In the suburbs of Orlando, the Econ River Wilderness is in one of those places where you’d never suspect wilderness still existed, 240 acres tucked one road back from strip malls and squeezed between subdivisions on the county line. And for some years, it was drowned by intentional runoff from a newly-constructed housing development onto public land. But the Econ Wilderness persists, for it is a natural drainage area, drawing moisture downwards through pine flatwoods towards the Econlockhatchee River.
The trail system enables you to experience all of the habitats leading down to the river. The footpaths are well-maintained and provide a pleasant hike, with great views across the prairies and pine flatwoods, and quiet spots to sit and watch the river burble by.
Length: 3.2 miles of trail in a loop and two spurs, with a 0.8 mile access loop
Lat-Long: 28.613780, -81.174113
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
The River Swamp Loop may be flooded during the wet season.
From the intersection of SR 434 (Alafaya Trail) and SR 50 near the University of Central Florida, drive east on SR 434 and turn right on E. McCulloch Rd. Drive 2 miles and turn left on Old Lockwood Rd. The trailhead is on the right. Address: 3795 Old Lockwood Rd, Oviedo FL 32765
Start your hike by signing in at the trailhead kiosk. We then walked directly away from the kiosk and back towards the parking area, looking for where the trail emerged out of the open scrubby flatwoods. This is a place to enjoy fall wildflowers, which are coming out now – blazing star, indian paintbrush, sabatia, and goldenaster, along with very showy lopsided indiangrass, a tall grass that looks like a bird’s feather. Turn left at the T.
This was an oak hammock on my first visit, but in the intervening years, Seminole County did some careful and serious habitat restoration to bring back the pine forest. Walking beneath longleaf pines, you transition into oak scrub, where a gopher tortoise (or at least its scat) might be visible along the trail.
Passing a broad forest road on the left, the trail transitions into a denser understory, the tradeoff of broad views for shade. Reaching the top trail junction at 0.4 mile (where a left would take you back to the trailhead), continue straight.
Scrub transitions into bayhead swamp, a quick switch from dry to wet. At the four-way junction, you can go straight ahead if you want gooey wet feet (or if it’s been dry for a while), but it’s best to take a right, climbing up onto a bridge over the drainage area and onto a boardwalk through the bayhead swamp. Goldenrod and star-rush peep out of the understory beneath dahoon holly in berry. As you exit the boardwalk back to the main trail, turn right to continue. Soon after, you come to a wide junction, and the trail markers bid you turn right – both red and yellow hiker markers lead you forward.
The trail is nicely carpeted with a fine green grass as you walk between the pines. Pine lilies might surprise you with a flash of red, and the fall-turning leaves of the winged sumac mirror their color above. As the low spot, the trail can get mushy here after a rain. More lopsided indiangrass grows along the edges of the trail as you start a very gradual descent. Passing an unmarked trail, you reach the top of the Flatwoods Loop. Keep to the right. Ignore the side trails here and there and stick with the main path (unless you bring a GPS with you and want to explore). The understory beneath the pines is very dense with saw palmetto and gallberry, the classic Central Florida prairie feel. Blue-eyed grass grows in the low spots, as does pennyroyal, which has aromatic leaves.
Passing an unmarked trail to the left (which leads to the other side of the loop), the trail continues into pine woods popping in purple. Keep on straight ahead, and you’ll pass an enormous gopher tortoise burrow. You are in the “urban / wildland interface,” with a large subdivision off to the right of this forest, so great care is taken to maintain this habitat without annoying the neighbors with smoke and fire. Now you can see the houses. The fence up ahead marks the county line between Seminole and Orange Counties. Coming to a T intersection at the fence, turn left. You’ve walked a mile.
Pulling away from the fence, the trail makes a left back into the pine woods, continuing on a steady, slow downhill to the river. Continuing past another side trail to the left, keep going straight. A whiff of wild vanilla fills the air as you descend past more loblolly bay trees, lots of roots underfoot as the trail closes in on the river. Sweetgum and red maple show off fall color. Watch your footing – hogs root up the understory in this section. Cabbage palms are a sure sign you’re closing in on water, as is the cooler air – natural air conditioning – and the increase in mosquitoes in the air. Shoelace fern hangs in bright ribbons from the cabbage palm trunks.
The trail opens up to a view of the river at 1.2 miles. Now it’s not much of a river – it’s a floodplain river, fed by rainfall – but the landscape is deeply scoured and curved by water, and in the basin, ancient cypresses. They are not very tall, but their bases are unusually broad and bulbous, perhaps stunted by the bedrock beneath the river bottom. A bench provides a perch for you to sit and savor this beauty spot until the mosquitoes chase you off.
On the return trip, you’ll follow the other side of the two loops. Walk uphill through the cabbage palm hammock, noticing the ball moss and bromeliads in the trees. Take the right fork at the loop, walking through a river hammock with wax myrtle beneath the cabbage palms. Popping out of a thicket of saw palmetto, you have a nice view of the river again from atop a bluff. The habitat transitions to scrub as the trail passes a side trail to the left – which connects to the other side of the loop. Keep heading straight ahead, as there is one more beauty spot up ahead with a bench perched above the river and a heavily eroded slope below.
The forest is alive with the sound of creatures stirring as dusk gathers in the evening sky. The uphill is noticeable, the trail as broad as a forest road as you pass a bat house. Sand live oaks grow in shortened clusters as though topped off by heavy winds. Pass a trail that leads off to the right – it’s a side excursion for a future date. Turn left and uphill into a high, dry oak hammock with taller oak trees laden with Spanish moss, their limbs arching over the trail. As the elevation increases, you return to scrubby flatwoods with lots of blueberry bushes.
At the next trail junction, red markers go to the left and yellow markers to the right. Finishing this loop at 2 miles, continue to the right for the final ascent up through the pine flatwoods. The trail meanders uphill slowly between the saw palmetto, and you can see a strip of bayhead swamp well off to your right, more drainage into the river valley. A small patch of oak hammock provides shade as you rise up through the scrub oaks. Swinging to the left, the trail is now rimmed with wildflowers. It parallels Old Lockwood Road back to the parking area, where you reach the kiosk, completing a 2.7 mile hike.