In a park that stretches across 5,000 acres, this short hike shows you a tiny corner of the mosaic of habitats that make up the Green Swamp.
Colt Creek State Park has longer trails, but this interpretive nature trail introduces the basics of the Green Swamp as it weaves along the ecotone between floodplain and uplands.
Although it officially is only a quarter mile long, that measurement is simply the length of the footpath in the woods.
To get there, you’ll need to walk from the Mac Lake Day Use parking area along the lake to the entrance of the trail, and then back along the lake to form a 0.9 mile loop.
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Length: 0.9 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.2961, -82.0413
Address: 16000 SR 471, Lakeland
Fees: $4 per vehicle
Restroom: At the pavilion at the day use area
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome.
Insect repellent is wise protection against ticks and mosquitoes along the trail.
The portion of this trail that is between the two Nature Trail signs is not open to cyclists or equestrians.
Follow US 98 north from Interstate 4 at Lakeland to reach SR 471. Turn right. Continue north to the park entrance on the right. Follow the park road to the Mac Lake Day Use Area.
Your walk starts next to the big pavilion, where the restrooms are for the day use area, adjoining the fishing pier and rental kayaks and canoes.
It’s worth taking a walk out on the pier just for the views. Osprey commonly hover over Mac Lake. It’s deep, since it was formerly a limestone quarry.
From the pier, a paved path continues along the lake for a bit before turning to a hardpacked surface.
Watch for the sign on the left at the break in the trees, indicating the start of the Mac Lake Nature Trail.
Under the shade of tall oaks, the trail slips into a dense thicket of saw palmetto. Cabbage palms rise along the edges.
The temperature change should be obvious once you step into the forest. While the berm surrounding Mac Lake heats up, the forest itself is much cooler.
It’s not just cooler, but damper. Look up along the trunks of the trees to see bromeliads with their whiskery growth, and vines climbing into the palms.
As the trail goes deeper into the forest, the oaks become taller and the understory of palms is more dense. Grapevines drape across cinnamon ferns.
The natural footpath winds past the usual array of Florida State Park interpretive signs, including one warning about ticks in the woods.
Where sweetgum joins the forest canopy, the trail has drawn close to a minor floodplain along a creek. These trees change color in fall.
The trail enters a palm hammock, where cabbage palms blot out the sky with their large fronds. The trees look like columns along the edges of the trail.
Slender waving fingers of fronds are from bluestem palms in the understory. A bench sits between two trees.
Peek through the understory and you’ll see sloppy puddles where the floodplain is creeping into the palm hammock whenever the water rises.
As the trail approaches a very large live oak, it gains a little elevation and the understory becomes drier.
Walk past another live oak with a gaping hole and burl near its base. Sunlight streams in beyond, letting you know where Mac Lake is.
As the trail rises away from the palms into the oaks and hickories, listen. There might be an armadillo shuffling through the underbrush.
Passing a few slender pines, the trail emerges at the berm of Mac Lake at 0.4 mile. Here, the lakeside trail is unpaved.
If you look to the left, the unpaved trail leads along the lake to a distant junction with the Flatwoods Trail, a 10-mile loop around the park.
Turn right to head back to the day use area, passing picnic pavilions tucked into the forest along the way.
There is also a warning sign about bears. When you get back to the screened pavilion and fishing pier, you’ve completed a 0.9 mile loop.
Learn more about Colt Creek State Park
Colt Creek State Park
Camping beneath the twinkling stars at Colt Creek State Park, enjoy a getaway from the busy bustle of the Interstate 4 corridor between Lakeland and Tampa
See our photos of Colt Creek State Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Upper Hillsborough River Hiking Trail
Following the north side of a blackwater river toward its headwaters, the Upper Hillsborough River Hiking Trail meanders though pine flatwoods, shady hammocks, and forested wetlands.
Gator Creek Reserve
A dip into a corner of the Green Swamp, Gator Creek Preserve north of Lakeland offers 2.5 miles of easy loop trails for the whole family to explore
Hillsborough River State Park
Water in motion: the Hillsborough rapids foam and froth over limestone boulders beneath grand cypress trees in Class II rapids. One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Hillsborough River State Park showcases this masterpiece of nature from an overlook and trail system built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Withlacoochee River Park
With two different trails – gentle and wild – showing off the park’s natural features, Withlacoochee River Park is a popular overnight camping destination.