One of the closest trail systems to Florida’s Turnpike, Oakland Nature Preserve showcases 128 acres of natural shoreline on Lake Apopka, Florida’s third largest lake and, like Lake Okeechobee, one that has undergone dramatic change due to human intervention. Part of the purpose of this preserve is to educate visitors about the damage done to Lake Apopka and how it is slowly being corrected. As a local park with a large educational component, the preserve relies heavily on volunteers.
The trail system at Oakland Nature Preserve includes three segments you can take alone or as one hike. The boardwalk to Lake Apopka is the showcase of the preserve, offering immersion in the floodplain forest and dramatic views along the lakeshore. The Green Trail is a loop off the boardwalk through a shady oak hammock where you may see antelope or emus on an adjacent wildlife preserve. And the Uplands Trail is a mazy network of short trails in the sandhills, connecting to the West Orange Trail, a major bicycle corridor.
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 28.554992, -81.639834
Type: loop & round-trip
Fees / Permits: Free, but donations are appreciated
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the nature center, when it is open
Open 8 AM to sunset daily. The boardwalk trail is wheelchair accessible, as is the nature center.
From Florida’s Turnpike exit for Clermont / Winter Garden (SR 50), go east less than a mile to the first road on your left. There is no light or blinker, so it’s tricky to cross traffic. There is a “Post Office” sign here. Follow this road, Tubb St, to its intersection with SR 438, Oakland Avenue. Turn left. Continue less than a mile, turning right at the sign for the nature preserve. Proceed through the front gate and follow the preserve road around to the parking area.
Start your hike by leaving the parking area to walk down to the first segment of boardwalk. There’s a shelter with a sign-in sheet here, but we didn’t find any paper or pens in it. The boardwalk settles into the floodplain forest. Peek down below and you’ll see netted chain ferns in the ripples of the water. As the boardwalk curves, there’s a little depression marsh under it to the right, with lance-leaved arrowhead peeping up, along with sword ferns and pennywort. The boardwalk ends abruptly at dry ground with a bench, your first decison point. The Green Trail goes off to the right and straigh into the oak hammock. Better to explore it later, as we did – keep left and stick with the concrete path, which leads you to the main boardwalk.
Strolling down the boardwalk, which is rather broad, you can see that in winter, the views along the boardwalk are very different than the more lush times of year. The trees may be bare, but that means you can see farther through the understory, spying birds and other wildlife more easily, like cardinals flitting between the sweetgums. Elderberry flowers rise well above the understory. The boardwalk makes a strong jog to the right and heads down a straightaway past tangerine trees. The uplands around Lake Apopka were once filled with citrus groves, which – unfortunately for us, the environment, and the agriculture industry – have become crowded subdivisions. Water sluices by quickly beneath the boardwalk, following the path of least resistance down to the lake in a deep cut. You reach a rain shelter after a quarter mile.
Meandering past an interpreted patch of wax begonias, you see seeds up close on the red maple limbs – like little helicopters ready to swirl out of the skies. The trail makes a curve beneath a very large and colorful loblolly bay tree and passes a large dahoon holly on a small island to the right. Passing through another rain shelter at 0.4 mile, you can see remnants of the ancient cypress that once lined this lake as the trail curves to the right past an enormous stump. You walk through a patch of shade from loblolly bay and sweetbay trees. The swamp looks pressed down in places beneath the boardwalk, which could be from deers or alligators passing through. The horizon line of Lake Apopka is not far off as you pass a large wet area with pennywort.
The trail turns again, with sweeping views to the left. Look for the birds! A group of white ibis pick through the shallows, and several cormorants are perched in the trees along the open water. A screen of vegetation creates a natural bird blind as you continue along the boardwalk, drinking in the views as the boardwalk makes another left to provide another perspective on the lakeshore. Off in the distance, a row of cabbage palms defines the far shore. Winding beneath cypress, sweetgum, and red maple, the boardwalk ends up at a large covered pavilion along the open water of Lake Apopka at 0.6 mile. Boaters are welcome to tie up and explore the preserve from here. A simple timeline from the 1500s to 2009 is posted below the roof of the pavilion, giving the history of the lake.
On the return trip, one ornamental palm catches your eye as it rises in green above the gray branches. Keep watch for birds in the trees as you work your way back, passing under both rain shelters. After a mile, you’re back to the end of the boardwalk and the beginning of the Green Trail. The junction is a bit confusing – we tried both ways before figuring out the best path. Turn left. This is a short trail, meant to lead you around the perimeter of an oak hammock on the edge of the floodplain forest, where wild citrus are laden with fruit. Passing an outdoor classroom, it comes up to a picnic grove under the oaks – with one oak off to the right the grandaddy of them all, tempting tree climbers with its low branches – and makes a sharp right to follow the fenceline.
Here’s the unusual part of the preserve. Beyond the fence, and unmistakable in the distance, are creatures you don’t normally see roaming arond Central Florida. We spotted what looked like an ibex, a herd of antelope, and an emu that came right up to the fence. A small group of small deer sat in the shade. Along this part of the Green Trail, there are benches and even a gazebo with a porch swing where you can sit and look at the animals, or take pictures of them as they come to feeding stations within easy view. The Green Trail reaches an intersection with itself right after the gazebo. If you turn left, it loops back to the break in the boardwalk. Continue straight along the fenceline to see more animals, and the bark-chip Green Trail emerges at the parking area after 1.3 mile.
Turn left and walk uphill past the parking area to the nature center. Just past it on the right you’ll see a post tipped with orange. This is the start of the Uplands Trail, a trail system with a maze of cross-trails. I followed the perimeter as best I could. Meandering through native plants with interpretive information, the trail slips behind a cabin – a little workshed – and starts paralleling the entrance road through the pine woods. This area is being actively restored to a sandhill habitat. The understory is very open, so you can see other hikers. Pinecones are splayed across the duff. Passing a bench, the trail makes a jog between the pines past a cabbage palm where goldfoot fern drapes from the bootstraps. The pines create an upper canopy above the palms. Clusters of sword fern dot the forest floor. The trail is broad and well-defined. Taking the left junction at a sign that says “Nature Trail” leads you to a large shelter at an alternate walk-in entrance to the preserve from the West Orange Trail. There are benches and a water fountain at this shelter, as well as interpretive information about Lake Apopka and the preserve.
Leaving the shelter, turn left and follow the yellow blazes. The long straightaway parallels the West Orange Trail beneath the deep shade of tall pines. Mounds of eath belie gopher tortoise burrows off to the right. Making a jog to the right around a corner of the fence line, the footpath continues straight and downhill, with a significant dropoff of topography off to the right. You can see bicyclists whiz by above you, and a sign for the upcoming Killarney Station on the West Orange Trail not far from a bench. The trail levels off as a blue-blazed trail takes off downhill to the right, where you can see a small outdoor classroom beneath the trees. Pass this side trail and stick with the upper trail.
After 1.9 miles, you reach a bench facing the West Orange Trail. This is where you part ways from it. The nature trail makes a sharp right, leaving the bicyclists behind, to zigzag down the hillside down the tight stairstep of contour lines between the oaks. Another unofficial trail runs along the fenceline. The trail comes to a T behind a house and turns right, continuing downhill beneath oaks and young hickory trees. The frequency of benches increases, perhaps due to the terrain? Reaching a 4-way junction, follow the yellow markers to the left. Beneath the shade of a cluster of sand live oaks, the trail continues to descend down to another bench. Off to the left is a depression marsh with some interesting cypress trees. At the next 4-way junction, the trail emerges behind a subvision’s retention pond. A sign points to the right and says “Sinkhole.” Take a little stroll down that way and you’ll find out that the marsh is IN the sinkhole!
Return to the 4-way junction at Marker 10 and take a left to walk briefly along the retention pond fence, following the Red Trail. At the next junction, which comes up quickly, turn right to follow the Red Trail into the forest. You quickly come up to trail junctions from the right. The first one is at a T with the yellow / orange trail. Continue straight, and you are guided to cross a bridge over a small waterway, filled with ferns. Look upstream, and you’ll see a small floodplain forest in a depression fed by a seepage spring. The water flows beneath your feet and continues down, down, down to the Lake Apopka basin, ending up beneath the boardwalk you hiked on earlier.
Once you’ve crossed the bridge, you come to a T junction with a broad trail beneath the pines. It’s marked in orange and blue. Turn left to follow the blue trail, which leads right up to the back of the nature center. If the gate isn’t open to the back porch, continue around on the trail to the front of the nature center . If this is a day the center is open, you might want to stop and take a break, use the restrooms or grab a drink of water, visit the displays or just sit in a rocking chair and relax. Amble back to the parking lot to wrap up your 2.1 mile hike.