While most visitors come to Kelly Park for the swimming and tubing – Rock Springs Run is the southernmost tubing run in Florida, and one of the most beautiful natural water parks in the state – Kelly Park offers some great hiking, too. Complementing the Kelly Park Loop found in the main portion of the park, the newer Western Addition – located across the street behind the fire station – encompasses 110 acres of uplands, mostly oak scrub, hardwood hammocks, sandhill, and open scrub areas. Preserved in 2002, this new addition is strictly for hikers, with a primitive campsite available along the 2-plus mile loop trail system. Add this hike to the Kelly Park Loop for more than 4 miles of hiking at Orange County’s most popular park.
Length: 1.7 miles
Lat-Long: 28.757771, -81.503683
Fees / Permits: $3 per carload for 1 or 2 passengers, $5 for 3-8 passengers
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: none in the western tract; flush toilets at swimming area
Open 8-8 summer, 8-6 winter (daylight savings time). The campground is an excellent family getaway, especially when paired with the outdoor recreation opportunities of the park – swimming, tubing, kayaking, and hiking. Dogs are not permitted. $18 for county residents, $23 for out-of-county residents. Registration is required for use of the primitive campsite. Their brochure says $15 for primitive camping.
Kelly Park is managed by Orange County Parks & Recreation
From Interstate 4 in Altamonte Springs, follow SR 436 (Semoran Blvd) to Apopka, where it joins into US 441. Turn north (right) onto Rock Springs Road (CR 435). Drive 5.8 miles to Kelly Park Road. You’ll see a tubing rental place on the corner. Turn right. Follow the road around less than a half mile to the park entrance on the right. Pay your entrance fee at the ranger station. Turn left right after the ranger station into the parking area for the environmental center. The hike starts here. Alternatively – if you won’t be using the park’s facilities on your visit – you can inquire about parking at the Kelly Park Fire Station, since the trailhead is behind the station. No parking is permitted along the road.
Start your hike by walking past the ranger station and down the median of the park road. At the first green post along the bark chip path – which here, is the Kelly Park Loop – turn left and make a beeline for the front gate. Walk across the street to the Kelly Park Fire Department and around the right side of the building. Head for the fenceline on the right, and you reach the official entrance to this tract – the only gap in the fence providing access to the hiking in this part of the park. Signs for both loops are here. The Oakhill Trail is blazed blue, and the Prairie Lake Trail in red. This route combines the best of the two loops (staying away from the fencelines and in the more interesting interior) for a 1.7 mile hike.
Start down the forest road, which leads you into the loop trail system using both red and blue blazes. The trail is shaded by oaks with longleaf pine towering overhead. This is a transitional zone between scrub and sandhill, where you’ll see cabbage palms – their roots reaching for the water table, which is very near the surface throughout this karst area – and sand pine in the same stretch of forest. As you amble down the trail through the scrub, notice a colorful patch of lopsided indiangrass – its blooming long tufts reminiscent of a war bonnet – just past an interpretive sign for fox squirrels, which thrive in this uplands habitat. Wiregrass fills the spaces on the forest floor between young Chapman and myrtle oaks.
After 0.3 mile, you come to a fork where the outer loop begins. The Oakhill Trail goes off to the left. Stay to the right to follow the red blazes of the Prairie Lake Trail. Pass a bench and an interpretive marker about live oaks as the trail swings to the right and heads downhill through the sandhills. The next fork is the bottom of the Prairie Lake Loop. Keep right to start the loop, heading downhill. Notice the galls in the trees? All of the pines seem to have been invaded by some insect, creating irritants that make the galls. You pass by a little depression marsh on the right. The trail curves away from it, passing a bench flanked by saw palmettos and around a deep, well-established sinkhole with a lot of vegetation inside of it, perhaps obscuring the mouth of a cave. As you continue along, notice more galls in the forest amid these second or third-growth laurel oaks. A pile of benches that never quite made it to the trail lay in the woods off to the left.
Off to the right, there’s a junction leading to the Oakhill Trail, which joins the Prairie Lake Trail at this point. Since the Oakhill Trail sticks to the perimeter of the fenceline, stay left and follow the blue blazes. The trail emerges from the woods and skirts an open prairie – perhaps there was a lake or pond here once, but none is obvious today – with low bush blueberry edging the footpath and tufts of chalky bluestem grass waving in the breeze. This prairie is rimmed by scrub forest, and you pass another bench which overlooks this open area – an excellent place to watch for deer or turkey – before the trail sweeps back into the shade afforded by the oak scrub. Laden with Spanish moss, the oaks form a tightly-knit low canopy.
Emerging into the sandhills, the trail continues through young turkey oaks re-establishing themselves. You’ll see sandhill wildflowers here in fall, including a nice stand of blazing star. At the triple junction of trails, you’re at the top of the loop of the two intertwined trails. The Oakhill Trail continues to the north. Turn left to stay on the Prairie Lake Trail. As the trail loses a little elevation, the habitat quickly transitions from open sandhill to a denser sandhill into hardwood forest with ferns and grapevines in the understory. An arm of the prairie reaches into the woods, with the potential of a depression marsh. The trail is slightly elevated as if it were on a causeway. Cabbage palms grow along the prairie rim, another odd combination of habitats, and it made me wonder if there was a lake here once, at least until the explosion of housing developments between here and Apopka drew down the water table.
The trail turns left to meander along the prairie’s edge, past a sweep of grasslands that would attract deer. Young persimmon trees attempt to establish themselves in this open area. You walk past a small bayhead – and here I’m scratching my head. The surrounding ecosystems are high and dry, and yet there’s loblolly bay clustering in a small depression, and Virginia willow sprouting in the open prairie. A weird mosaic of habitats. Perhaps the lake is underground, nourishing these habitats that need water? It’s truly a puzzle.
Passing a “Dead Tree” sign, the trail continues around this prairie (a ghost lake?) reaching another trail junction. The red arrows point right, pointing you away from the prairie and into the oak scrub. At 1 mile, another connector trail comes in from the left – also blazed red – leading to Prairie Lake Camp, an open spot for primitive camping. Take a peek down it to see the open area in the prairie. Returning up the spur, turn left on the main trail. A patch of lopsided indiangrass catches the afternoon sun as you get to the next bench. The footpath returns to the sandhill habitat, with tall slash pines and oaks shading the trail, winged sumac flashing its fall foliage.
When you reach the next trail junction, you’ve completed the big loop. Continue ahead on the broad path through the sandhills and scrub back to the gap in the fence. After 1.5 miles, you emerge behind the fire station and walk around it to the left. Cross the road and walk back in the park gate to rejoin the Kelly Park Loop on the median. Continue up the median to the ranger station and cut over to the parking area by the interpretive center. You’ve walked 1.7 miles.