It’s an unexpected island of nature, this quiet preserve at the end of the road not far from the waves of suburban sprawl pushing south between Lakeland and Bartow.
One of the earliest acquisitions for Polk County’s Environmental Lands Program, Lakeland Highlands Scrub protects 551 acres of untouched habitats atop the Lakeland Ridge.
The Lakeland Ridge covers roughly 300 square miles along the west side of Polk County, forming a natural watershed divide between the Hillsborough and Alafia Rivers and the Peace River, which all start in the Green Swamp north of Lakeland.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2.8 miles in three loops
Trailhead: 27.936233, -81.923800
Restroom: Portable toilet at trailhead
Land manager: Polk County Environmental Lands
Leashed dogs welcome. Open: 6 AM-6:30 PM standard time, 5:30 AM-8 PM daylight savings time.
To ride the trails, equestrians must obtain a permit in advance. Picnic benches are in place at the trailhead.
From Polk Pkwy (SR 570) Exit 9, take Lakeland Highlands Blvd (CR 37B) south. Reach CR 540 at 1.8 miles, and continue south another mile, crossing CR 540A. Alternatively, take US 98 south from Lakeland or north from Bartow to Crews Lake Road, and head west. After crossing Crews Lake Road, Lakeland Highlands Blvd nears its end. Keep going to where the road ends at the trailhead, which is not very welcoming. Trapped between a wall hiding residences and a fence keeping people out of a deep phosphate pit, it belies the beauty of the preserve, which you enter through a stile at the very end of the road.
There are three named loop trails in the preserve: the Scrub Flatwoods Trail (2.4 miles), the Shady Oak Trail (0.7 mile) and the Lichen Loop Trail (0.3 mile). Hiking the perimeter of these trails nets you a 2.8 mile loop.
Signage is very good throughout the preserve, but there are no blazes: you must rely on signposts and arrow markers that may or may not be obvious in certain places. When in doubt of your route, scout for a marker or backtrack.
Most visitors head straight down the shared portion of the Scrub Flatwoods and Shady Oak Trail to the preserve’s most popular destination: the Flatwoods Pond Boardwalk.
Stretching at least a tenth of a mile across wetlands and pond, it offers a great perspective for birding and a covered observation deck for sitting and observing the wildlife that come to this rare water source in the ancient scrub forest.
A round-trip to the boardwalk from the trailhead is a mile.
If you’re new to the preserve, we highly recommend taking the Shady Oak Trail and Lichen Loop, with a side trip over to the boardwalk. This is the easier of the two hikes.
The Scrub Flatwoods Trail gets you deep into the ancient sands, but that means walking through deep soft sugar sand, too. You can also use an old railroad grade to mix up the route; it passes right by the boardwalk and is mowed to keep it open.
Follow the perimeter route clockwise. Walk up from the parking area to the preserve fence and through the pass-thru stile. Pass the sign for the Scrub Flatwoods Trail and stop at the kiosk to pick up a map brochure.
Enter the forest at the Shady Oak Trail sign, which, true to its name, winds through an oak hammock in deep shade. This habitat was once sandhills, as you can tell by the scattered pines and the clearings with tufts of wiregrass and prickly pear cactus.
After a quarter mile, turn left at the Lichen Loop Trail. It crosses the old railroad grade and you can see the perimeter fence with a phosphate mine down it to the left. Straight ahead, it tunnels into an oak hammock, passing by open clearings where lichens thrive.
Popping out from under the sand live oaks, the trail shows you a panoramic sweep of sky over a dense understory of saw palmetto and other scrub plants like shiny lyonia. Be careful of the twists and turns in this section.
Zigzagging left around saw palmettos, the trail crosses the railroad grade again where it is bright white sand. It reaches the junction with the Shady Oak Trail at a half mile. Turn left.
Emerging into an opening, you can see the railroad grade again to the left. Turn that way and join it to the right, walking up to the beginning of the boardwalk.
After you’ve crossed the boardwalk, you join the Scrub Flatwoods Trail for the longer, tougher loop. You’ll figure that out as the footpath abruptly switches from dirt to soft sand.
You may even break through a “crust” on the top of it, but mostly, the path is as obvious as if you were walking on a beach. By 1.2 miles, walking amid patches of scrub mint, come to a bench.
Beyond it are many thick beds of lichens through the next section, some of which are only found on ancient sands like these.
The trail enters an island of pines in the scrub, making for easier walking for a short while. Once it re-enters the scrub, keep alert for Florida scrub-jays among the diminutive oaks.
By 1.7 miles, the landscape opens up into a prairie, where there is a bench in the shade of an oak. You’re out of the toughest part of the sand, as grasses begin to take back the footpath.
Cross the old railroad line again at 2 miles. It is grassy at this end. The trail draws close to the perimeter fence of the preserve and turns to parallel the railroad line. There are low spots that may hold water after a rain.
After it passes a fenceline corner, the trail curves into a prairie where the footpath is very soft underfoot, and sometimes gets soggy enough it must be waded.
At the next sign for the Scrub Flatwoods Trail, turn left onto the Shady Oak Trail at 2.6 miles. The oaks are much taller here than at the beginning of its loop, but still provide plenty of shade.
By 2.8 miles, complete the hike by passing through the picnic area to return to the parking area.
See our photos of Lakeland Highlands Scrub
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Paralleling US 98 between Bartow and Lakeland, the Fort Fraser Trail is along an urban greenway with connectivity to Circle B Bar Reserve
With day hiking and cross country trails, Holloway Park & Nature Preserve is a slice of nature inside the city limits of Lakeland, just off the Polk Parkway.
For fabulous birding and more alligators than you can count, roam the marshy edge of Lake Hancock on miles of causeways through Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland