One of the least visited corners of Lake Jesup Conservation Area, the Marl Bed Flats extend from hammocks canopied by ancient live oaks to the very shore of the lake itself.
Because of its remote location in the most rural corner of Sanford and infrequent visitors, it is a wildlife-rich destination and a good spot for birding.
When hiking here, keep alert for creatures large and small, not all of them friendly. Alligators and venomous snakes are often reported here. We encountered a pygmy rattler on our last hike.
Although this is a short hike, the contrast between the oak hammocks and the open prairie along the lakeshore makes it worth the walk. Especially in fall, when swamp sunflowers paint the edge of Lake Jesup in yellow.
Resources for exploring the area around Lake Jesup
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Length: 1 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.741670, -81.245368
Address: 1799 Oak Way, Sanford
Land manager: St. Johns River Water Management District
Open 24 hours. Leashed dogs welcome. The trail is multi-use and can be tricky to follow.
Depending on current leases, there may be free range cattle here.
When the lake floods enough to dunk the trail significantly, the District will post it closed at the trailhead kiosk. You can also check their website for any closures.
WARNING for drivers: Oak Way, the road leading to the trailhead is a narrow, paved one-lane road with extremely deep ditches on both sides. If you meet another driver, someone has to back up. Carefully. There is no room for error on a three-point turn. The parking area is very small and cannot handle a large vehicle or a horse trailer. It used to be larger, but we were informed the size was cut down due to vandalism on the property.
From the intersection of Lake Mary Blvd and US 17/92 in Sanford, drive east past the SR 417 and Ronald Reagan Blvd. Turn right at the next road, S. Sanford Avenue. Make a left on Pine Way. Make the next right on S. Mellonville Ave. You reach a T intersection with Oak Way. Turn left. Pay very careful attention to the pavement as you drive this road as it drops off sharply on both sides of this one-lane road. The road ends at the trailhead.
From the small parking area, walk around the gate and follow the fence on the right to the original entrance at an old gate, low enough to step across. This is the beginning of the Red Trail, a loop out to Lake Jesup and back.
You pass a fenced-off wetland on the right before coming to an intersection with the Yellow Trail, marked with yellow diamonds. It follows the the fence to your right out towards SR 417.
You can add this to your mileage if you want, but we didn’t go that way so we don’t know how long or well-marked it is. Continue straight ahead to stay on the Red Trail.
Flanked by oak hammocks, the trail remains well-shaded. The understory is very thick with saw palmetto and young cabbage palms. At a quarter mile, you pass a swale on the right where water gathers.
The next trail junction is with the other end of the Yellow Trail. Turn left here to stay on the Red Trail.
Following the grassy space between the hammocks, you’re led to one of the most beautiful scenes you’ll find around Lake Jesup as the trail enters the deep shade of a hammock of ancient live oaks.
Spanish moss sways in the breeze and very little light filters through the tight-knit canopy, a playground for songbirds and woodpeckers.
Seeing the light at the end of this tunnel of oaks at a half mile, you emerge along the floodplain of Lake Jesup with a vast panorama spread out in front of you.
During late summer and early fall, swamp sunflowers fill this scene with an incredible brush of yellow. In other seasons, it’ll be green along the lake’s edge, where you may see airboats in the marshes close to this shore.
The trail drops down to an obvious decision point along the lakeshore. Birders, bring your binoculars! You’ll see many wading birds and raptors along this floodplain rim.
The original map – posted on our first visit in 2002 but not on our later visits – shows a trail extending along the lake shore edge to the right. Take that side trek during sunflower season for the best show. It ends at the SR 417 toll road.
We took the left at the decision point, following the lakeshore east back along the Red Trail. We found no markers to guide us, just a hunch and a well-worn path established by local equestrians.
Eventually we found a trail marker embedded in an oak tree, and another clinging to the opposite side of an old fence post.
After 0.8 mile there is a cypress dome off to the left and the trail jogs slightly right to get around a wet area, plunging into dogfennel over our heads.
The path leads into a palm-lined forest corridor. When we hiked it, it had not been maintained in a while, so expect palm fronds in your face and casearweed trying to leave seed pods all over your clothes.
As that gauntlet ends, you’re beneath old oaks again and see a pine tree up ahead, marking the end of the loop.
The entrance gate is slightly to the left. Exit along the fence line back to the parking area.
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 Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
On a mile-long loop in grassy prairies along Lake Jesup, enjoy palm-framed panoramas of the open prairies along the lakeshore
For a quick dip into the beauty of the St. Johns River floodplain, the 1.6 mile Kratzert Trail offers a walk beneath ancient oaks and cabbage palms of enormous size
Just east of Osteen, Hickory Bluff Preserve provides a 1.5-mile loop to a bluff of notable size along a scenic stretch of the St. Johns River