As the St. Johns River snakes its way north from the Canaveral Marshes, it passes through a series of vast marshes and lakes well-known to Central Florida residents – Lake Harney, Lake Jesup, and Lake Monroe. What you rarely see, however – unless you’re a boater – are the connections between the lakes and marshes. Located just east of Osteen, Hickory Bluff Preserve showcases habitats above a bluff of notable size on a scenic stretch of the St. Johns River.
Length: 1.5 miles
Lat-Long: 28.832178, -81.118565
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Portable toilet about a half-mile hike from trailhead
The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset. The trails are multi-use, but given the soft sand in the scrub, bicycling is not recommended.
Camping facilities – including a portable toilet, fire ring, benches, and picnic shelter – exist on the bluff for the use of organized groups. Arrange in advance by calling 386-424-6834.
From Sanford, follow SR 46 east to SR 415. Drive north across the St. Johns River into Volusia County. After 5.4 miles, in the town of Osteen, watch for a right turn onto New Smyrna Blvd. Make an immediate left onto Florida Ave/Osteen-Maytown Road. Drive 2.7 miles east to Guise Road, where a preserve sign points you to the right. Continue down this narrow residential road for a little under a mile to the preserve entrance on the right.
The trail system begins at the kiosk, located in the shade down near the exit to the parking area. Two loops make up the trail system. The blue-blazed Blue Trail (aka River Trail), a mile long, goes out to the bluff and back. The Red Trail forms an extension for a longer loop back to the parking area, which this hike follows.
Starting out in pine flatwoods with a dense understory of saw palmetto, the River Trail guides you past slash pines and sand live oaks. The trail is well-engineered and a pleasure to walk along, as the “gatorbacks” – saw palmetto roots – have been removed and mulch covers the sand. Reaching a T intersection, the pleasant surface ends and there is no signage to guide you forward. Turn right and the footpath becomes soft sand underfoot. You’re firmly in scrubby flatwoods, with less shade and lots of gallberry. Young oaks peek out from between the saw palmetto, while gopher apple tempts gopher tortoises.
Passing an interpretive sign about “Florida’s Pines,” which recounts the four major types of pines you can find here – slash, longleaf, sand, and pond – you see the first trail markers along the hike. A trifecta of pines – soft fluffy sand pine, tall longleaf pine, and slash pine – are just beyond the marker, which guides you past an unmarked side trail. The saw palmetto is tinged orange from dehydration.
You reach the top of the Blue Loop after 0.3 mile. Continue straight ahead, passing a primitive bench on the left made of chunks of telephone pole and a warped piece of board. Test those benches before you sit – my friend took a tumble when one came loose! Just beyond the bench is a small depression marsh surrounded by saw palmetto, where bog buttons march right up to the trail. This one little damp spot yield quickly back to scrub, with silk bay appearing along the long corridor of saw palmetto. At the next junction, continue straight ahead into a shady oak hammock. The trail emerges onto an old road. Turn right.
Within a few moments, you draw within sight of the St. Johns River. The path leads down through a campfire circle to a low, gentle slope down to a beach along the river. The far side of the river is lined with cabbage palms, and blissfully undeveloped. Walking back up to the fire ring, hang a left past the portable toilet. Continue through the forest through the covered pavilion and beyond it, where a rough trail leads past a blue trail marker towards benches along the river.
Now this is the surprise and delight of the hike. Hickory Bluff is a bluff! It’s substantially high up enough to provide a gorgeous view, and unlike most bluffs on the St. Johns River, it is not a midden—you’ll find no snail shells here. Take in the view, and exit via the sandy corridor leading away from the river.
Leaving the river, you see numerous trail markers, unlike the tricky navigation to this point. The sand in the footpath is deep and churned up, perhaps by the horses that also use these trails. A second- or third- growth forest surrounds you; the trees seem less than a hundred years old. Given the commanding location on this bluff, I don’t doubt that this was once a homestead. Scattered older live oaks anchor the landscape.
You come to a trail junction at 0.7 mile at a fork in an open spot. Turn left, following the blue marker. A stand of big, beautiful prickly pear cacti show off their blooms, and next to them is the namesake of the park, hickory trees. Behind you is an interpretive sign for a gopher tortoise and, just beyond it, a tortoise burrow with active trails leading out of it. A bench sits in the shade of a moss-laden water oak with a beautiful spray of goldfoot fern emerging from a crook in the trunk. The trail enters a broad tunnel shaded by sand live oaks and rusty lyonia; leaves crunch beneath your feet.
Emerging from the shade, you encounter a bench on the left, but don’t sit here – it’s not well-connected. Back in the scrubby flatwoods, there are high-bush blueberries with purple blooms, and an interpretive sign on animal tracks. Watch these trails carefully for tracks – we spooked a couple of deer off the trail ahead of us at the next four-way junction of trails. This is the decision point for the shorter loop versus the longer loop. Continue straight ahead to start the Red Trail, which creates the longer loop.
Meandering through the dense hardwood forest, the broad path is edged with bracken fern. The Red Trail makes a sharp right to emerge into more open pine flatwoods. Pine cones cover the footpath, and you can see some buildings off to the left. The open spaces between the pines are ideal spots for deer to feed. At 1 mile, you reach a four-way intersection. A house is off to the left, beyond the preserve boundary fence. The red marker points you straight ahead past the bench and into the heart of the pine flatwoods, with a younger, denser forest of longleaf pines off to the right. Patches of bracken fern grow between the saw palmetto.
Bog buttons grow in the footpath as you pass another bench at 1.2 miles. The trail marker here, at the T intersection, guides you to the right into scrubby flatwoods. There are taller pines in the distance, and the air is pine-scented. You reach a treeline offering some shade, reaching the taller pines and their understory of oaks through a shoulder-to-head-high wall of saw palmetto. Wetlands form in open spaces.
When you reach the orange gate, you’ve completed the Red Trail. Walk around it and turn right to head back down to the kiosk where you started, wrapping up this 1.5 mile hike.