosk.
Turn right and head south, paralleling the lakeshore. At 2.4 miles, you reach the Lakeside Tower, an outstanding observation point overlooking the water.
The trail draws farther away from the lake as it continues along fields and wetlands. Around 4.4 miles is a third observation tower, this one with a good view towards Green Mountain.
Coming to Jimmy’s Crossing after 4.7 miles, you rejoin the Lake Apopka Loop Trail where it comes in from Green Mountain Trailhead. Continue straight north up the levee.
Expect a lot of bird activity along the canal here. By 5.7 miles, you’ve sealed the loop. Straight ahead is the turnoff for the Clay Island Trailhead.
Clay Island Loop (FULL)
7.2 miles. This is the route the equestrians prefer. The northern half of the Clay Island Loop provides the best birding and the nicest views across completed wetlands.
It is on levees paralleling canals. Some of the levees are grassy, especially along the flow-way.
From the parking area, reach the T and turn left. Walk a short distance north on Ranch Rd and make a right before treeline to follow the white blazed loop northeast along a broad canal.
The trail turns due east through the marshes after 0.6 mile and continues down a straightaway. After the tower is in view in the distance, the trail turns towards it.
However, to get there, it makes a baffling zigzag along the flow-way that more than doubles the visual distance to the tower. You reach it after 2.3 miles.
From the top of the tower, you can survey the work done to restore farms to wetlands, and see Lake Apopka in the distance.
Leaving the tower, join the Lake Apopka Loop Trail and turn left to walk out towards the lake. Continue along the directions for the short loop from this point.
Lake Apopka North Shore
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A 1.3-mile nature trail at Trimble Park near Mount Dora offers a family-friendly outdoor adventure beneath ancient oaks and cypresses along the shorelines of two lakes