CLOSED DANGEROUS flooding from Hurricane Ian as of Oct 1.
As the Florida Trail follows the curve of the basin in which Mills Creek drains from Lake Mills into a bowl of marshlands to the east of Chuluota, it leads you through a colorful array of habitats.
There are oak hammocks where ancient oaks seem to bend under the weight of streamers of Spanish moss, bayhead swamps with ferns growing in massive tufts, diminutive desert-like scrub where prickly pear cactus and tarflower thrives, and lush hardwoods providing deep shade.
Although this segment of the Florida Trail is only a little more than 2 miles long, it’s a tricky one to negotiate, and is so packed with diversity you’ll find yourself spending hours engaged with its beauty.
Length: 2 miles
Lat-Long: 28.652761, -81.096781 to 28.627279, -81.092414
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate to mean
A designated campsite plus a picnic area with benches makes this an especially pleasant hike for those who can use a break now and again, and a place to take kids on a short backpacking trip. Why the high difficulty rating? Long stretches of slippery boardwalks take time and concentration to cross, and parts of the trail are prone to flooding.
The hike described is a linear walk between two cars. If you prefer, you can start at the north end and yo-yo back to your car from the end for a 4-mile hike. There is also an intermediate trailhead with trailhead parking, connected to the trail via a 0.4 mile blue blaze. You can use that to hike out to both ends and back for an alternative day hike. However, the blue blaze is mostly in the open on rough old pasture ground, which is why we chose to approach the trail from the ends of the segment.
We hiked this segment north to south, leaving a car first at the south end. It’s also possible to hike to both ends from an official trailhead in the middle, adding about a mile of walking through an open field to your hike.
South end: Starting from downtown Oviedo (accessible from Orlando via the 417), head east on CR 419 for 6.2 miles, passing through Chuluota. Turn left into Lake Mills Rd and drive 1.8 miles. As the road curves left, make a right on Curryville Rd. Continue 0.7 mile to the first left, Whispering Forest Trail. This single track is signposted as a private road. Drive 0.2 mile to where the trail emerges from the woods and back your car in to park on Florida Trail property on the left. Do not block the road. There is only room for one car.
North end: Follow Curryville Rd back to Lake Mills Road. Turn right. Continue 1.2 miles, passing the official trailhead for this Florida Trail section on the right. The road becomes Brumley Rd. Follow it another 0.4 mile, around the curve under the oaks, and park on the left at the trail crossing, off the road.
Starting at Brumley Road, follow the Florida Trail south—away from the pasture and into the woods on the other side of the road. It leads you through a pass-thru in the fence, narrow enough to keep ATVs out, and heads downhill through sandhill habitat with a mix of sand pines and slash pines. Passing a gopher tortoise burrow surrounded by tufts of wiregrass, you’re obviously headed downhill fast, not a common occurrence on Florida’s trails. At the bottom of the hill, your surroundings abruptly shift to a hardwood hammock. The trail comes to a T with a broader path. Turn right and follow the orange blazes. A wall of saw palmetto rises on both sides. You’re in a tunnel in deep shade beneath arching oak branches laden with resurrection fern. Look for colorful fungi peeping from the leaf litter.
The trail curves left under a stand of showy live oaks into a corridor with loblolly bay, indicating you’re drawing close to the bayhead swamp. It feels like the trail continues to lose elevation as you pass more mounds of grapevine edged with bracken fern. Past a stump, there’s a little bit of a rise into the sandhills again as habitats collide along the ecotone. The drop to the swamp on the left becomes more obvious. This section of the trail is wide, smaller than a road.
By a quarter mile, with grapevines dangling down, you reach a fork. Keep right. A confirmation blaze is off in the distance. More tall live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, provide shade and a virtual hanging gardens of ferns, bromeliads, and orchids, a beauty spot along the walk. The trail makes a sharp left off the wide path and becomes a narrow path winding through saw palmetto and ferns, with rugged footing due to the “gatorback” trunks of the saw palmetto and many roots in the footpath. Jogging around a significant-sized oak tree, you’re still losing elevation as you walk. Soon after, the first boardwalk begins.
These are not your average boardwalks. Built by F-Troop, the Florida Trail Association volunteer trail crew, they are nicely elevated over the rough, mushy terrain of the bayhead swamp but require a good sense of balance and attention to footing, as the boardwalk is made of two sturdy but narrow planks spaced with a gap between. Consider it a two-footed balance beam. And it is slippery. Traverse carefully, using your hiking stick, so you don’t slide off into the swamp. By no means a straight line, the boardwalk zigs around stands of loblolly bay and zags around big sprays of ferns reaching shoulder height. Songbirds sing from the dark depths of the bayhead. It is always dark, cool, and a bit buggy, but still a magical place to immerse yourself in, a natural fernery of timeless beauty.
As this part of boardwalk ends, you drop into a little island of pines, following the trail down its narrow snaking path to the next segment of the boardwalk. This portion of it immerses you in the deep shade of loblolly bay trees, the canopy not far overhead. As on the other section, the boardwalk is slick from humidity and moss. We found amusement in a double blaze along the boardwalk, since you can’t (or shouldn’t) leave it and slosh through the trackless swamp. Pools of standing water, even in times of drought, collect here and nourish aquatic plants. This is not a speedy walk along the boardwalk, but it’s certainly worth the effort to experience the swamp.
After a half mile, the boardwalk ends at a stand of very old and tall pines with open sky above as you emerge from the heart of the bayhead and follow a corridor flanked with cabbage palms, coming to a T intersection. An indistinct trail goes left. Turn right and head down a narrow corridor, a long straightaway passes through a broad, open area where the blazes point you in the right direction. The open spot would make a decent dry campsite in a pinch, but there is a designated campsite a mile ahead.
Swamp azalea flourishes in a spot along this section on the right, blooming in summer and attracting a steady parade of butterflies. As you ascend a hill through a forest with an open understory, you can see pasture off to the right at the top of the hill, a reminder that you’re not as far deep in the woods as you thought you might be. Passing an old barbed wire fence, the trail jogs to the left before emerging into the grassy pasture. Wild persimmon is gaining a foothold here. Rather than ascend the top of the knoll, the trail keeps to the left, with passionfruit vines along its edge. Arriving at a picnic table at 0.7 mile – a table dedicated to the hard work of FTA volunteers Lou & Rachael Augspurg – stop a moment and watch for deer coming over the rise.
Beyond the picnic table, the trail continues into a second or third growth hardwood forest with a lot of laurel oak and grapevines. There are numerous cabbage palms, many with shoelace fern dangling from their bootstraps, and the hill drops sharply off to the left. The trail works its way gently along the rim above the drop into the swamps below. Jog to the left past a large oak, and the trail keeps working its way steadily downhill. Pass unmarked side trails to the right, perhaps created by deer—we saw several, as well as a flock of turkeys along the edge of the pasture and fenceline to your left. At 1 mile, pass through a gateway created out of a bit of fence, and the trail continues along the low side of this grassy space. I think the gateway was created for a ribbon-cutting when this section of trail opened.
Crossing a narrow sand road, you come up to the intersection with the blue-blazed side trail at 1.2 miles. That trail leads to the official trailhead for this segment, which is a half-mile away through old open pasture with rough footing. Joan recommended the route we took as a better alternative. Beyond the blue blaze, the trail continues down an old road with some fenceline evident on both sides, opening up a little as the trail comes up to a bayhead. A sharp right at the fenceline leads past tarflower and pond pine in a little stretch of scrubby flatwoods on the rim of the bayhead. The trail turns to enter the bayhead, where the trail can be flooded at times. A small plank bridge crosses the outflow; beyond it, the footpath is full of ankle-turning roots.
A sharp left, and the trail continues past bits of trees, falling and rotted logs, past saw palmetto and water oaks. Jogging around a rootball, past a stand of saw palmetto lifted on long trunks, the trail enters a younger forest where you can look off to the right and see pasture in the distance. The understory is open, so watch for blazing. Kicking through big southern magnolia leaves, the trail jogs to the left through laurel oak forest, coming up to the Wiley Dykes Sr., campsite at 1.4 miles. A short blue blaze leads you to the site, which has benches and a fire ring. A decade and more ago, I was honored to work with Wiley several times on trail crews—he is a long time legend in trail building around Orlando, now retired from the task.
As you come back from the campsite off the blue blaze, turn right. The trail quickly works its way to the floodplain of Mills Creek, which flows out of Lake Mills and creates a large basin swamp downhill from this section of trail. You’ll know you’re in the floodplain – which can flood – when cypress knees start poking out of the footpath. It’s a beautiful place, filled with ferns and tall cypresses. The creek serves as a water source for backpackers at the campsite. Beware of the poison ivy that grows thickly here, and watch your footing—the slippery bridge has leveled a few hikers, the addition of hardware cloth making it safer but none the less worthy of respect for a small bridge.
Leaving the floodplain, the trail climbs up and up, beneath massive southern magnolia and hickory trees. Rusty lyonia and shiny lyonia intrudes into the hardwood forest as you ascend into scrubby flatwoods. There’s enough elevation here that you might catch a breeze, followed by some sun—reaching sandhills with wiregrass and longleaf pines, some in the grass stage, where they look like green wiregrass. You can smell the change in the air as the trail gains more elevation and enters a scrub, Florida’s desert. Tufts of deer moss appear across the blinding white sand. Diminutive oaks and fluffy sand pines offer no shade. A microburst hit the area, snapping a lot of older pines off, but they aren’t blocking the trail—just creating uncomfortable widowmakers. Watch your step.
As the trail exits the scrub, it continues along a curving slope thick with ferns and into a corridor of adolescent sand pines and scrub, where tarflower are in bloom. While it looks like the trail might go straight ahead, it makes a sharp turn to the left, narrows down, and continues through sand pine forest. Dense stands of deer’s-tongue, or wild vanilla, will be blooming in the fall. Leaving the scrub and entering an oak hammock, you walk past an old counter for determining how many people walked past this point.
You pop out of the forest at 2 miles, a fence line corner with Whispering Pines Trail. Do not approach the fence—it is an electrified horse pasture. Your hike ends here. However, the Florida Trail turns right and continues as a roadwalk from here up Whispering Pines Trail to Curryville Road. From there, it turns left and follows the road several miles to enter the woods again in Chuluota Wilderness.