A lesser-known but beautiful loop trail within Seminole State Forest, the Lower Wekiva Loop provides a long day hike or overnight backpacking trip on its 8.8-mile route. Tracing the edge of both the Wekiva River and Blackwater Creek to where the waters merge, this loop never gets within sight of the waterways but lingers in spectacular palm hammocks in the lowlands, showcasing ancient trees and colorful wildflowers like the pine lily. Traversing open scrub, sandhill, and pine savanna habitats, it offers a counterpoint of expansive views against the lush intimacy of the hammocks. Built and maintained by the Florida Trail Association, it’s a fine example of trail craftsmanship.
Length: 8.8 miles
Lat-Long: 28.819203, -81.428048
Fees / Permits: $2 per person fee
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: at Bear Pond trailhead
If you plan to camp at either site along this trail, you must call ahead to Seminole State Forest for a permit, 352-360-6675. Camping isn’t free, however; there is a $10 per night charge in addition to the day use fee. The campsite is dry, so you must haul your water in. Be sure to use a bear bag or bear canister and store your food away from your tent.
From Interstate 4 exit 101C at Sanford, take SR 46 west for 5.2 miles. After you cross the Wekiva River, look for the entrance to Seminole State Forest on the right. Continue 0.3 mile along the forest road – stopping at the self-service kiosk to pay the $2 day use fee – to park on the left.
Your hike starts at the Bear Pond trailhead off SR 46. Follow the Florida Trail north, passing a hand-lettered sign with mileage estimates, to walk beneath tall pines en route to an oak scrub. After half a mile, the trail crosses a bridge in the deep shade of a hardwood hammock before it rises up and broadens to a grassy corridor. Climbing up through scrubby flatwoods, you encounter Shelter Camp with its large three-sided camping shelter and roomy camping area on the edge of an expansive scrub forest. Passing the shelter, turn right to come to the junction of the Florida Trail with the Wekiva Springs Loop at 0.9 mile. The junction is well marked, with a register box along the Florida Trail. This loop is part of the Trailwalker program of Florida State Forests, so be sure to send in a postcard after the hike to accrue your credits with the program.
Turn right and begin following the Wekiva Springs Loop. The trail is marked with white blazes, and starts out in the scrub forest. The low scrub is ideal for Florida scrub-jays, bright blue birds which are only found in Florida and are frequently seen along this section of trail amid the soft, fluffy young sand pines, myrtle oak, and Chapman oak. A denser forest, sloping down to the Wekiva River, is off to the right. As the forest crowds in more closely on both sides and the trees become taller, you can see a bayhead on the right, the loblolly bay trees intruding into the footpath. After 1.4 miles, you pass a firebreak to the left at the edge of the scrub and enter a tunnel under the sand live oaks. Trails created by wildlife are beaten into the woods down to the right, headed towards the river. After you pop out from under the tunnel of oaks, you can see tall cypresses and palms outlining the meandering flow of the Wekiva River in the distance, but you can’t get there from here. The scrub closes in again, with silk bay and sand live oaks crowding close. The footpath gets grassy underfoot, and you see stands of winged sumac and American beautyberry.
Coming up to another firebreak on the left, you find a fork in the trail. While the cypresses along the Wekiva River are quite obvious from here, the trail to the right doesn’t make it down to them—perhaps in the future! Meanwhile, keep left at the fork and follow the white blazes. A pine savanna stretches off to the right, with spindly, bristly pond pines reaching for the broad skies above. There is a definite downhill trend to the trail. Closing in on 2 miles along the edge of the savanna, the trail dives back into a scrub corridor with mottled shade cast by sand live oaks. Emerging again into the sunlight, the trail slips along the vastness of pond pine and saw palmetto stretching off to the left. You hear the loud rattle of a piliated woodpecker in the swamp forest along the river’s edge.
At 2.2 miles, the next trail on the left is where you’ll return later to complete this loop. It connects to the equestrian trail system through this part of the forest. Continue straight. Descending under much taller slash pines – which you can tell from longleaf pines by the smaller size of their pine cones – and loblolly bay, you hear the trweep-trweep of a rufous-sided towhee under the small oaks. The footpath hits a short rolling section – up and down, up and down – where sweetgum shades the trail. The low spots can become damp at times. You pass a sign that says “Closed to Hunting and Trapping,” perhaps due to the proximity of the river and the paddlers on it. Seminole State Forest is otherwise quite open to hunting, with established seasons year-round.
The trail clambers atop an old tramway, elevated above the surrounding understory. Historically, railroad tramways sliced and diced this area along the Wekiva River, enabling loggers to remove the massive pines and cypress found throughout this region. Few remain. Looking off to the left, you see an expanse of pine savanna, with bowls of saw palmetto on both sides. Dropping back off the tramway, it’s a steady descent down through pines and oaks to reach the first dense hardwood hammock along the river basin at 2.4 miles. The cabbage palms that rise overhead are ancient, with clumped rootballs smothered in sphagnum moss reaching up to waist height. Glossy, dark-leaved needle palms are scattered throughout the understory. While it seems like it would flood here, trailmaster Tom Regan, who I hiked this trail with, assured us that you never have to wade through this section, but it does get soggy underfoot sometimes. Amid the tall palms, a bridge crosses an ephemeral stream that flows out to the Wekiva River. After making a sharp right curve beneath curving palms, the trail heads deeper into the hammock before turning away from the river to rise back up on a bed of pine needles into the openness of the pine savanna.
By 3 miles, you’ve entered the scrub, with low trees perfect for scrub-jays and lots of gallberry. An incursion of pine flatwoods merges the habitats. Passing under taller sand pines, the trail heads downhill. A double blaze leads you off to the left, away from the treeline up ahead, and past a backwards fork with a firebreak. The trail heads to the right, towards the treeline again, as the scrub, and especially the gallberry, crowds closer. Tall, spindly slash pines rise to the left, appearing to be South Florida slash pines (also known as Dade County slash pines) from their slender but strong shape. At 3.6 miles, the trail turns away from the open scrub into a palm hammock where you might encounter snakes. The trail jogs left in this corridor between the pines and palms passing a wet prairie on the left, a good place to see pine lilies in the summer. Cabbage palms and live oaks tower overhead, knitting a high canopy as the trail continues its descent, this time towards the floodplain of Blackwater Creek, which flows into the Wekiva River.
Reaching an old forest road at 3.8 miles, the trail turns right. Follow the white blazes. You soon come to a blue-blazed trail off to the left, which leads to Pine Lily Camp. Peek down this trail to see the pretty primitive campsite deep within a palm hammock. With a picnic bench and a fire ring, it’s an appealing, well-shaded nook in the forest, a beauty spot of a campsite. No water is available at this site, but a food storage area is set separately from the tent area, since it’s critical to keep your food away from where you sleep, given many bears that roam this forest.
After leaving Pine Lily Camp, turn left to continue along the trail to a three-board-wide boardwalk paralleling the road. Damp spots on both sides have wild iris sprouting from them, which puts on a beautiful show in the springtime. You pass a trail going off to the right. Keep alert as you walk down this straightaway, since the trail leaves it at a sharp left at 4.4 miles—and an unmarked path keeps going straight ahead. Loblolly pine surrounds you. Blueberries and bear scat edge this narrow corridor, and there are many bromeliads overhead, enjoying the humidity of the high canopy in this hammock near Blackwater Creek. Crossing another bridge over an ephemeral stream, look off to the left and you’ll see large live oaks in this hammock as well. The corridor becomes broad and comfortable enough to walk three abreast, although it is not a forest road. Pine duff makes a thick carpet underfoot, and the shade of the palms, pines, and oaks keeps the walk cool. In the winter, you can look off to the right and see the floodplain forest of Blackwater Creek through the lower canopy.
At 4.8 miles, you transition from the palm hammock into pine flatwoods with a more open understory. A small floodplain swamp sits off in the forest to the left. Saw palmetto rises to shoulder height along this broad trail. A flock of robins works its way through the trees. Leaving the pine flatwoods for the shade of an oak hammock, the trail quickly curves back out into the pines again. This is a good spot to learn the different types of pine trees common to Central Florida, since they are all within this corridor. Slash and longleaf pine look very similar, but slash pines grow more quickly. They have shorter needles and smaller pine cones. The pine cones of longleaf pines are immense. Loblolly pine is tall and has stubby needles that reach upwards towards the sky. The pine cones of the loblolly are small. The next one you’ll see is the pond pine. It isn’t common, but is found along this portion of the St. Johns River and its tributaries. It is the only pine with needles that grow out of the trunk and limbs. A little farther, after you drop into the oak scrub, is the sand pine. These have the shortest needles and are common to scrub habitat. Their cones are small and tightly closed, typically until released by fire. The bark of each pine differs, helping with identification from a distance.
The trail ascends into a mixed pine/palm flatwoods to reach a major trail junction at 5.4 miles. This junction marks the official end of the hiking-only Lower Wekiva Loop. However, you can use the multi-use equestrian trails to make a full loop out of this hike. To the right, the trail goes off to meet the Florida Trail at a northerly spot near the Blackwater Creek bridge. Turn left to start following the equestrian trail to complete the loop. This is a broad forest road with easy walking and scattered shade. Dropping through a dip, the path rises over an ephemeral creek. The canopy closes in, and there are small swales where water flows under the road in culverts.
The path rises into pond pine flatwoods with very little shade. Colorful grasses fill the gaps between saw palmetto in the understory, including lovegrass in a pink hue. At 6 miles, there is a junction with a yellow-tipped post and green markers pointing off to the right. Continue walking straight ahead. At the next fork, keep to the right, following the arrow into an open pine savanna with wiregrass and the skinny slash pines. It’s a long walk across this expanse, with beautiful views the whole way.
Reaching a four-way trail junction at 6.6 miles in a sandy spot, turn left. The pines on your left are oddly curved. Follow this forest road, which has one sign: “No Horses.” As the road curves to the left, look for a marker with a No Horses symbol on the right. It leads to a footpath, partially blocked by deadfall, which connects you right back to the Lower Wekiva Loop. Turn right.
Walking back down the corridor of fluffy sand pines, be alert for Florida scrub-jays. You reach the junction with the Florida Trail and its trail register at 7.9 miles. Turn left. Passing Shelter Camp, continue along the orange-blazed Florida Trail as it follows the broad corridor through the pine flatwoods and narrows down before it crosses the bridge. Continue back to the Bear Pond trailhead, completing your hike after 8.8 miles.