Comprised of wet prairies, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and scrub, Buster Island in Lake Kissimmee State Park is indeed an island, surrounded by three lakes and waterways that flow into them. The trail loops through a succession of varied habitats along the Lake Wales Ridge, making this a particularly interesting hike. The beauty of Buster Island, however, lies in its old-growth live oak hammocks, where orchids and ferns peep from the thick branches above. The primitive campsite beneath the oaks is a favorite destination for backpackers in Central Florida.
Location: Lake Wales
Length: 6.9 miles
Lat-Long: 27.943847, -81.354761
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, near trailhead
If you want to backpack in to the campsite, be sure to first register at the ranger station. Nestled under live oaks, the campsite has two picnic tables and several fire rings, but no water. It’s a great place to stop and take a lunch break after 4 miles of hiking.
From the junction of US 27 and SR 60 in Lake Wales, head east on FL 60 for 9.7 miles to Boy Scout Camp Road. Turn left and drive 3.5 miles to Camp Mack Road. Turn right, following this road 5.4 miles to the park entrance on the right. After you enter through the ranger station, the park road twists and winds through the oak hammocks that dominate the North Loop. Continue along the park road past the campground and the turnoff to the Cow Camp, reaching the parking area next to the marina. All trails can be accessed here. Please sign in at the kiosk before you hike. You must let the ranger at the front gate know if you plan to backpack to the campsite.
The loop starts near the 1876 Cow Camp, an interesting feature of this park. It provides a look at life on the Florida range for cow hunters, and is open on weekends. Turning away from the cow camp, follow blue blazes along a jeep road and into the forest. At 0.5 mile, the blue blazes end at the beginning of the white-blazed loop trail. Turn right into the pine flatwoods.
Look out into the open forest and start counting the deer. You’re sure to startle some as you cross their trails. After 2.2 miles of hiking, you see open scrub off to the left. On the right, thickets with loblolly bay and yaupon holly indicate that this area is usually damp. As the trail enters the scrubby flatwoods, it becomes a distinct pine-needle footpath edged by grass.
At 3.5 miles, the trail turns left at a double-blaze and enters the oak hammock. Butterfly orchids dangle overhead, catching your eye in summer with their long, grass-like leaves and tall yellow-green flowers with white lips striped purple. The trail skirts around a large flatwoods pond and meets the sign for the primitive campsite.
You walk beneath a spectacular canopy of live oaks. The prairie becomes more visible, until finally, the trail leaves the shade of the live oaks and heads straight into a patch of scrub, part of the Lake Wales Ridge. Short scrub live oak and myrtle oak trees characterize this scrub habitat, with only scattered lonely slash pines. Florida rosemary grows in small clearings between the saw palmettos. Dark earth gives way to white sand as the elevation increases slightly, bringing you into a sand pine scrub.
After 6.1 miles, the trail enters the vast prairie at the heart of Buster Island. Looking off to the left, you can see the sweep of treeline in the distance, your route through the oak hammock and pine flatwoods. You reach the beginning of the white trail loop at 6.5 miles. Turn right, retracing your steps back to the parking area along the blue-blazed trail.