With over 1,110 acres along the northeast side of the Lake Hancock basin, Marshall Hampton Reserve is a nice complement to Circle B Bar Reserve on the northwest shore.
It’s obvious this was a ranch at one point, given the old roads across it and the wide open former pastureland fronting the western side of the property along Thornhill Road.
But there is plenty of nature to be found in its canopied oak hammocks and along the edges of the marshes around the lake and a 60-acre pond.
Jointly managed by Polk County and Southwest Florida Water Management District, it features extensive multiuse trails.
While it officially opened in 2011, fifty years ago a portion of the property was an Audubon Preserve called Panther Point Wildlife Sanctuary, as illustrated at the trailhead kiosk.
As we had an appointment to keep, we only had time to sample a corner of the preserve on a 2.6-mile loop focused on the Osprey Overlook and Palmetto Loops.
Add in the other two trails that this route connects to, and it’s possible to hike or bike up to 13.1 miles in this preserve.
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Location: Winter Haven
Length: 2.6 mile loop (of 13.1 miles possible)
Trailhead: 28.0082, -81.8212
Address: 3115 Thornhill Rd, Winter Haven
Restroom: A portalet at the trailhead picnic area
Land manager: Polk County
Open dawn to dusk. Leashed pets welcome.
Trails are multi-use. Equestrians must call ahead for a free special use permit to obtain gate access. Cyclists will need a hybrid or mountain bike for these trails.
Keep in mind this is part of the Lake Hancock basin, so alligators are commonly along the shores.
From US 98 south of Lakeland, take SR 540 (Winter Lake Rd) east, passing by the entrance to Circle B Bar Reserve before it comes up on an interchange for the Polk Parkway. Make a right before the interchange to stay on Winter Lake Rd. Turn south on Thornhill Rd, and you’ll see the trailhead on the right.
Starting from the parking area, walk over to the kiosks and through the stile. The trail leads out into an old pasture towards the distant oak hammock.
We found the official trail mileages on the kiosk confusing until we later worked out the map compared to our actual route on GPS.
The Panther Point Trail mile marker 5 should provide a clue. It’s an out-and-back trip to the very south end of the preserve.
Three of the four trails on the map start their mileage clocks at the trailhead, with Panther Point being a countdown.
Reaching the hammock, the trail is immersed in a cooler habitat, with massive live oaks and cabbage palms providing the canopy above.
At a quarter mile, the side trail to the right is the Palmetto Loop. It’s beneath this canopy too, so it was an inviting place to turn and follow its meanders.
Near the north edge of the preserve but within the hammock, the sounds of traffic filtered in off the nearby Polk Parkway. The understory has a lot of hog damage.
The trail turned south again and meandered between the oaks and palms. It reaches the main connector trail again at a half mile. Turn right.
Emerging from the hammock, you can see open space ahead above a rim of vegetation around the pond that is the primary feature of this preserve.
It’s in fact more of a series of wetlands edging deeper water to the northeast.
When you get to the T intersection, the trail system splits. Signage points out your options.
In both directions, the Osprey Overlook Loop follows this berm to make a 1.7 mile loop around the wetlands and the pond.
To the right, the trail leads to the Acorn Hammock Loop, a separate loop trail of 2.5 miles branching off the northeast corner of the Osprey Overlook Loop.
We turned left and followed the Osprey Overlook South, seeing a sliver of water in the distance. Eventually it drew close enough so you could peer through the wetlands.
We quickly reached a trail junction with a linear ranch road that led back towards the trailhead.
That’s another access point for the round-trip Panther Point Trail, for equestrian use. We found the gate locked at the trailhead.
The Osprey Overlook Loop and Panther Point Trail continue around the pond, with the Panther Point Trail parting ways at 1.4 miles along this hike.
We didn’t have the time to follow it on this trip. But we see on the official maps that the trail continues another 4 miles south of this point.
After a quarter mile south through pasture, it becomes a berm between wetlands, crossing Lena Run and reaching the lake about 2.3 miles into the hike.
The remainder of the Panther Point Trail stays along the edge of Lake Hancock, flanked on both sides by water.
Since it follows a treed berm low to lake level much like Alligator Alley at Circle B Bar, it ends up being closed more often than not due to flooding.
From that junction with the Panther Point Trail, the Osprey Overlook Loop continues its loop around the open water side of the lake, following the berm.
At 2 miles, it reaches the northwest corner of the loop, where the Acorn Hammock Loop branches out into an oak hammock to the west.
We didn’t have the time on this initial visit to tackle it either, but it’s a 2.5 mile loop in the shade of oak hammocks and pine flatwoods.
Continuing along the Osprey Overlook Loop, it continues following the berm, but moves away from the open water quickly.
By 2.3 miles, you’re around the loop, where a bench provides a place to take a break or to watch for birds in the tall wetland vegetation.
Turn left to enter the oak hammock again, passing by the turnoffs to the Palmetto Loop on the left. It’s surprising to see how close together they are.
Follow the well-worn path through the oak hammock as it heads back out into the open pasture and across it to the trailhead, completing a 2.6 mile hike.
See our photos from Marshall Hampton Reserve
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
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
Paralleling US 98 between Bartow and Lakeland, the Fort Fraser Trail is along an urban greenway with connectivity to Circle B Bar Reserve
On more than 3 miles of trails, Lakeland Highlands Scrub offers a close-up look at the Lakeland Ridge, an ancient island when Florida was beneath the seas: parts of this 551-acre preserve are at 230 feet elevation.