Featuring one of the prettiest hammocks of ancient live oaks that you’ll find along Lake Jesup, the Marl Bed Flats Tract of Lake Jesup Conservation Area along the lake’s north shore is a delightful place for birding. Expect bald eagles and osprey! The concentration of swamp sunflowers along the lakeshore is especially thick in late summer.
Length: 1 mile
Lat-Long: 28.741670, -81.245368
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
The parking area presently can only handle 2 or 3 small cars – the original large parking area has been gated and locked. The original trail kiosk with map is missing. Keep alert for wildlife and for trail markers, which are infrequent / hidden in places.
** 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.
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 careful attention to the pavement 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 fenceline 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, that goes off along the fenceline to your right. You can add this to your mileage if you want, but we didn’t go that way so we don’t know how 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 from Black Hammock Fish Camp playing in the marshes close to this shore. The trail drops down to an obvious decision point along the lakeshore. The original map – no longer at the trailhead – shows a trail extending along the lake shore edge to the right, and I’d follow that during sunflower season for the best show. It ends at the SR 417 toll road.
We took the left, following the lakeshore back along the Red Trail. Again, no markers here 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 fencepost. Birders, bring your binoculars! You’ll see many wading birds and raptors along this floodplain rim.
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 that are over my head. The equestrian path leads into a palm-lined forest corridor which has 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.