Exploring the Lake Wales Ridge
The peninsula of Florida is young, geologically speaking, built on sands of ancient oceans. But before a peninsula formed, a string of islands marked what is now the peninsula’s highest ridge. The Lake Wales Ridge is a backbone down Central and into South Florida, running nearly 150 miles from Clermont to south of Lake Placid.
Atop these former islands, the oldest land in the Florida peninsula, are some of North America’s most diverse and unusual biological communities. Most notable are the scrubs, a desert-like habitat with the highest concentration of rare and endangered plants in the continental United States. Their shining white quartz sands host diminutive species dating back to the Miocene Era.
Sadly, these soft white sands were quickly sought out for agriculture, since citrus grows well along the ridge. At the north end of the ridge, a sea of housing developments uprooted the citrus groves.
However, starting in the 1920s with Edward Bok’s Mountain Lake Sanctuary – now Bok Tower Gardens – protecting a peninsular high point of Iron Mountain (295 feet), efforts have been made to protect portions of the ridge with public lands and private foundations.
US 27 roughly follows the top of the ridge between Clermont and down towards Lake Okeechobee. A more enjoyable drive is to catch Scenic 17 from Haines City south to Sebring. It parallels US 27, but showcases the region better, with more scenic views and hills as well as access to trailheads.
In our opinion, these destinations offer excellent immersion in Lake Wales Ridge habitats and should not be missed. Put them at the top of your list for a visit to the Florida peninsula.
In addition, Lake Wales Ridge State Forest offers many trails through ridge habitats. It’s been more than 15 years since we’ve hiked here, so we will be revisiting this outstanding landscape in the future.
Decades ago, the Florida Trail Association built significant loop trails in the forest, with the Lake Arbuckle Loop offering a weekend backpacking trip. Download a map (PDF).
We launched a new full-color edition of 50 Hikes in Central Florida at the National Trails Festival in Deland the first weekend of October. Take a peek inside.