Sometimes, it’s good to be the swamp. This 1.7-mile segment of the Florida Trail in Ridge Manor traces the outline of a series of cypress-lined lakes that survived the ages along the Withlacoochee River floodplain.
Established in 1998 under the Hernando County Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program, which was thankfully reinstated by the county commission soon after our hike, Cypress Lakes Preserve is home to uncommon wildflowers and a large number of enormous cypress trees, including one of the largest by volume that we’ve ever seen. Since it doesn’t have a name, we’re calling it the Keyhole Cypress. You’ll know it when you see it.
Location: Ridge Manor
Length: 1.7 miles
Trailhead: 28.514315, -82.195150
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
There is no real parking area for the preserve, just a small pulloff off Ridge Manor Road at Olancha Rd.
This hike is very easy to reach from Interstate 75 at the SR 50 exit for Brooksville, where there are a large number of services including hotels and restaurants. Drive east along SR 50 for 2.8 miles, passing under the long bridge that carries the Withlacoochee State Trail across all four lanes.
Turn left at the second turnout after the bridge over the Withlacoochee River onto Ridge Manor Rd. The main entrance and pulloff for the preserve is on the left where Olancha Rd comes in from the right. The other entrance to the preserve is off a chunk of old SR 50 at the first left-hand turnout after the bridge, just past the fire station. Roadside parking only.
Starting your hike from the gate along Ridge Manor Rd, follow the orange blazes down a grassy forest road. Right off the bat, the forest doesn’t look very impressive. It’s an oak hammock that’s been burned and otherwise distressed, with a lot of deadfall. But don’t let that dissuade you; this is a very interesting hike. Passing a grassy forest road off to the right, you come up to two trail junctions in quick succession with other tracks.
There is a chunk of chert emerging from the ground at the second one. Stay with the orange blazes. Once the landscape loses a little elevation on the way to the lakes, the forest becomes more beautiful. The trail slips past an ancient oak furry with resurrection fern.
Reaching the cypress-lined rim of the first lake after 0.3 miles, the trail turns to stay just above the edge of the floodplain, treating you to views of the large cypresses from the shade of the oaks. By a half mile, you turn away from the cypresses briefly to head uphill into a sandhill area.
A large patch of sand squares crowds both sides of the footpath. These unusual wildflowers with square sets of blooms are joined by foxglove and roseling in the summer months.
Making a sharp left at a forest road, the trail continues into the shade of large live oaks dense with resurrection fern. You draw close to the cypresses again, with more large trees catching your attention.
One has a double trunk. Another has knees that stand nearly five feet tall. While it’s tempting to leave the cover of the oaks to wander out among them, watch your step for both mudholes and hidden water moccasins.
As you walk along the saw-palmetto lined pathway, keep looking out into the swamp. As the trail draws close to the cypresses again, one immense cypress comes into view. This is the Keyhole Cypress.
You may join us in a double-take as you realize just how big that cypress is. It’s deeper in the swamp than the others, but stands out due to its keyholes. It is double-trunked, and the trunk keeps meeting and separating, leaving large gaps. The base of the cypress spreads out like an oversized hoop skirt. And it is huge.
Leaving this section of the swamp, the trail scoots uphill briefly, passing a perimeter fence before it drops down to the next stretch of cypress. Here, you can see a break through the trees indicating open water beyond them. The ground is firmer underfoot.
The cypresses here are still large and many have double trunks, including one with a bizarre stub of a cypress knee that’s almost like a third trunk that never reached for the sky. You draw closer to the water’s edge along the footpath, providing some nice views.
After a mile, the trail turns to the right and goes uphill into the oaks, reaching a bench just before a sturdy wooden bridge. The bridge, which can be slippery when wet, traverses a drainage area where the cypress swamp drains into a large sinkhole to the right.
Leaving the bridge, the trail goes through two quick junctions with incoming unmarked trails. Stay to the right at each junction, following the orange blazes. Continuing downhill into an open area edged by large oaks, the trail swings through a sharp left and heads back uphill, this time to tunnel through an understory of young oaks beneath the older trees.
By 1.3 miles, the trail descends to the edge of the next cypress swamp, where there is an open flat area facing the swamp. A small herd of deer ran off along the swamp’s edge at our approach, watching us from behind clumps of saw palmetto. Leaving the cypresses, the trail makes its way steadily uphill through the oak forest.
It emerges within sight of a ribbon of cypress trees with many knees below them as it passes another ancient oak before the final uphill climb to the stile and gate marking the edge of the preserve at 1.6 miles. This is your turn-around point if you’re doing an out-and-back hike, a total of 3.2 miles.
If you’re walking between two cars – or working on a section hike of the Florida Trail and continuing north – exit through the stile and walk up the sand road past a firefighter’s residence. You emerge on the pavement of old SR 50, with the fire station within view off to your left, completing a 1.7 mile walk.
Using the Florida Trail and the Blue Loop Trail, hikers can explore a picturesque corner of Withlacoochee State Forest in Ridge Manor along a 3.9-mile loop.