Vast prairies and seepage bogs, a historic crossing of the Econlockhatchee River, and a campsite set under a live oak canopy—it’s all within minutes of the Orlando International Airport. I fell in love with these broad, open prairies on my first visit, and have sent many friends here since. The preserve’s grasslands host a stunning array of wildflowers, with blooms of one sort or another in every season.
Length: 5.1 mile loop (up to 15.3 miles possible)
Trailhead: 28.486333, -81.095833
Fees / Permits: A free permit is required in advance for camping.
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: None at the trailhead, but the campsites both have one
Land Manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Some of the trail crosses drainage areas and may require wading after a heavy rain. The trails are shared with bicycles and equestrians. Leashed dogs welcome.
From the Orlando International Airport, drive east on SR 528 (Beeline aka “Beachline” Expressway). Take exit 24, Dallas Boulevard. Turn left at the end of the ramp, and drive 2.4 miles to the park entrance, on the left.
Starting out at the parking lot kiosk, follow the trail that begins at the hiker symbol. It parallels the immense parking area before heading out into the pine flatwoods. After you pass the parking area, keep alert for a trail junction on the right. Turn right and follow the trail through the pine flatwoods. Tall longleaf pines are sparsely interspersed in an unending sea of saw palmetto and wiregrass, a scene described by one Florida naturalist as the “palmetto prairie.” Watch for wildflowers poking through the prairie grasses.
At 0.6 mile, a ditch on the left drains a small wetland. Look closely along the ditch for the unmistakable form of a hooded pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that is one of Florida’s threatened species. The pitcher plants bloom in spring, with thick, rubbery-looking flowers of red or yellow. After 1.1 miles, the trail drops down to cross a very narrow drainage towards the Econlockhatchee River, where the crossing may get your boots wet. Rising back up into the pine flatwoods, short saw palmetto seems to stretch to infinity off to your left.
The trail reaches a T intersection at 1.9 miles. To the right, a red-blazed trail leads off to the tributary. It’s a 5-mile loop that crosses the creek (no bridge), primarily used by equestrians. To stay on your 5.1-mile loop, turn left at this intersection. The trail eventually meets the treeline, where shade is provided by sweetgum and live oaks. The next trail junction is at 2.7 miles.
Turn right to follow an interesting but short spur down to historic Curry Ford on the Econlockhatchee River. If you’re an Orlando resident, you’re familiar with the name from Curry Ford Road. Sure enough, this spot is where travelers on horseback and stagecoaches crossed the river, near the Curry Plantation, as they traveled between Titusville and Tampa. In 1924, the Cheney Highway opened and all traffic between Orlando and Titusville shifted to Bithlo.
If you cross the bridge, you can link up with another 5 mile loop on the opposite side of the river, complete with its own primitive campsite.
Walk back through the floodplain forest to the the intersection. Continue straight and then turn right at the next marked trail junction. Follow it down to the Group Campsite near the canal. It’s the perfect place to pitch a tent, with a seamless canopy of live oak overhead, a picnic bench and several benches around a fire ring with a grill, and a pitcher pump over by the canal. If you’re not here for an overnight stay, it’s a good picnic or rest stop along the hike.
Return along the same spur trail, admiring the sundews that glisten in the path. When you reach a T with the main loop, turn right to follow the trail back to the parking area, passing a reclaimed phosphate pit that’s been turned into a fishing pond.