One of the few places where you can take in a panorama of vast Lake Jesup, the East Tract of Lake Jesup Conservation Area in Oviedo offers a 2.1-mile hike out to an observation tower that lets you enjoy the view. Traversing old fields – grown up into oak hammocks – and a dense forest of cabbage palms, it reveals how agricultural lands in rural Black Hammock are slowly turning back to woodlands.
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 28.716862, -81.18747
Fees / Permits: Free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Insects depend on season and wetness. Trail is shared with off-road cyclists and equestrians. Lake Jesup Conservation Area – East Tract website
From SR 417 exit 44, follow SR 434 towards Oviedo. After 1 mile, turn left at the Black Hammock sign on the curve onto DeLeon Street. Continue down DeLeon Street to where it ends at a T. Turn right onto Howard Street. Follow it for 1.2 miles to Elm Street. Turn left. Continue another 1.2 miles to the trailhead entrance on the right.
At the gap in the fence around the trailhead, walk towards the trail kiosk set under the oaks across a small stretch of pasture. As an old part of the Black Hammock agricultural area, this land was farmland – with ranching and vegetable farming – prior to becoming a preserve. You’ll see evidence of that in several places along the trail. The footpath enters the cool shade of the first oak hammock, paralleling Elm Street for a short distance. Making a sharp right, the trail continues towards taller oaks draped in Spanish moss and rounds a curve to the left. Large goldfoot ferns sprout from the bootjacks of a cabbage palm.
As the trail passes by a thick stand of American beautyberry and emerges into an open area, you cross a small footbridge across an ephemeral creek. Palms line this grassy corridor. The trail slips through the next oak hammock and, in another open spot, crosses the next bridge. Dog fennel grows tall along this section. In these former fields, you’ll see invasive plant species, including camphor tree, casearweed, and wild petunia, which the land manager will eventually remove. The trail turns right to meander through the next oak hammock, emerging at the remains of an old campsite. It drops through a small dip and arrives at a T intersection. Turn right. Walking beneath the shade of the old oaks, you’ll hear songbirds flitting between the trees. At a half mile, you arrive at a T intersection with the loop portion of the trail. Here’s your decision point. If you know the St. Johns River is flooded, turn right for a dry walk out and back to the observation tower. Otherwise, turn left to start a clockwise walk around the loop.
Forming a boundary between a restored slash pine forest in an old pasture and a dense hammock of cedars, live oaks, and cabbage palms, the trail follows an old forest road with scattered pine duff underfoot. Vegetation leans in from both sides, creating a tunnel of shade. Winged sumac adds a splash of bright red to the landscape in the fall. Marsh ferns cluster under the cabbage palms. There is a slight downhill trend to the trail, which follows a forest road. Passing a hydrologic data collection site in an open area framed by cabbage palms, you reach a faint fork in the trail. Keep left. Goldenrod grows in the open spaces between the palms.
The buzz of airboats is nearby, some undoubtedbly launched from the Black Hammock Fish Camp just up the road, as the trail drops down into the lush lakeside hammock of tall cabbage palms and ancient live oaks. The constant humidity in this location helps bromeliads to thrive. They dangle everywhere, perched on tree limbs, clinging to leaves, hanging from grapevines, even caught in streamers of Spanish moss. Tossed from the forest canopy during high winds, many thickly carpet the forest floor. The deeper you descend into the forest, the grander it becomes. A slight aroma of orange blossoms wafts on the breeze from citrus trees growing beneath the canopy of live oaks.
Peering out from beneath the draperies of moss, you can see a patch of sky in the distance — Lake Jesup is near. The trail continues descending through the forest towards the lakeshore. You can smell the water before you can see it. Look off to the left and you’ll see a ribbon of marshes beyond the understory of the forest. The trail reaches a natural drainage that feeds into Lake Jesup, with a slender footbridge to cross. The slight elevation of the bridge provides a nice view of the marshes through this gap. Curving left, the trail continues towards the lake.
After 1 mile, you reach the big observation tower overlooking the lake. It’s a sturdy wooden structure, tucked into the oak and palm hammock, and is adjoined by a hitching post for equestrians who ride out here. Clamber up the staircase for the panorama from the top. The tower faces north, towards Davis Point, up the narrower portion of the lake that connects to the main flow of the St. Johns River. Marshes dotted with cabbage palms line the far shores and rim the islands in the lake. White ibis and cattle egrets wing across the water in large flocks. Fishing boats bob in the shallows. If it’s a clear day, you may be able to see the control tower at the Sanford International Airport at the horizon line to the northwest.
Leaving the tower, turn left and look for the white diamond markers on the cabbage palm trunks. These mark the return route through the palm hammock. Ditched and diked for agriculture more than a century ago, this part of the trail remains high and dry most of the year, unlike most of the palm hammocks along the St. Johns River. After a short stretch of finding your way between the palms, the trail widens and becomes obvious. More citrus trees grow throughout the forest. To the right, the understory beneath the well-spaced palms is very open, making it easy to spot the white flags of white-tailed deer browsing through the woods. Mounds of sword fern grow thickly across the forest floor on the left.
The footpath undulates, the legacy of agriculture along the lake, old plowlines grown over, making for rugged terrain beneath the cabbage palms, hickory, and sweetgum. Carolina jessamine climbs up tree trunks. You pass several fallen oaks, their trunks covered in mosses and ferns, the intricate intertwining of weathered roots interlaced with the green ribbons of sword ferns. Cabbage palms crowd in very closely, creating a tunnel of fronds overhead. Shoelace fern cascades down the trunks of the palms, while goldfoot fern sprouts near their fronds. As the canopy opens up again, look overhead and you see many bromeliads, including cardinal wild pine with its long, red blooms. The trail continues to undulate through bowls edged with sword ferns. As you get farther from the lake, the oaks and hickories grow much taller.
After 1.4 miles you cross a causeway over a culvert for a deep ditch filled with prehistoric-looking giant leather ferns. The trail turns right to parallel the ditch on a berm, the dark water within covered with a smattering of water spangles, floating ferns that glisten in the sun. Turning a corner to the right, the trail completes the loop after 1.6 miles. Turn left. Keep alert as you pop out of the tunnel of oaks for a double diamond marker on a post. Turn left. The trail immediately drops through a swale and passes back through the old campsite. Watch for the white diamonds along the well-trodden footpath to find your way back as the trail slips back and forth between oak hammocks and open spaces, crossing two footbridges on the way back to the trailhead.
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