Despite its name, the Lake Apopka Loop Trail isn’t truly a loop. But it does provide an astounding arc of 17.2 miles each way along the lake’s north shore, or a 34.4-mile round-trip.
Open to cyclists, hikers, and (in some parts) equestrians, this is a very remote trail once you’re on it, a real counterpoint to the growing communities not far from it.
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Location: Lake Apopka North Shore
Length: 18.2 mile network of marked linear trails, 34.4 mile round-trip between termini
Land manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Most of the trail follows levees through marshes along the lakeshore, with few opportunities for shade. Sun protection is a must.
While leashed dogs are permitted, we don’t recommend this trail for your dog’s sake. Surfaces are rough, there is no shade, and alligators are abundant.
The trail and its amenities are managed in partnership between Orange County Parks & Recreation (407-836-6200) and the Lake County Office of Parks & Trails (352-253-4950). The County Line Shelter marks the boundary.
What can you expect on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail? Some of the best panoramas of Lake Apopka that you’ll ever see, and more alligators than you can keep track of.
It spans across the Lake Apopka North Shore, a massive restoration area mitigating the effects of decades of pesticides and fertilizers being dumped into the lake.
Broken up into wetland cells to naturally clean the waters that now filter south from farmlands and subdivisions, it is a massive marsh crosscut by levees.
About 8.5 miles of the trail on the eastern side of the lake are right along the lakeshore, offering amazing views.
A 1.5 mile portion of the trail is shared with drivers on the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. The drive is only open on weekends and holidays, and motorists must observe slow speeds.
Westbound, the route then snakes back to the leading edge of the marshes behind a series of islands as it slips into Lake County.
It’s in these marshes that you can take a side trip up to the North Shore trailhead and the McDonald Canal, or follow a loop around Clay Island, a popular equestrian destination.
Leaving Clay Island, the trail enters a floodplain forest and then starts to climb, a truly surprising development for Florida flatland riders.
A series of long, lazy switchbacks guide you up the bluffs of Green Mountain to the western terminus of the trail, where an observation deck provides a one-of-a-kind perspective on where you’ve been.
Planning Your Trip
There are several things you need to plan ahead for to tackle this trail, no matter whether you are doing a short out-and-back or the entire thing.
If you’re biking, a hybrid or fat tires are a must. While the first mile or so out of Magnolia Park is paved, most of the trail is hard-packed limerock with loose gravel and divots with puddles.
Some official maps of the trail quote the mileage as 18 miles. That is the 17.2 linear miles between Magnolia Park and Green Mountain, plus the one-mile spur to the North Shore Trailhead.
That’s fine for cyclists and trail runners, but out of the reach of most day hikers, and the trail is day use only.
Using the map, you can figure out loops of four and six miles between the Magnolia Park Trailhead and the Historic Pump House. A round-trip to the pump house is 8 miles.
Use Wildlife Drive as a connector back to a levee that leads back towards the Lake Apopka Loop Trail to make a loop.
On the west side, the short version of the Clay Island Loop is 5.7 miles. Start and end that loop from Green Mountain – or take a side trip up to the top of the bluff and back – for a 9.2-mile trip.
Or start from the North Shore Trailhead and just loop Clay Island for a 12.4-mile route.
Or try the longer white blazed 7.2-mile loop at Clay Island to add more miles.
If you plan to follow the white blazes north of the main trail past the Flow-Way Tower, those levees are very grassy. Equestrians prefer that route.
Hikers will appreciate being able to walk up and down and back again on Green Mountain, since the tower has a staircase leading to the switchbacks.
It’s a 3.4 mile round-trip from the trailhead to the Clay Island Loop, with an exciting amount of elevation change.
Wind and Weather
Wind and weather are foremost. Since Lake Apopka is so large, we noted that being on the levees here is very much like being along the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. The wind rarely dies down.
Factor the prevailing winds into your planning when you choose a trailhead. Early in the day is best. Check weather forecasts before you head to the trail.
There is nowhere to go if rain showers or a thunderstorm rolls in, except for two small shelters along the route and picnic pavilions at Magnolia Park, Green Mountain, and McDonald Canal.
There is also no shade along the route at all until you get to Green Mountain. A hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses are essential.
Ironically, given all the surrounding water in the lake and the marshes, drinking water is hard to come by. Bring enough for the ride.
We found a water bottle filling station at Green Mountain Trailhead – which, being uphill, you’ll work to get to – and a water fountain at the Magnolia Park Trailhead.
In between those two termini, only the McDonald Canal Boat Ramp picnic area has a water fountain. It’s 1.3 miles off the main route from the Duda Kiosk, or 2.6 miles each way.
Because Lake Apopka was so heavily polluted for so long, there are prohibitions on fishing along the North Shore, where the heaviest chemicals leached into the lake.
For that reason, bringing a water filter with you isn’t a good idea. Stick with potable sources.
You’ll only find flush toilets at the trail termini – Magnolia Park and Green Mountain. McDonald Canal has a vault toilet.
There are no facilities whatsoever at Clay Island. At the Old Pump House, a portalet is provided immediately west of the pump house, right along the trail.
Insects & Wildlife
Insects, particularly mosquitoes, will swarm you in these marshes at many times of year. The breeze helps keep them off, as does not stopping unless you have to.
Expect to see a lot of wildlife. If alligators are lying on or near the path, keep your distance. FWC recommends a healthy 20 feet between you and the nearest alligator.
The Historic Pump House can only be reached by car when Wildlife Drive is open.
|Magnolia Park||2929 S Binion Rd||Apopka|
|Historic Pump House||2850 Lust Rd||Apopka|
|North Shore||24600 CR 448-A||Mount Dora|
|McDonald Canal||24600 CR 448-A||Mount Dora|
|Clay Island||22526 Carolyn Ln||Astatula|
|Green Mountain||20700 CR 455||Minneola|
|0.0||Magnolia Park Trailhead|
|4.0||Historic Pump House|
|8.7||County Line Shelter|
|10.5||Duda Kiosk (turnoff to North Shore Trailhead)|
|12.8||Clay Island Pump Station Kiosk|
|14.6||Clay Island Trailhead turnoff|
|15.5||Green Mountain turnoff|
|17.2||Green Mountain Trailhead|
On forested bluffs above Lake Apopka, Magnolia Park anchors the eastern terminus of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail near a campground under ancient live oaks
A dedicated driving route through vast wetlands along the Lake Apopka North Shore, Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is one of Florida’s best birding locations
The northernmost access point to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, the North Shore Trailhead sits between uplands and wetlands divided by the McDonald Canal
Providing paddlers and boaters access to the Apopka-Beauclair Canal, the McDonald Canal Boat Ramp is a quiet spot for a picnic lunch and birding stop
Expect plenty of birds in the marshes where farms are being restored to wetlands along a segment of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail with its own series of cross trails
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
On Lake Apopka’s western shore, Ferndale Preserve offers amazing panoramas of Florida’s fourth largest lake, along with serious elevation changes on its four miles of multi-use trails