Stretching across nearly 27,000 acres in southern Polk County, Lake Wales Ridge State Forest offers an expansive network of hiking trails and backcountry campsites.
Conditions are rugged and either very sandy or very wet. Trails are shared with equestrians in many locations, so soft sand can be a challenge in places.
The delight is in the scrub, atop ancient landscapes where Florida scrub-jays and rare plants thrive.
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Headquarters: 27.761688, -81.48929
Address: 851 CR 630E, Frostproof
Fees: $2 per person day use fee at most access points
Restrooms: Vault toilets at campgrounds
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Leashed dogs welcome. Insect repellent a must. Primitive campsites and campground sites for trailers and tents available. Check hunting season dates before you hike.
While there are many miles of trail to explore, trails are off-limits to cyclists.
Despite being on the highest ridge on the Florida peninsula, flooding can be an issue along trails in this forest because of drainage towards its large lakes, particularly Lake Arbuckle.
Click on specific destinations above for driving directions to trailheads.
About the Forest
Atop the ancient islands of the Lake Wales Ridge, the forest occupies three distinct tracts. The largest and most popular is the Arbuckle Tract, immediately west of Avon Park Air Force Range.
It is most well-known for the Arbuckle Trail, a 17.4 mile backpacking loop built in the 1970s by Florida Trail Association volunteers.
Two day use areas provide destinations: McLean Cabin with its Old Cabin Nature Trail, and Lake Godwin with its picnic area.
Access into the tract is via Lake Arbuckle Rd to Rucks Dairy Rd, with School Bus Rd running through the forest dead-ending for vehicles north of CR 64, the access road to Avon Park Air Force Range.
Unpaved, the dirt roads through Arbuckle can be rough going in places, particularly south of Lake Godwin Rd.
To its north, the Walk-in-the-Water Tract sits southeast of vast Tiger Creek Preserve, privately managed by The Nature Conservancy.
The state forest office is along CR 630, an important connecting road east from Frostproof to SR 60 east of Lake Wales.
Two trailheads for this tract are along CR 630 as well, for the Big Bay Trail and Scrub Jay Loop. Off Walk-in-Water Rd is an equestrian campground with a loop trail that intertwines with Big Bay and Scrub Jay.
North of CR 630 are two more tracts. The Prairie Tract is conservation land off SR 60 with no public access.
With a trailhead along Walk-in-Water Rd near SR 60, the Babson Parcel of the Hesperides Tract has a trailhead with hiker access to camping and picnicking at Dinner Lake.
Looping most of the Arbuckle Tract to the west of Lake Arbuckle, the Arbuckle Trail follows the lakeshore for nearly two miles.
There are five primitive campsites along the 17.4-mile yellow-blazed loop, use of which must be reserved in advance.
Blue blazed connector trails provide bypass routes and cross-connectors so you can tailor the length of your hike.
Using these connectors, you can do a day loop of roughly seven miles out of the Lake Godwin or McLean Cabin day use areas to hike the lakeshore, home to Lakeside Campsite.
An 8.3-mile loop out of Lake Godwin explores the north end of the tract, with access to three campsites and the Reedy Creek campground along the loop.
At the McLean Cabin Day Use Area, the Old Cabin Nature Trail is a 0.9 mile interpretive loop showcasing cutthroat seeps with patches of endangered cutthroat grass around a wet prairie.
The 2.5-mile Scrub Jay Loop winds between prairie ponds and ideal scrub habitat for the endangered Florida scrub-jay.
It interconnects with a larger equestrian trail system, as does the Big Bay Trail, which can be accessed from a separate trailhead to the west for a 1-mile loop or 4.4 mile balloon hike.
Spur trails lead from the Big Bay Loop to the Black Bear and Wood Duck primitive campsites.
In all, you can hike more than 14 miles in this complex, including along the lengthy equestrian loop to the north of these two Trailwalker trails.
A hiking trail leads from a kiosk on Walk-in-the-Water Rd west to circle around Dinner Lake, a rounded sinkhole pond in the scrub.
Anglers with a Florida freshwater fishing license can utilize the dock at Lake Godwin.
There is also a boat ramp at the east end of Lake Arbuckle Rd for boater access for fishing Lake Arbuckle.
Seasonal hunting is permitted on the Arbuckle and the Walk-in-the-Water Tracts in accordance with FWC regulations for fall deer season and spring turkey season.
Please consult the FWC Hunt Dates link below for a map of permitted hunting zones and exact dates of upcoming hunts.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Edward Bok’s “Jungle,” a deeply folded landscape between Tiger Creek and Patrick Creek south of Lake Wales, is protected by The Nature Conservancy as Tiger Creek Preserve.