Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Disney Wilderness Preserve is a 12,000 acre showcase for habitat restoration and conservation in a region where development continues – with major loss of habitat – at a startling pace. Purchased to replace habitats erased by the construction of Walt Disney World, this preserve was largely a cattle ranch when it first opened. Using excellent land management practices, The Nature Conservancy has brought back healthy longleaf pine savannas in the uplands, and conserved a cypress-lined lake, a rare find in this part of Florida. The trail system provides immersion into the longleaf pine habitat and a breezy visit to Lake Russell.
Length: 2.5 miles. Options from 0.5 to 6 miles in three loops and a spur.
Lat-Lon: 28.129015, -81.430470
Type: Loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: free, donations appreciated
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: yes, at the trailhead
December 2017 update: Open daily 9-4:30 daily, including weekends, November through March. Open 9-4:30 Monday-Friday only, April through October. Closed major holidays.
To reach Disney Wilderness Preserve, follow SR 535 south from I-4 at Lake Buena Vista. Turn right on Poinciana Boulevard after 2.9 miles. Continue 13.1 miles south, crossing US 17/92, to reach Pleasant Hill Road. You’ll pass the Osceola District Schools Environmental Study Center en route. Turn right on Pleasant Hill Road and immediately get in the left lane. After a half mile, make the left onto Old Pleasant Hill Road. Continue another half mile to turn left into the preserve entrance. You’ll follow the entrance road for 1.6 slow miles – watch for wild turkeys, caracara, and sandhill cranes along the way – to reach the parking area.
Starting at the education center, follow the sidewalk through the breezeway and past the restrooms and butterfly garden to get to the trailhead kiosk next to the pond. A small sign declares this the Harden Trail. A line of wax myrtle screens the back of the buildings from the trail, which offers a sweeping view of the pond. American lotuses float on the surface. Surrounded by smooth cordgrass, the viewing platform provides a place for early morning birding.
After you enter the vast open longleaf pine flatwoods – which are indeed wet, as most in Central Florida are – the Harden Trail, which is the 0.5 mile loop most casual visitors follow, peels off to the right to circle the cypress dome near the pond. Continue straight ahead to meet a T intersection. Turn right to start down a jeep track. Wild bachelor’s button peeps up along the trail’s edge and winged sumac show off a tinge of fall color with leaves turning to crimson. The trail climbs a slight rise, and you see a red trail marker as a confirmation blaze. You are now on the red-blazed Wilderness Trail. Reaching a trail intersection with a trail to the right, you’ll want to pass by that one unless you’re looking to do a 1 mile loop in the flatwoods. Trust us, it’s worth continuing forward for a longer hike.
Keep walking straight ahead through the flatwoods, and notice the line of cypresses off in the distance to your left. They’re getting closer. At the next trail intersection, turn left to walk down to Lake Russell. This short spur trail takes you to one of the major reasons to visit the preserve. The trail slips down a causeway in the floodplain forest before it reaches this beautiful cypress-lined lakeshore, where there’s always a breeze. Benches and a picnic table provide a place to rest and relax beneath an ancient cypress. One of the benches even looks like you’re nestled between cypress trees. This is a great spot to stop and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Returning up the causeway, you reach the T intersection again. Turn left to continue around the Wilderness Trail loop. The trail passes a small pond on the left, surrounded by saw palmetto and tall grasses. The view is expansive around you, the saw palmetto short enough that you can see a mile or more in most directions. Cypress domes and strands look like mountains in the distance. For the remainder of the hike, there are only minor variations on this theme. Longleaf pine savanna surrounds you, with puddles gathering in the trail in the deep tire tracks left by the swamp buggy, an an alternate way of exploring the preserve. Check with the office about when swamp buggy tours are available.
At 1.3 miles, you reach a sign “Trail Continues.” Turn right. The footpath narrows to an actual trail with tall grass all around and a small cypress dome to the left. You head down a straightaway and then the trail makes a sharp left at a bench, working its way around the pond. The landscape is a little elevated here, as there are no wet spots in the trail. You soon come to a marker for the Yellow Trail. It used to follow a slightly different route but now starts on the west side of the cypress dome. Since we visited late in the day, we didn’t have enough time to tackle the Yellow Trail, but we’ve followed it in the past. It circles around a vast bayhead swamp and adds 3.6 miles to your hike.
Staying with the red blazes of the Wilderness Trail by keeping right at the trail junction, you’re around the halfway point for a 2.5 mile hike. Winding through the saw palmetto, the trail comes to a confusing junction with a bench. Look for the next trail marker. You pop out at a T intersection where the Yellow Trail comes back in on a jeep road. Turn right to continue on the loop. You’ve walked 1.8 miles.
The next segment of the trail can get wet after heavy rains. It’s lower than the surrounding landscape, so water gathers in sheets across the footpath. On a dry day, it’s not a problem, but on a wet day, you’ll have to wade. Watch the leopard frogs bounce out of your way, and keep alert for water snakes. The savanna opens up even more around you, and you catch a glimpse of the education center off in the distance. Meeting up with the junction with the Small Red Loop, the trail jogs left and goes through a drainage area, where it’s likely you’ll find standing water. It then rises up and makes a beeline across the savanna towards the pond at the education center, where the Harden Trail joins back in. Heading around the pond, it meets up with the sidewalk at the trail kiosk marking the start of the interpretive trail. Turn left to exit, completing a 2.5-mile walk as you reach the parking lot.