Providing a rare opportunity for a bird’s-eye of Lake Jesup, 25 square miles of open water that is considered part of the St. Johns River system, this hike leads you to the lake’s south edge.
Traversing former vegetable fields and ranchland in Black Hammock that’s been returned to nature, the trail guides you into oak hammocks and a dense forest of cabbage palm along the floodplain of the lake.
The Lake Jesup East Tract is just one corner of the shoreline preserved along one of the region’s largest lakes.
With over 6,200 acres, Lake Jesup Conservation Area is made up of three tracts, all of which offer trails with views of the lake rim.
Resources for exploring the area around Lake Jesup
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Length: 2.1 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.716862, -81.18747
Address: 3205 Elm St, Oviedo
Land manager: St. Johns River Water Management District
Open 24 hours. Leashed dogs welcome.
Trails are multi-use. You may get your feet wet on this hike.
Depending on current leases, there may be free range cattle here.
Insects, especially mosquitoes and ticks, can be an issue with the tall grasses and floodplain areas of Lake Jesup. Use repellent.
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 at the trailhead, walk towards the trail kiosk set under the oaks across a small stretch of pasture.
The footpath enters the cool shade of the first oak hammock, paralleling Elm Street for a short distance. The trail is blazed with white diamonds and a few arrows at key junctions.
Making a sharp right, the trail continues towards taller oaks draped in Spanish moss and rounds a curve. 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.
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. There is a slight downhill trend to the trail.
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 undoubtedly 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.
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. You smell it before you see it.
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, the trail continues towards the lake.
After a 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.
Climb 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 Orlando 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.
The understory beneath the well-spaced palms is very open, making it easy to spot the white-tailed deer browsing through the woods. Mounds of sword fern grow thickly across the forest floor.
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.
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.
The trail undulates 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 clearing that was once a 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 the two footbridges on the way back to the trailhead.
Learn more about Lake Jesup Conservation Area
Protecting large swaths of marshy shoreline, the Lake Jesup Conservation Area filters runoff from surrounding suburbia while providing places to hike along Lake Jesup
See our photos of the Lake Jesup East Tract
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Black Hammock is a bit of Old Florida in Oviedo, with a trail showcasing a delightfully long boardwalk and a loop through scrub habitats above Lake Jesup
Taste a bit of Old Florida at the crazy quilt of outdoors and dining that is Black Hammock Fish Camp along Lake Jesup.
Connected to a vast network of bike paths across Central Florida, this 21 mile corridor between Oviedo and Sanford hosts portions of the Florida National Scenic Trail and the Florida Coast to Coast Trail