Part of the new corridor that the Florida Trail follows in its arc around the east side of the Orlando metro area, Bronson State Forest now includes a segment of the Florida Trail that replaces the old roadwalk down Fort Christmas Road. Spanning from Orlando Wetlands Park to Chuluota Wilderness, the trail hits the full array of habitats along the Econlockhatchee River and its tributaries, including bayhead swamps, pine savannas, sandhills, and scrub. Wildlife sightings are common.
The hike described here is a subset of the full hike possible in Bronson State Forest, which is more than 12 linear miles. In deference to summer heat, this is an excellent sample of diversity and scenic beauty along the trail. Please be aware you can do much, much more hiking in this preserve. Here are additional hikes we’ve done in Bronson State Forest since first posting this one:
Florida Trail, Wheeler Road to Joshua Creek Trailhead (9.4 miles linear)
Florida Trail, Chuluota Wilderness to Joshua Creek Trailhead (4.3 miles linear)
Length: 2.2 miles
Lat-Long: 28.591853, -81.042476
Fees / Permits: $2 per person
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Please check hunting regulations before visiting, as hiking access / camping may be limited during certain hunting seasons. Be sure to wear blaze orange if hiking during hunting season.
From SR 50 in Christmas, turn north on Fort Christmas Road – where the year-round Christmas trees are on the corner – and drive 3.9 miles, passing Fort Christmas Park and, where the road makes a sharp left turn, the entrance to Orlando Wetlands Park. Turn right on Phillips Road. Follow it for 1.5 miles. It seems to dead-end in a confusion of driveways, but look for the one with the “Charles Bronson State Forest” sign. Follow this one-lane track between the fences to the ample trailhead parking area.
Starting at the Phillips Road trailhead for Charles Bronson State Forest – named for our former Agricultural Commissioner – stop to pay your per-person Florida State Forests fee and head on through the gate. A Florida National Scenic Trail sign guides you to the blue-blazed connector trail through a pasture replanted in longleaf pine. Scattered stands of sand live oaks provide pockets of shade, and in the summer humidity, a riot of fungi emerges from the leaf litter under the oaks. You’ll see longleaf pine in all its forms – grass stage, candle stage, and fully sprouted, reaching for the sky – as the sandhill habitat is reclaimed. The trail is plotted to tack from one copse of oaks to the next, keeping this part of the walk well-shaded. Watch your step. This property is still leased to local ranchers for cattle grazing, so there are cow patties plopped strategically in the footpath, as well as scattered bones of cows whose expiration date is past. Gopher tortoises thrive in this habitat, so don’t be surprised to see burrows, tracks, and the occasional lumbering tortoise.
After a quarter mile following the blue blazes, you reach a distinct intersection with the Florida Trail. To the right, the trail heads for Orlando Wetlands Park. Turn left. This exploration will take you towards, but not to, Chuluota Wilderness, leading into some of the lushest landscapes in this state forest. The trail emerges from the sandhills to face a broad panorama of scrubby flatwoods with little shade. Pond pines rise from an impenetrable waist-deep sea of saw palmetto through which the trail cuts a swath. As the footpath loses elevation, you can a ribbon of bayhead swamp on the horizon. The loblolly bay is in bloom, with its slightly sweet scent and white flowers.
Transitioning out of the saw palmetto thicket, past an old fence line on the left, the trail enters more open, overgrown pasture with a profusion of wildflowers for every season—paw-paw, St. Johns wort, and bog buttons. The trail drops down into what feels like a drainage, and then continues through an open space filled with bracken fern and scattered longleaf pine that provides no shade. A telecommunications tower is in the distance straight ahead. Amid the prairie grasses, we found whitetassels (Dalea carnea), a type of prairie clover which we found blooming in the summer heat on this prairie edge. (Thanks to Rick Ehle for the id).
Losing elevation, the trail enters another saw palmetto thicket at 0.7 mile, heading downhill towards the wall of loblolly bay. Entering the cool (and buggy) shade of the Joshua Creek floodplain, the trail works its way towards the water and crosses a long two-board-with-gap boardwalk similar to those found at Mills Creek, and as slippery in some places. As soon as the boardwalk ends, you rise up again through hardwood forest. There are many sweetgums overhead. And spiders. Many spiders. This being the season for golden orb spiderwebs, a stout stick held in front of you is in order. Way above in the trees, bromeliads dangle like hanging chandeliers.
Firmly out of the floodplain and into dry space, you’re surrounded by grapevines. Shading the footpath, ancient oaks are swaddled in resurrection fern and more bromeliads, a beauty spot. The trail rises into an oak hammock with well-established oaks, perhaps a second-growth forest on the ranch but certainly one that’s been here longer than most of us have been alive. At 0.9 mile, you encounter a Florida Trail sign at a junction with an old sand road that serves as an equestrian trail. A freshly-dug gopher tortoise burrow invites inspection.
You can see pine flatwoods off to the right as the trail jogs to the left and enters another copse of sand live oaks. Deer tracks are in evidence. Cabbage palms thrive in this upland between the two creeks that feed the Econlockhatchee River watershed. Nicely routed to keep hikers in the shade, the trail stays under tree cover as it enters the next creek drainage, which is surrounded by a dense hardwood forest, with plants reminiscent of river bluffs, like sparkleberry. Red blanket lichen catches your eye, creating “false blazes” in the distance. It’s easy to follow the footpath, but it gets difficult underfoot as the trail zigzags through dense saw palmetto in the forest understory, with masses of sweetgum balls underfoot.
At 1.1 miles, another boardwalk lifts the trail slightly above the floodplain of Bunscombe Creek, which is not as well-defined as Joshua Creek but spreads out a good bit as a large marshy area. Marsh plants poke right up through the boardwalk, making footing a bit tricky. Once you’ve crossed the boardwalk, the trail reaches a shady hillock just above the floodplain. It would be a nice place to rest if the mosquitoes weren’t so persistent. This was our turn-around point.
On the return trip, take care to cross the boardwalks with caution and a well-placed hiking stick, as they are slick in many places. Unlike cypress-lined Joshua Creek, Bunscombe Creek is more of a floodplain swamp with sweetgum and red maple dominating. As you return to the sand road and Florida Trail sign, note on the overview map that it’s possible to make a loop using the horse trail to your right back to the trailhead. However, the creek crossing and treadway won’t be as well-engineered for hiking as returning back along the Florida Trail. It is an option, and one you can take if you’re using your GPS and a map to get you back there.
This upland area makes for good camping. While a designated campsite is not yet in place along this section of the Florida Trail, there are plans for it at some point, and having it close enough to Joshua Creek as a water source makes good sense—it flows with some visible volume. Crossing back over the Joshua Creek floodplain, you’ll ascend into the prairie, pine flatwoods, and sandhills. Keep alert for the signage marking the blue-blazed side trail back to the Phillips Road trailhead, and take that right. After a final meander through the sandhills, your hike ends after 2.2 miles.