One of the older sections of the Florida Trail near Orlando is also one of its finest. A hike through Seminole State Forest leads you through the kind of vast, open spaces that you’d never imagine, driving along SR 46A or SR 46 or SR 44 around the forest, actually existed on this grand a scale so close to an urban area. Rugged hills, swamp forests dense with leafy cabbage palms, and an abundance of wildlife are all reasons to ramble this section of the Florida Trail, whether for a day hike or an overnight visit to one of the primitive campsites along the way.
Length: 7.8 miles
Lat-Long: 28.889979, -81.461577 to 28.819203, -81.428048
Fees / Permits: $2 entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At both trailheads
Southern trailhead: From Interstate 4 exit 101C at Sanford, take SR 46 west for 5.2 miles. After you cross the Wekiva River, look for the entrance to Seminole State Forest on the right. Continue 0.3 mile along the forest road – stopping at the self-service kiosk to pay the $2 day use fee – to park on the left.
For the northern trailhead, continue west on SR 46 past the forest entrance for 2.2 miles to the traffic light with SR 46A. Drive north 5.6 miles to the traffic light with SR 44. Turn right and drive 5.1 miles east on SR 44 to Brantley Branch Road on the right. Turn right. The Cassia trailhead will be on your right.
Heading southbound from the Cassia trailhead – which has been nicely updated since my last visit with ample parking and a privy – the trail sweeps down a corridor to start beneath live oaks to form a grand entrance to Seminole State Forest. Meandering through pines and oaks, you round a very large sinkhole on the left. Stop at the trail register and sign in so the trail maintainers know you’re enjoying their hard labor. A map of the trail is tacked up next to it.
In the mixed hammock of pines and oaks, the trail drops into a dip and back up. The footpath is soft pine duff, easy on the feet. Many of the oaks are older, with gnarled, twisting limbs. You cross an equestrian trail and rise into a longleaf pine forest, younger pines in the foreground, with yellow buttons and deer’s-tongue adding splashes of color to the green scene. A gopher tortoise works its way through the understory. Reaching the top of a small hill, you head down from the crest and can see a forest road off to the right.
The trail jogs left around a patch of blueberries, a reminder that this is prime bear habitat for the region, with plenty of food to be found. And sure enough, around the next corner is where we spied mama and baby bear. Longleaf pines tower overhead. A large, well-established sinkhole is on the left. The trail curves around it. As you wander downhill, you can see the landscape drop off to the right as well. By a half mile, the trail is headed down a corridor of saw palmetto, emerging into an open area where sandhill cranes sometimes gather near the shores of a very large wet prairie. The walk along the prairie, which has arms stretching for quite some distance into the surrounding woods, goes on for a good quarter mile. The trail is at the low end of a former pasture that is now thick with dogfennel.
Leaving the pasture/prairie area, the trail heads across large white patches of sand indicating the scrub that was displaced by the creation of pastureland. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of scrub to be seen up ahead. Look for a blaze on a fencepost. You walk between two fenceposts to enter a sand pine scrub forest. At 1 mile, the trail crosses a sand road. The sand pine scrub is very pretty here, young fluffy sand pines ideal for scrub-jay habitat.
An opening on the left provides a sweeping view of Boggy Creek Lake. There’s a bench here to sit and enjoy the view, and it’s dedicated to a dear departed trail maintainer, Chuck Russakov. I had the honor of hiking with him several times the spring before he moved on to different trails. Savor the view. A kid’s camp is on the far side of the lake. Leaving the view, you head down a long corridor of saw palmetto and scrub and out to a forest road. Turn left and follow the forest road. Blue-banded equestrian trails head into the woods on the right. A large, open palmetto prairie sweeps off to the left. Passing a post with old double-blazes, you find the next blaze at the kiosk off to the right at 1.6 miles. It marks the intersection of numerous trails and forest roads.
Turn right to walk down this forest road. Be sure you see a confirmation orange blaze ahead, it should be past the sign for Palatka Road. The road drops down into a lush hardwood hammock, lots of cabbage palms in the understory. Canopied, shady, almost jungle-like, the habitat envelops you. Cypresses outline a stream in the distance. Sweetgums litter their colorful leaves across the forest floor. The deeper you get into this habitat, the more the temperature drops. The shiny leaves of needle palms gleam in the mottled sunlight.
As the road crosses culverts, enabling the floodplain to flow naturally down towards Blackwater Creek, the path starts uphill towards a line of pines. At 1.9 miles, the trail turns left onto Pine Road. Straight ahead is a loop trail for equestrians. Now here’s the tricky part, and where we got lost briefly – when you turn left on Pine Road, immediately look for the footpath to your left leading off the road and down through the tall underbrush down the hill.You don’t see a confirmation blaze until you step past the first saw palmetto and down. The trail is deep in pine duff and clings to a hill along the upper edge of the floodplain forest, winding its way down and around clumps of saw palmetto at a bit of a sharp angle. Be cautious of roots underfoot. The trail climbs a steep rise into an oak hammock; to the left you can see a lazy waterway at the base of the hill.
Descending steeply again, the trail winds its way through the forest. The oaks are full of bromeliads, these air plants nourished by the perpetual humidity of the floodplain forest below. Reaching a T intersection at 2.4 miles, turn left to follow a side trail down to Shark Tooth Spring. If you’re backpacking, this is a great water source, but even if you’re not, it’s worth the short detour. The trail narrows and narrows until you expect a troll to pop out and demand a password for passage. Crossing a bridge, you reach the spring. Pouring out of a hole in the side of the hill, the spring run winds its way beneath the palms. Stick your hand in the clear water and stir up the sand. You’ll find small black fossilized shark’s teeth that the spring perpetually spits out of the earth.
Return along the same path, passing the incoming trail on the right to continue on the main trail south, which passes right through the large, grassy campsite not far from the spring. The campsite has a fire ring and a large picnic table. Pass through a set of posts and emerge at a T intersection with a forest road. Blue blazes to the right mark the Sulphur Island Loop, a Trailwalker Trail within Seminole State Forest.
The orange blazes lead you left down the road. You must be extraordinarily attentive to the trail leaving the road, as it does immediately off to the right at a blaze post with a white tip. Look for a confirmation blaze on a pine. It parallels the road, but in the comfort of the sand pine scrub. Crossing a firebreak, the trail continues through a transition from young pine scrub suitable for scrub-jays to a much older pine scrub with a very dense understory full of deer moss and blazing star. Across the road the trail heads, down a corridor of saw palmetto and pines, and makes a sharp right at a distinct T intersection with no blazed trail, soon passing a very large slash pine with a blaze on it.
You’re walking down an old tramway built by loggers to remove the prize giants of the forest a century ago or more, the straightaway slightly elevated, suitable for trail, and flanked closely by mounds of saw palmetto. The tramway eventually yields to a very tight tunnel of saw palmetto to push though. Cross a trail with the forest road off to your right. Still narrow, the tramway is now surrounded by pines and oaks. At the next forest road crossing, at 3.1 miles, a grassy forest road goes off to the left to a large open area that may be used as a hunt camp during general gun season.
Passing a dry prairie pond on the right, you continue down the tramway. As you get into deeper shade, more floodplain forest crowds in from the left. There are deep ditches on both sides of the tramway. The corridor is edged with scrubby oaks briefly before you reach an intersection of roads: a graded road and a sand road at a kiosk. Off to the right there’s a horse trough which, in a pinch, could act as a water source. The orange blazes lead you towards Sand Road, to the left. Follow this road down to Blackwater Creek. At 3.5 miles, you reach the picnic benches that overlook a lazy bend on this picturesque waterway, which is as broad as most Florida Rivers. It flows out of Lake Norris through Seminole State Forest to reach the Wekiwa River, and is quite the adventuresome paddling trip.
Follow Sand Road to its broad bridge over Blackwater Creek and cross the creek, enjoying the views. Continue down the forest road, watching carefully for the blazes ahead. On the right is a marsh resplendent in tall grasses, wax myrtle, Virginia willow, and red maple. The creek’s floodplain is to your left. At 3.7 miles, you pass a blue-blazed trail to the left that heads down a tramway to access a primitive campsite along a small bluff above the creek. Crossing a culvert, you’re about to leave the road for footpath again. Look for a blaze post on the left followed by a double blaze post, following the footpath into the scrubby flatwoods beyond an FNST sign.
By 4.2 miles, the trail narrows down from a broad swath to a rough mowed path, and you cross a small bridge over an ephemeral wetland in the scrubby flatwoods, which have little shade. In fact, shade will be infrequent for the remainder of your hike. Off to the left, the landscape rolls on to the distant horizon, the perfect height – at least the day we hiked it – to look out across the saw palmetto prairie. And what a sight.
The trail turns to the left to enter the expanse of prairie. At 4.5 miles, you cross Main Grade Road to immerse in this spectacular landscape. Grasses wave in the breeze. While the trail is a straightaway for some time, it jogs around a wet prairie briefly, crossing a few bog bridges at the outflow. The grasslands just go on and on, and all you can do is marvel at their vastness in this setting. It’s trails, trails everywhere at the next junction, a bit confusing, but keep watching for the next orange blaze at a soft right as the landscape transitions into scrubbiness.
It’s here that the Florida scrub-jay reigns. More than 100 birds have been counted in Seminole State Forest, and this next stretch of trail is the mostly likely place you’ll see them. The landscape around you is still open and expansive, the footpath becoming soft sand underfoot from ancient seas, harder to walk on. Scrub oaks rise in the understory. Emerging from a patch of diminutive oaks at 5.1 miles, the trail winds its way through saw palmetto and gallberry towards a line of young longleaf pines. Reaching an old jeep track, turn right and follow the trail along it. It crosses a broad sand road and continues winding through scrubby flatwoods with a low understory of saw palmetto. By 5.5 miles in the scrubby flatwoods corridor, it must get damp and stay damp here occasionally, since miniscule sundew plants rise from the footpath in patches of red.
In this part of the palmetto prairie, the predominant pine is longleaf, too scattered to provide shade. As the elevation shifts upward in the next quarter mile, the footpath becomes sand underfoot and enters a patch of sand pine scrub, low and lush. Finally, by 6 miles, you draw within sight of a treeline. Crossing another sand road, continue through the scrub forest and its soft sand, a slightly rolling landscape of ancient dunes. Charred taller oaks, and the broken remains of oaks fried by a previous forest fire, rise from the greenery. At 6.5 miles, the trail enters a long corridor of fluffy young sand pines. Beyond a sign about this forest’s role as scrub-jay habitat, the pines continue to be a perfect size for the jays to roost in.
Jogging to the right, the trail enters another corridor of pines as it crosses what appears to be the remains of an old road. You reach a trail junction with the Wekiva Springs Loop, another Trailwalker Trail, at 6.7 miles. There is a register box here to sign in. Turn right at the register, and left at the T intersection. Immediately up ahead is the old Boy Scout Shelter, a large three-sided shelter which has recently been refurbished with new flooring, sleeping platforms, and a new roof. It’s one of only a half-dozen shelters along the Florida Trail and most certainly the oldest.
Continue past the shelter through the clearing – which has room for plenty of tents in addition to a picnic table and fire ring – and down a broad grassy corridor edged by saw palmetto and tall pines. Jogging right off the grassy trail, the footpath becomes a narrow track through scrubby flatwoods. The corridor narrows more tightly as you enter the first shady forest you’ve encountered in nearly 4 miles of hiking. Drop down into this hardwood hammock, crossing a bridge at 7.1 miles. There’s a big post here that says “0.5 miles to entrance,” in case you were getting worried.
Coming back out of the hardwood hammock and into oak scrub again, you continue to head west, curving to the right, away from the oak scrub and beneath tall pines. Now that you’re almost done with the hike, you pass an old hand-lettered sign with mileages to various points behind you, and emerge at the Bear Pond trailhead, the southern terminus of the hike.