While this hike starts with a walk down an old ranch road inside Little Big Econ State Forest, things change dramatically once you get into the woods.
A surprising immersion into hammocks of ancient live oaks and cabbage palms is just the beginning of the natural beauty of this hike.
Along the Culpepper Trail, expect scenic views of the Econ River from the bluffs above, which gradually give way to beaches at river level.
The hike is in three parts: the unblazed Little Big Econ connector (1.5 miles), a segment of the River Trail to the river (0.3 mile), and the yellow-blazed Culpepper Trail (2.9 miles).
While a round-trip is 9.4 miles, you can trim that, as we did, to 7.9 miles by using the multi-use Equestrian Trail on the return trip to enjoy its canopy of ancient oaks.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 7.9 mile round-trip and loop
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Leashed dogs welcome. Insect repellent a must. Active cattle leases mean the potential of encounters with cows and bulls along the trail.
Bicycles and horses are not permitted access from this trailhead but may use the Equestrian Trail or forest roads from the Joshua Creek trailhead to reach the multi-use portion of this trail.
This trailhead serves as a walk-in hunting entrance during hunting seasons. Check ahead regards hunt dates before you make plans for outdoor recreation, and wear bright orange if you choose to hike during hunts.
From SR 50 between Orlando and Christmas, turn north on Chuluota Rd (SR 419) and drive 4.9 miles north towards Oviedo. Turn right onto Lake Mills Rd in front of the Hitching Post Bar. Continue on Lake Mills Rd for 3 miles, passing Tropical Ave and Fort Christmas Rd before Lake Mills Rd makes a 90-degree left turn. Stay on it, passing the Panorama Trailhead of the Florida Trail. Lake Mills Rd becomes Brumley Rd and makes a hard right. Continue 2.4 miles to the end of the road. The amply shaded trailhead is on the left just past a large paved turnout with no parking signs.
Squeeze through the stile at the Brumley Rd trailhead and walk straight down the ranch road behind the gate, passing a state forest sign and some old corrals on the left.
Following the edge of a working ranch, this straightaway ends at a junction of fence lines after a quarter mile.
Your ranch road route continues through a gate on the left. Leave it however you found it, latched or unlatched.
It emerges into open pastureland for a stretch before the trail is flanked by swampy sloughs. Watch for alligators dozing on the banks.
After a curve away from the sloughs, the trail enters a deeply shaded hammock with beautiful old-growth live oaks covered in resurrection fern and bromeliads.
Citrus trees grow throughout the forest, creating a heavenly scent in winter and a bounty of oranges and grapefruit in an unexpected place.
When you see a trail on the right, you’re at the boundary with Bronson State Forest. That’s the Equestrian Trail from Bronson meeting this ranch road.
The next trail junction is with the white-blazed Bronson River Trail on the right, coming in from the east end of the forest at 1.3 miles. It joins the ranch road.
Delight in the old-growth canopy of oaks overhead, which create a tunnel effect as far as you can see.
Just past a small slough, the River Trail turns left at a marked junction with a post to prevent equestrian access. Follow it.
The trail weaves beneath a dense canopy of ancient oaks and palms. Stay on the footpath and don’t venture off it.
The understory is an unfortunate sea of caesarweed, an invasive plant that will cover you in burrs if you brush against it.
At 1.7 miles, you meet the junction for the Culpepper Trail. Even if you hike no farther (a 3.4-mile round trip to this point) the view of the river is well worth seeing.
Turn right and follow the yellow blazes along the bluffs through a bower of live oaks decorated with a thick fur of bromeliads, ferns, and orchids.
After 2 miles, past more live oaks festooned with orchids, the trail makes a sharp right away from a bend in the river.
It enters a stand of oaks and cabbage palms, all heavily laden with bromeliads and orchids.
As the trail draws close to the river again, the river is broad at this point. Here, its floodplain nature is obvious.
When the waters of the Econ rise, they carve a ditch through the landscape. The sand bluffs on the far side of the river are deeply sculpted by flooding.
As the trail works it way back to the bluffs on this side of the river, you pass a garden of cypress knees surrounding an otherwise diminutive cypress tree.
A natural drainage area sits off to the right, providing nourishment for Virginia willows.
The river is almost still, but you can see occasional ripples in the water around the logs and the bends.
The trail follows the direction of the river’s flow towards the St. Johns River. There are many tree roots in the footpath.
You can see watermarks several feet high on the palm trees, again making it obvious that this is a floodplain river, the side channels carved by flooding.
At 2.5 miles the trail passes beneath a massive live oak. Watch out for the large roots in the footpath.
The trail makes a sharp curve to the right, following the water’s flow towards a bend in the river ahead of you.
At a confusion of footpaths, watch for the yellow blazes and follow the path closest to the river along the blazes. An open prairie is to the right.
The trail goes uphill into the prairie, then turns to cross the roots of a tree which form a natural bridge over a small waterway.
Floodplain ponds appear more frequently, edged with trees like sweetgum and cypress. Open prairie is now visible beyond the far shore.
The trail makes another sharp bend around a floodplain between you and the river. Some of the oak limbs it goes under reach down to the ground.
Where the trail comes back to the river, there’s a needlerush marsh edged by cabbage palms. The trail curves right, and goes up to the bluffs again.
Pass under a very large live oak at 3.5 miles. The trail curves to the right and heads into the palm-dotted prairie. Beware of fire ant nests in this section.
Spartina grass forms a soft carpet across the prairie. In the distance is the hum of airboats. They launch from the Jolly Gator Fish Camp off SR 46.
To the far right, you can see a radio tower. Beyond the needlerush marsh, there is a line of cypresses in the distance.
The footpath narrows dramatically, leading through a tall stand of dog fennel on the river bluff.
Squishy gooey mud surrounds a pond. Keep alert for alligators. From there, the trail rises up and enters a palm hammmock.
If there are hikers ahead of you, you may be tempted to take a shortcut across this prairie towards where they are.
Don’t do it! (Don’t ask how we know.) It’s wet, it’s muddy, and you don’t want to get stuck in it.
The blazes lead down a corridor of cabbage palms and out to the rim of the floodplain ponds along this open prairie. The root balls on these cabbage palms are gigantic.
At 4 miles, the Yellow Trail reaches the junction with the Equestrian Trail, which joins in as a two-track forest road.
Turn left to join that road. There is a copse of live oaks to your right at the junction.
As you head into the prairie, look for blaze posts with yellow blazes to stay on the right trail. Flying over in waves, cattle egrets wing their way across this vast floodplain.
The Yellow Trail approaches the edge of Puzzle Lake on your right, while the Econlockhatchee River continues its sinuous route on your left.
The trail is now firmly in the floodplain, and at times of high waters, the rivers merge here.
Airboaters buzz past on the Econ since you are not far from the boat ramp at SR 46. Communications towers wink in the distance.
The equestrian route and the Yellow Trail part ways at an arrow with a horse symbol.
Continuing a little farther through the open prairie on the two track road, the trail makes a sharp left to a peninsula on a bend in the Econ.
There is a large sign that says “Hiking only.” Traffic on SR 46 near the St. Johns River Bridge is visible at this point.
After 4.6 miles you reach the shelter at Culpepper Bend. If it’s still there. We’ve heard rumors it will be pulled down.
The blazes ended here. We used it to get out of the rain. It’s also the turnaround point for this hike.
Return along the footpath to the two-track road. Follow that across the prairie until you reach the point where the Yellow Trail leaves it to head back towards the river.
This is your decision point. You can follow the Yellow Trail back the way you came for a 9.4-mile round-trip hike.
Or you can continue along the two-track road to follow the Equestrian Trail straight back towards the trailhead, passing your River Trail turnoff en route.
It’s a pretty walk. Once it gets into the woods, it treats you to more enormous live oak trees shading the trail.
Passing the prominent signage for the River Trail, continue along the two-track road to exit the forest and return to the ranch road, reaching the trailhead by 7.9 miles.
Learn more about Little Big Econ State Forest
See our photos from the Culpepper Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A little-known trail in a remote corner of Little Big Econ State Forest, the River Trail offers outstanding views from the river bluffs and an archway of ancient oaks to get there.
Despite more than 40 miles of hiking and multi-use trails, Charles H. Bronson State Forest is a lightly-visited destination hidden behind more popular public lands.
As the Florida Trail follows the curve of the basin in which Mills Creek into a bowl of marshlands, enjoy old-growth trees and long boardwalks along this 2 mile hike