Nestled up against the floodplain of the Econlockhatchee River, the Econlockhatchee Sandhills Conservation Area is a 706-acre showcase of upland habitat diversity jointly managed by Orange County and the St. Johns Water Management District to the east of Orlando. The high and dry loop trail weaves through sand pine scrub, well-established oak hammocks, pine flatwoods, and across prairies of saw palmetto, while also providing glimpses of the grand cypresses outlining the nearby waterway. Abundant wildflowers and wildlife sightings add icing to the cake on a truly beautiful loop hike, one you’d never suspect lay beyond a walk up a power line easement.
Location: Lake Pickett
Length: 3.2 miles
Lat-Long: 28.587639, -81.155889
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
The trail is blazed with red triangles.
Follow SR 50 east from its junction at the end of SR 408 for 1.1 miles. Turn left on SR 420. Follow it for 2.6 miles to the trailhead on the left. From the east, take SR 50 west to Bithlo, and turn right on Chuluota Rd. Make a left at the light for Lake Pickett Rd and watch for the trailhead on the right.
From the trailhead kiosk, which has detailed information and a map of the trail, walk forward into the woods, catching a whiff of pine straw as the trail winds beneath tall longleaf pines. The trail quickly jogs to the right past gopher tortoise burrows edged by sprays of gopher apple. Cabbage palms are intermingled with the pines, and wiregrass, looking resplendent in fall, carpets the forest floor. A slight elevation change causes a transition into sand pine scrub. Sand live oaks cast shade on the footpath, which curves to the left.
Continuing left through large clumps of saw palmetto, the trail is lined with wiregrass, and blazing star and yellow aster lend splashes of fall color. Heading down a corridor with soft fluffy young sand pines – ideal for scrub-jay habitat – you come to a junction with a worn path that is not the main trail, leading towards power lines. Keep to the right. The trail jogs right into an oak hammock with a large mound of saw palmetto crowding the footpath. Younger sand pines gain a foothold in the understory. Scrub and sandhill converge here, with turkey oaks sporting fall colors.
Passing a small knoll covered in deer moss and reindeer lichen, the trail emerges out into the open under the powerline right of way. It slowly curves to the left, passing under the powerline towards the sand pines on the other side. Look for a red marker establishing the route. The footpath stays close to the shadows cast in the early morning by the trees before popping out at the powerline road. Beware of the many anthills. The grasses in this area are quite delicate and feathery, including sprays of lovegrass. Prickly pear grows on the sandy spots.
You see the next blaze on the powerline, and the trail is forced out to the powerline road to cross a culvert at the half-mile mark. Continue up under the powerline, watching for the triangle blaze to lead you back into the woods on the right before the next set of power poles. The trail curves to the right to head into the sandhills. Soon after this transition, a double blaze points you left off the forest road and onto a narrow footpath.
The footpath winds through the sandhills past older turkey oaks and tall longleaf pines. A lonely tarflower waves in the breeze above a cluster of gallberry. Look for clusters of colorful collybia mushrooms sprouting from rotting logs. Just before you emerge into a patch of sun, you come to a double yellow marker. This marks the beginning of the loop portion of the hike, at 0.7 mile. Take the left fork.
Yellow blazes lead you forward into a beautiful sand live oak hammock. A strange device is on the right, a piece of rebar sticking out of a PVC pipe as if it were a lightning arrestor. The understory is very open. In a few moments, you emerge under taller oaks. A spray of lopsided indiangrass shimmers in the sun.
Crossing over an access road, continue straight ahead. The sandhill understory is painted in the purples, pinks, and yellows of fall wildflowers. At a T intersection with a path from the left, a double blaze points you to the right into a forest of young sand pine. The forest closes in around you, a well-shaded area canopied by sand live oaks, the ground covered in dense puffs of deer moss. Sandhill and scrub plants battle to take the highest ground. Look off to the left, and you’ll see the line of trees getting taller and taller, a bayhead made up of loblolly bay with their white blooms, which the trail reaches at a wall of saw palmetto before turning to the right.
As the footpath becomes sandy underfoot, you notice the stillness all around, with only the chirp of crickets and warble of songbirds to rival the wind in the trees. Palafox and St.-Johns-Wort grow in low spots. Saw palmetto hems you in from both sides. Off to the left, sweetgum trees turn crimson. These tall trees outline the floodplain of the Econlockhatchee River, which this trail never enters, staying to the adjacent high ground.
At 1.1 miles, the trail enters a stretch of full sun as it makes a sharp left to lead you into a palmetto prairie. A double blaze leads left, and it’s here you see a forest of “wiggly trees” – these oaks are growing so close to each other that their trunks resemble something out of a Dr. Seuss book. I bet the kids would get a kick out of them—I sure did. The habitat transitions to scrubby flatwoods, with the floodplain forest to your left.
If you pause before you enter the next hammock and look to the left, the tallest trees in the distance are cypresses, which no doubt grow along the banks of the river. Inside the oak hammock, it’s a pure visual delight—shade and beauty. Hanging gardens of mosses cover the limbs of the older oaks, while the entire forest floor, as far as you can see, is puffy with deer moss. Turning sharply right at a marker, the trail leaves the hammock and heads out into the sandhills again, with oaks all around. Curving left, you’re back into the wonderland of moss in the oak scrub. As the hammock opens up and becomes more park-like, you see the remnants of a deer stand on the left in a tree, and then you dive into the mossy place once again.
Turning left again, the trail affords another good view of the cypresses out in the next stretch of sandhills before it curves right and away from the floodplain entirely. You pass another rebar / PVC thing at 1.5 miles, where the footpath goes from being crunchy with sand live oak leaves to grassy and mowed. The younger longleaf seems to have been replanted through this area in the past decade. Look down, and you may see a funnel-shaped web shimmering with beaded iridescence between the grasses. This part of the hike is sun-drenched, the footpath tacking between patches of shade.
As the trail swings left at a marker, an old road comes in from the right. Continue through the sandhills, where there are large open areas with wildflowers in bloom, including clusters of goldenrod, both flat-topped and spiky varieties. The trail is now following the old road past stands of lopsided indiangrass and blazing stars.
Coming to a four-way junction of forest roads, the double-yellow blazes lead right. You see a confirmation blaze soon after. Turn right and follow this forest road past tall turkey oaks. The footpath is hard-packed, so it’s easy walking. Around 2 miles, you pass a line of young longleaf pines on the right on the edge of a low scrub. Sure enough, scrub means soft sand to walk in for a short stretch until you get back into the sandhills, where a palmetto prairie continues on into the distance on the right.
The path through the sandhills reaches an opening with tall grasses, with oak hammocks in each direction and more “wiggly trees” on the left. Low bush blueberries grow along the edges of the trail. At the fork in the road, keep left to return to a narrow footpath headed for the shade of the sandhills. Red blanket lichen grows in showy clumps on the sand live oaks, and Spanish moss drapes from oak limbs. More oaks crowd together, forming a shady canopy.
At 2.4 miles, you reach the end of the loop. Turn left to exit. Be sure to turn right at the T intersection to emerge out under the powerline. Head left under the powerline, and watch for the footpath on the far side of the culvert. Cross under the powerline to follow the footpath back to the trailhead, completing the hike after 3.2 miles.