Arriving at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive on a winter Sunday, we found it busy with birds and nearly bumper-to-bumper with birders and sightseers.
By that measure alone, the Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area is a success story.
We grew up seeing the lake through its ugly phases -- the die-off of fish, birds, and even alligators due to the chemicals seeping into it -- so to see this turnaround in our lifetimes is heartening.
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Location: Lake Apopka
Trailhead: 28.669070, -81.563106
Address: 2850 Lust Rd, Apopka FL 32703
Restrooms: portable toilets along Wildlife Drive, restrooms at certain trailheads
Land manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. The above address is for Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, which is only open Fri-Sun and on federal holidays.
Bicycles welcome. Leashed dogs welcome, but be aware there are many alligators here. Equestrian access is limited to certain posted areas, of which the Clay Island Loop is the most popular.
The Lake Apopka Loop Trail and all trailheads are open daily sunrise to sunset unless posted.
The primary access to Lake Apopka North Shore is just south of Apopka off SR 437. From the junction of Toll 429 with US 441, follow SR 437 south to Lust Rd. A small sign points west to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive entrance.
There are five other access points around this conservation area, scattered across two counties. All of these are open daily. Please consult the map above for directions.
Once rimmed with natural marshes on its north shore, the state’s fourth largest lake was partially drained by an 1880s canal and 1940s muck farming.
Over a century, Lake Apopka became a cesspool due to poor farming practices and wastewater dumping. By the 1980s, the once-clear waters couldn’t support aquatic life.
Farms flushed pesticides and fertilizers directly into the lake. Cities dumped their sewage in the lake. Citrus processing plants dumped their wastewater.
There are still many farms north of Lake Apopka -- it is a very productive area for vegetables and blueberries -- but now there is a natural buffer of wetlands to filter the waters again.
The St. Johns Water Management District has been working on this effort since 1987.
Formerly known as the Lake Apopka Restoration Area, these restored wetlands now provide recreational opportunities across two counties.
Birding at Lake Apopka North Shore
The reason why Lake Apopka North Shore, and the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive in particular, gets so busy in winter is for the birds.
Binoculars help, but just on a slow drive through this conservation area, you will see more migratory birds and wading birds than you can possibly count.
The speed limit along Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is 10 mph. In places it is very narrow and we did not appreciate people coming to a stop in those spots. Pulloffs are provided sporadically.
Where pulloffs and parking areas exist, it’s worth getting out of your car to walk closer to the wetland pools and look out over them. Side levees are open for walking and cycling, and often offer better views.
Most of the open water wetlands pools lie between the entrance gate and the Historic Pump House, along the first quarter of Wildlife Drive.
The Historic Pump House is a must-stop. It’s where Wildlife Drive and the Lake Apopka Loop Trail meet. A shaded observation deck lets you look out on the lake itself.
Once inside the interior of the marsh maze on Wildlife Drive, viewing is more limited to the sides of the canals. The levees are wider, so there are spots where you can park and step out for a better view.
Jones Avenue STA
After exiting the Wildlife Drive gate, park on the left to walk into the Jones Avenue STA. A prominent osprey nest sits above a series of wetland pools.
North Shore Trailhead
For warblers and songbirds, head for the North Shore trailhead and tackle the hiking loop that lies just north of McDonald Canal.
To the west of the parking area is a small waterfront park, McDonald Canal Boat Ramp Park. Wading birds lurk along the edges of the canal, as do alligators.
The Clay Island trailhead provides access to more large wetland cells where birds like glossy ibis and tricolor heron browse in the shallows.
Although it is mainly a cycling and equestrian area, we found it one of the more productive spots for bird photography while on foot.
Biking at Lake Apopka North Shore
Cyclists are welcome to ride Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive when it is open. Car traffic moves slowly. However, the primary way to explore Lake Apopka North Shore is by bike.
Stretching more than 17 miles across two counties, the Lake Apopka Loop Trail is open daily, unlike Wildlife Drive.
Because of its length and location, it is extremely remote. Nearly the entire route, which is primarily packed limestone, is in full sun. It is open sunrise to sunset.
The eastern terminus is Magnolia Park in Apopka. The western terminus is the Green Mountain trailhead north of Ferndale. Both have restrooms and water.
There are intermediate trailheads at Clay Island and North Shore trailhead. Within a half mile of the North Shore trailhead, McDonald Canal Boat Ramp Park has a water fountain and vault toilet. Clay Island has no facilities.
A handful of shelters are provided to give you a place to take a break out of the sun. The shelter adjoining the Historic Pump House offers not just a break but nearby access to a portable toilet.
Expect windy conditions along segments of the trail, particularly where it is right atop the levee adjacent to Lake Apopka. A mile of the levee trail is shared with drivers on Wildlife Drive on weekends.
Hiking at Lake Apopka North Shore
Hikers share access to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, but the distance is more suited to trail runners than hikers.
When Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is open, it’s worth parking at the Historic Pump House and walking east to make a counterclockwise loop using the lakeshore to Conrad Rd to Lust Rd, about a 3.5-mile walk.
We also saw people parking at the corner of McDonald Canal Rd and Lake Level Canal Rd to walk the Lake Level Levee out to the Limpkin Point kiosk on Lake Apopka, a 2-mile round-trip.
Any gated road off Wildlife Drive that isn’t posted is fair game for hiking. Be sure to park well off Wildlife Drive and to exit before sunset. Consult the map for potential routes.
Jones Avenue STA
At the exit of Wildlife Drive onto Jones Avenue, the Jones Avenue Stormwater Treatment Area provides a place for birding along an open pond and a man-made wetland.
Park in the small lot just outside the Wildlife Drive gate. The levees and the 0.8-mile nature trail can be accessed any day because of its location. The grass may be tall if not mowed recently.
North Shore Trailhead
From the North Shore trailhead, which is open daily, the Duda Connector leads out to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. It’s one mile to the Duda Kiosk to join the main route.
Or follow the entrance road across the McDonald Canal to access a 2.6-mile loop trail in an upland area that is deeply shaded by ancient live oaks.
Clay Island Trailhead
At Clay Island trailhead, the white-blazed 7.2 mile Clay Island Loop is popular with equestrians, but you can hike it along the levees and canals as well. It offers three different observation towers.
Since there are many crossover levees, it is possible to make a shorter loop. Some of these are even blazed. But like Jones Avenue, if they haven’t been mowed, you end up wading through deep grass.
Green Mountain Trailhead
Anchoring the western end of Lake Apopka North Shore, the Green Mountain trailhead is quite the surprise and delight for hikers. First, they score with a water-bottle filling station and restrooms.
When you’re on the Apopka side of the lake, you notice what looks like a ridge along the far shore. At Green Mountain, one of the high points in the Florida Peninsula, you find out what that means.
An amazing view for Central Florida. And switchbacks! Not one, not two, but a whole hillside of long, languid switchbacks optimized for bike travel but a delight for hikers as well.
The highlight here is the Green Mountain Tower and its overlook across the Lake Apopka floodplain, with the lake sparkling in the far distance.
The Green Mountain connector stretches 1.7 miles down the bluffs and across the floodplain to meet the Clay Island Loop, or a 3.4-mile round-trip. With switchbacks!
Camping at Lake Apopka North Shore
While there is no camping along Lake Apopka itself, the eastern terminus of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail is anchored by Magnolia Park in Apopka.
This Orange County park features a campground set in the deep shade of an oak hammock within walking distance of the lake, with 18 campsites available for tents and campers. There is also a group campsite.
Parks & Trails
More information on the parks and trails within Lake Apopka North Shore
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
Discover the wild heart of Central Florida on a ride along the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, an arc spanning two counties along the lake’s north shore
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
With both wetlands and open water that attract birds, Jones Avenue Stormwater Park filters runoff from the neighboring community while providing wildlife habitat
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
See our overview video of Lake Apopka North Shore
See selected photos from Lake Apopka North Shore on Smugmug
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Protecting more than 128 acres along Lake Apopka, Oakland Nature Preserve offers an accessible boardwalk through marshes to the lake and uplands trails to explore
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
Tubing down Rock Springs Run is why most folks show up at Kelly Park, but the Kelly Loop Trail is a nice dry way to see the waterway and wildlife.