At the northernmost end of the Lake Wales Ridge, a significant landform that stretches from Minneola down towards Lake Okeechobee, Crooked River Preserve showcases a wide variety of habitats in a short hike.
The high, well-drained sandy soils of the Lake Wales Ridge are the “spine” of the Florida peninsula, once an island among ancient seas.
Citrus growers prized these sands, ideal for healthy orange groves. When we were kids, US 27 was known as the Orange Blossom Highway. The sweet fragrance of orange blossoms filled the air every winter.
Today, if you go to the top of the Citrus Tower, you’ll find it hard to spot an orange tree below. Over the past two decades, houses and shopping centers replaced the groves and smothered remaining natural habitats, too.
This is one of nature’s last strongholds in Clermont. Named for the Palatlakaha River which forms its boundary, Crooked River Preserve spans from the downslope of the Lake Wales Ridge to the edge of Lake Louisa.
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Length: 1.7 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.507938, -81.750393
Address: 11121 Lake Louisa Rd, Clermont
Restroom: at the trailhead
Land manager: Lake County Water Authority
Open daylight hours. Dogs are not permitted. Check in and out at the trailhead kiosk.
While bicycles are permitted, the soft sand of the Lake Wales Ridge does not make for great off-road riding.
Canoes can be reserved in advance for use on the river, or bring your own. The launch is a short walk from the trailhead parking area.
From US 27 in Clermont, drive south from its intersection of SR 50 for one mile. Turn right on Lake Louisa Road and follow it for 2.7 miles to the trailhead on the left.
Starting out under a canopy of laurel oaks in a second or third growth forest, the trail is edged by giant mounds of grapevines. The footpath is sand, but relatively compact.
A line of cypress behind the oaks defines the floodplain of the river. Interpretive markers point out specific plants and trees, like the red bay, which likes to have its roots in the wet rim of the floodplain.
Entering an open area with tall longleaf pines and blueberry bushes, a denuded scrub landscape off to the left, you can hear passing cars on Lake Louisa Rd. Prickly pear and grapevines mingle as scrub and oak hammock meet.
Reaching an orange marker and a yellow marker, take the yellow trail. It swings closer to the river, affording a shady canopy overhead, a crispy, crunchy tunnel of sand live oaks.
Peeking between the cypress, you can see Palatlakaha River Park on the opposite shore, another public land with trails. It protects that side of Palatlakaha River watershed.
Flowing north from the Green Swamp, the Palatlakaha River forms a chain of lakes that includes Lake Louisa and Lake Minneola, flowing north to Lake Harris. As the yellow trail meets the orange trail, turn right.
The next intersection is where the orange-blazed Cypress Trail and blue-blazed SinkTrail meet after 0.4 miles. You’ll return along the Sink Trail, so keep right.
At the next junction of the two trails, keep right again to stay along the floodplain. Turn right at the next yellow trail, which leads to the river and its tall bald cypresses.
A sparkle of water breaks through the understory. The Palatlakaha River is tannic but clear and sand-bottomed, with ripples across the bottom that make this north-flowing stream almost seem tidal.
At a half mile, a picnic bench offers a place to watch for birds and savor the view as Lake Louisa gently pours through a gateway of cypresses into the river.
Past the picnic bench, join the blue-blazed Sink Trail, a straightaway beneath tall oaks draped in Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Bracken fern crowds the understory.
The Sink Trail emerges among cypresses along the shore of Lake Louisa. The far shore is protected by Lake Louisa State Park. The lake is big enough it gets whitecaps on a windy day.
Poke around the sandy shoreline to marvel at the oddly-shaped, almost bonsai-like bald cypress, each a short, stout sentinel proclaiming the age and wildness of this place. Be mindful of alligators, however.
Return to the trail and turn right to continue along the blue blazes. At the next trail junction, the trail straight ahead exits into a neighborhood. Turn left to follow the Sink Trail into a sandhill habitat.
A large sinkhole lies downslope from the tall longleaf pines that canopy the trail. A pond dotted with lilies fills its bottom.
Two short side paths lead to its edge as the trail swoops around the sinkhole under the pines on the bluff above it. Turn right after 1.1 miles at the next trail junction.
Keep right at the following junction to return to the orange blazes. These lead along the perimeter of the preserve into its other highlight, the ancient scrub of the Lake Wales Ridge.
This is some of the oldest land in the Florida peninsula, teeming with biodiversity and species found nowhere else on earth, which is why these patches of lichens and mosses mean so much among suburban sprawl.
The hill trends downwards towards Lake Louisa Rd, as does the trail, drawing close to the fenceline. The sand gets softer, the walking more difficult.
The trail leaves the fenceline and makes a sharp left into the scrub. Open patches of scrub with diminutive plants are all around you, including more patches of spike moss. Cypresses are in the distance along the river.
Reaching the final trail junction at 1.6 miles, turn right to exit down the grapevine-lined corridor. Don’t forget to sign out at the trail register!
See our video of hiking Crooked River Preserve
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
As longleaf pine reaches for the sky, the rolling hills of Lake Louisa State Park near Clermont return to their forested roots
Protecting more than 128 acres along Lake Apopka, Oakland Nature Preserve offers an accessible boardwalk through marshes to the lake and uplands trails to explore