A vast expanse of cattle ranch and pine plantation is undergoing ecological restoration at Deep Creek Preserve to bring it back to 4,800 acres of longleaf pine forest, prairies, and cypress domes. To explore these habitats, two loop trails – the longest a 5.3-mile circuit shared with equestrians – provide hikers a place to roam.
Location: Lake Ashby
Length: 5.3 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: portable toilet near a screened picnic room
The trailhead is along SR 415 north of Osteen and south of SR 44, on the west side of the highway.
Leaving the parking area and its kiosk, follow the forest road into the preserve. A quarter mile along the road you reach a screened room with a picnic table and portable toilet. The kiosk, which talks about the preserve and the fact it is a restoration area with species such as the Sherman’s fox squirrel on site, shows a map of the loop trails. For the longest hike, follow the outer loop, which is mostly shared with equestrians and marked with yellow blazes.
The forest road crosses a giant culvert over what is probably Deep Creek, and it is flowing strongly. It is in a deep ditch lined with ferns. Immediately turn right to start the hiking loop. Follow the yellow blazes past markers with interpretive information. It’s obvious from your surroundings that this was once a tree farm. Loblolly bay and water oak grow near the creek, attesting to the wet character of this landscape. After following an old barbed wire fence, the trail narrows down and slips through the forest to the left, winding through relict sandhill habitat.
After a half-mile, the trail comes out at a berm along another canal, and there is a bridge across the canal with benches on both sides. After you cross the pedestrian bridge, the trail pops back out onto the road it shares with equestrians. Turn right. This is one of the most pleasant sections of the loop, an old forest road in deep shade, paralleling the creek along the property boundary. Just watch out for those “road apples” underfoot!
After three quarters of a mile, you come to the junction of the Orange and Yellow Trails. Here, the Orange Trail follows a firebreak to the left into the forest, creating the shortest loop you can hike in this preserve. To continue on the outer loop follow the yellow blazes.
The landscape is mostly monotonous, so anything out of the ordinary may catch your attention, such as a patch of scrub forest on the left with bright white sand under the sand pines. The bench on the left is at 1 mile. You soon pass a cypress strand, all dried out – the hydrology of this landscape was changed by the canals. A dense thicket of saw palmetto clumps come right out to the forest road. Shiny blueberry intermingles with bracken fern along the edges of the road. The trail turns northeast, away from the property line and into the heart of the preserve.
It’s here that there is a shift to wetter habitats. Giant puddles – and flowing water – take over the trail where the water flows between bayheads. Sundews and bog buttons grow along the edges. Here’s a decision point for you, at 1.8 miles. You’re going to get your feet wet continuing on the outer loop. You can turn around here for a 3.6-mile hike, or plunge forward. And we do mean plunge.
Once you cross this first water barrier, the landscape opens up. A portion of the tree farm has been cut down as part of the restoration effort, and more will follow. It’s very soggy here. The trail follows an old road and is a muddy mess. There’s a reason they call this Deep Creek, and by 2 miles we find out why. It is wet. Truly mucky and suck-off-your-boots wet.
By 2.1 miles, there is a sign leading to the dry area on the right that says “Restricted area do not enter”. Turn left here and continue along drier ground – there’s a canal cut parallel to the forest road. A creek drains the pine flatwoods and cypress domes off to the right. It’s here you’ll see colorful bog wildflowers, including yellow bladderwort, and a great gush of water out into that open area. You walk along the perimeter of a former cypress strand; it is now a line of dead cypress and pine trees.
The trail leaves the clearing and enters the (also to be cut) pine woods. It’s a pine plantation, but has a more complex mix of native plants and wildflowers in the understory. By 2.9 miles, the forest road broadens, but still has lots of water on both sides. It enters another restoration area. Among the pines, the gallberries are covered in pink blossoms in spring. Looking down this long straight forest road you can see a covered bench at the end of it.
The trail makes a left at the T intersection in front of the bench; there is a “Do not enter” sign to the right. Water trickles out of the forest to the left, nourishing the feet of young cypress trees. The open area on the right is planted in longleaf pine but in tree farm fashion, very close together. You reach a four-way intersection at 3.5 miles. There is a cattle ranch to the right. The graded road to the left returns to the front gate. Yellow blazes lead you straight ahead.
Of course, the trail gets a little squishy. It turns left away from the fenceline onto a firebreak at 3.7 miles to enter the beautifully restored longleaf pine habitat. However when we hiked it, it was a rough firebreak, terribly deep in mud, almost impassible. If you see a hint of any muddy mess when you head this way, we suggest you follow the graded forest road from the intersection at 3.5 miles instead. The forest was beautiful, but the trail is not meant for people on foot when it is muddy.
Eventually, the two routes come together. The firebreak trail meets the graded road at 4.5 miles. A few footsteps later, you come to the junction with the Orange Trail, the short interior loop. Continue along the graded road, crossing the creek and passing the screened picnic area, to exit Deep Creek Preserve.