A 300-acre preserve at the outflow of Lake Harney, one of the many Central Florida lakes formed by the St. Johns River as it flows north, Lake Harney Wilderness Area encompasses diverse landscapes. Deer browse in the uplands, where you’ll see eagle’s nests in the tall pines before slipping under ancient live oaks to find the remains of the once-thriving lumber mill town of Osceola. A tall Timucuan midden forms a lookout over the cypress-lined river. In the lowlands, acres of colorful wildflowers frame a picture-perfect panorama of this pristine lake, now visible from an outstanding observation tower. Two loops totaling 2.4 miles provide a gentle walk through this beauty spot.
Length: 2.4 miles
Type: two loops
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Open dawn to dusk. Gate locked at dusk.
From the intersection of SR 46 and SR 415 east of Sanford, drive east on SR 46 towards Geneva for 2.8 miles. Turn left on West Osceola Road. The road becomes Osceola Fish Camp Road after 7.6 miles. The large parking area is on the right after another 0.7 mile. Both trails are accessed through the parking area, which also serves as a trailhead for the Flagler Trail, a cross-county bicycle route that bisects this wilderness area.
From the parking area, walk to the far fenceline corner opposite from where you drove into the trailhead. Passing by a large southern magnolia, it’s here you’ll find a gap through the fence to the Floodplain Trail, blazed with orange discs with silver arrows. As the name suggests, this loop heads into the floodplain of Lake Harney, so if the St. Johns River is in flood stage, it may be impassable. You’ll find out quickly enough. The good news is, you can also now see the floodplain from an immense observation tower along the shoreline, more than three stories tall. To make a beeline to the tower, turn left at the gap and follow the path. To follow the loop out to the lake, go straight ahead from the gap.
The trail ushers you into a shady hammock of oaks, their limbs knit overhead to form an unbroken canopy, with streamers of Spanish moss draped down catching the sun, and a gap up ahead that shows off the lake. The understory is thick with grapevines, but open enough that you can see through it and watch for deer.
The broad trail drops down rapidy to the lake’s edge through a stand of sweetgum trees. Flanked by tall cabbage palms and cypresses off to the left, the trail into the floodplain is a mowed path with wildflowers on either side. As you catch your first glimpse of Lake Harney, it’s a big “wow” moment. Depending on the time of year, the colors of the wildflowers in the foreground may differ. In summer, tall masses of coreopsis, our state flower -- also known as tickseed -- rise between the prairie grasses, painting the landscape in flecks of yellow. During the fall, sea myrtle bursts into fluffy white blooms, attracting colorful butterflies like the tiger swallowtail. The far shoreline is outlined by a ridge of cabbage palms in tight rows, with cypresses rising behind them. Islands topped with cabbage palms lie in the middle of this vast prairie. Depending on the lake level, the ribbon of water may be almost indiscernible in the distance.
The trail makes a sharp left turn to follow the shoreline, paralleling the forest edge, a collection of cabbage palms, cedars, and pond cypress on slightly higher ground. Fleabane cascades in purple blooms. Star rush shows off its white tops. You hear a distant buzz on the lake -- airboats, which can navigate its waters no matter how low they drop. By 0.4 mile, you draw parallel to an island in the distance. Speedboats dash down the channel on the far side, just a white blip against the distant shoreline. Boaters enjoy Lake Harney since it isn’t busy with watercraft, as it’s hidden in a sleepy rural area to the east of the small town of Geneva.
Ibis and cattle egrets wing their way overhead to roost in the cypress as you enjoy the last sweeping view of this wildflower-dotted prairie before the trail makes a sharp left to curve back up to the shoreline. An orange marker on a fencepost confirms your route. The return trip is along a causeway bordered by a small canal. Partially shaded by oaks and cypresses, this long straightaway continues under a powerline and opens up into a grassy spot dense with blackberry bushes. You pass a wetlands pond on the right as the trail returns to the edge of the parking area to complete the loop after 0.8 mile.
Walk across the parking area to the entrance side, where a historic marker provides information about what you’ll see on the second loop, which leads to the ghost town of Osceola, which was built on a prehistoric shell mound complex. The site, strategically important because of its location at the lake’s outflow, was also a Seminole village until the 1840s. Pass the kiosk by the preserve entrance and turn right under the park sign.
Following the Flagler Trail -- a bicycle trail -- to reach the the yellow-blazed River Loop, you’re walking along the route of the Florida East Coast Railroad, circa 1911. One of Henry Flagler’s failed land speculation schemes was a rail spur from the main line along the coast to the Chuluota area south of here. It served the thriving timber-cutting industry, with giant cypresses along the St. Johns River and its tributaries extracted and milled into boards, but no great developments sprung up along the route, which now connects wilderness areas through the county.
Passionflower blooms beneath the pines that shade this section of trail. Walking between two fenced-off pastures with paralleling power lines, you pass the 5 mile marker on the Flagler trail at 1.1 miles. The pasture to the right is signposted not to enter because of an eagles’ nest. Look up into the tall pines and you can spot the immense nest, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the eagles during the spring and summer months as they raise their young. The trail is a broad, long, straight corridor ahead. In this shaded tunnel, you see two turkeys dash across the path. Oaks and pines close in, creating a shady canopy.
Keep alert for the yellow markers of the River Loop at 1.3 miles, and turn right. A tangle of oak limbs swaddled in resurrection fern frames a large pasture where deer may be grazing. The trail makes a sharp left and tunnels into the deep shade of the forest, a pretty footpath with soft pine duff underfoot. At 1.5 miles, the trail pops out under the power line things and the St. Johns River is off to the right. Watermarks on the trees show you how high the river can rise in flood stage. The trail makes a sharp left away from the river to to follow the power line easement. Past a fallen fog swarmed by orange fungi, the next trail marker is near an old fenceline. An osprey glides overhead. Picnic benches sit on the left under a large live oak tree.
As the trail makes a curve, you’re standing atop a large midden that creates a high bluff above the St. Johns River, with great views to your right. Imagine a Seminole village here. Emaltha and his son Coacoochee, respected tribal leaders, established a settlement here known to the U.S. Army as “King Philip’s Old Town,” and used it as a base for raids against military moving into the area. Emaltha, outspoken against the forced removal of the Seminoles from Florida, was captured by U.S. Army forces in late 1837.
Turn right and climb up to the observation deck. It sits atop a tall, ancient shell midden dense with snail shells, and provides a nice view up the river to where it narrows around a bend. This was where the railroad crossed the river, and the crossing for Cook’s Ferry, circa 1850. As you leave this high spot, watch your footing. Straight ahead, the Flagler Trail makes a beeline back to the parking area. Turn right to stay on the yellow-blazed River Loop.
At 1.7 miles, a brown sign marks the location of Osceola, the ghost town along the river. A thriving company town between 1916 and 1940, it centered on the timber mill run by the Osceola Cypress Company, which cut nearly 60,000 board feet of lumber each day. In its time, it was the biggest industrial complex in the county. But as the bald cypress was logged out, there was nothing left to process. Abandoned with the closure of the mill, the site was a fish camp prior to being protected by this preserve.
As you walk along, you’ll skirt around an obvious foundation of an old building. The trail makes a sharp left, heading back into the forest at a bench under the shade of the moss-laden oaks. Walking beneath these ancient trees, look for foundations and other human-created right angles in the forest. Homes for 200 people once lined streets along the path you now walk. The trail makes another left and narrows down, following the straightaway of one of the old roads.
Picnic benches sit in the shade of a large live oak as the trail turns left again to complete the loop at 1.9 miles. Turn right and follow the Flagler Trail back out of the woods into the pastures, taking one last look at the eagles’ nest en route. At the trailhead entrance, turn left to walk to the parking area, completing the hike after 2.4 miles.