For a hike filled with the flutter and squawk and flash of birds busy about their daily routines, Orlando Wetlands Park is one of the best birding spots in the state. The first of its kind in Florida, it is a purpose-built park that dates back to the late 1980s. The City of Orlando was looking for a way to use wetlands to filter their wastewater, and did so by purchasing a ranch and converting the open pastures into a series of wetland “cells” of varying depths. Across more than 1,600 acres, this experiment in natural treatment succeeded so well that it’s become a world-class birding destination while fulfilling its purpose of slowly and gently treating wastewater to where it can be released into the St. Johns River floodplain.
With nearly 20 miles of levees and trails, there are many hiking routes possible within the park. In fact, on our very first visit here in 1999, we followed the Florida Trail through the park; it’s since moved into adjoining Bronson State Forest and Seminole Ranch. We share our favorite loop below, but will add some more routes as we explore them.
Length: 5 miles
Lat-Lon: 28.569815, -80.996697
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At trailhead
Land manager: City of Orlando, 407-568-1706
Dogs are not permitted, for their safety and yours.
Open sunrise to sunset. Trail maps and a water bottle filling station are by the restrooms. Fridays and Saturdays from 9-3, the Education Center is open and offers tram tours of the park. Large picnic pavilions are available to groups by reservation. Bicycles and equestrians are welcome. Cyclists are not allowed to ride the natural footpaths in the park (North Woods Branch and South Woods Branch Trails) but otherwise have miles to roam.
Be cautious of alligators on the trails. The sunny expanses attract them to the warm surfaces (most of the trails are limerock). If you make a lot of noise, they should slip away into the nearest body of water. If they don’t, alter your route.
From where SR 408 ends at SR 50 near Waterford Lakes, follow SR 50 east towards Titusville for 11 miles. At Christmas, turn left on Fort Christmas Road (watch for the Christmas trees on the corner). Alternatively, you can follow SR 50 west for 11 miles from Interstate 95 in Titusville. No matter the direction you’re coming from, turn north on Fort Christmas Rd. Continue 2.3 miles, passing Fort Christmas Park, to the turnoff straight ahead where the road otherwise makes a sharp left curve. Turn right on Wheeler Road and continue 1.5 miles down to the trailhead parking area on your left.
0.0 > After you stop at the main pavilion by the restrooms to sign in, continue up past the picnic pavilion to join the main levee leading into the park. It comes to a Y intersection at the first stretch of open water.
Signs indicate the two major loops that start here, the 3.7-mile Lake Searcy Loop to the right and the 2-mile Birding Loop to the left. Our route – which is one of dozens you can create here – follows portions of both. Turn left onto Wetlands Blvd. As you come up to a bench, note the map outlining all of the possible routes in the park. You’ll find many of these maps throughout the trail system, a genuine help to keep you on the right route.
0.2 > At the next junction, turn left on Night Heron Lane. The levee sweeps around in a curve, offering views across the far marshes before it comes up to a little cove surrounded by cabbage palms. There is a bench near the water, but there is also evidence of alligator activity in the open spot near it. Their foot and tail prints sink into the mud. One thing for sure on a hike here: you will see alligators. Never get within 20 feet of one.
0.4 > Reaching Otter Blvd, turn right. This rambles along a sweep of marsh with cattails and only the occasional open water near where culverts drain the marsh. On your right, willows crowd against the levee. Coreopsis grows in clusters along the levee.
0.9 > Turn off Otter Blvd onto Alligator Alley. This is one of the more scenic trails in the park, as it leads you out into the middle of the largest open marshes. A thin line of cabbage palms frames the far horizon of the marsh.
As the trail curves right past islands of cabbage palms, the wetlands to the left with the big stretches of open water are Wading Bird Marsh. It’s here you’ll see green herons and tricolor herons along with the more common moorhens. We spotted a purple gallinule near one of the culvert openings, being watched by a nearby alligator. Our bet is you’ll linger the longest along this portion of the trail, as there is so much wildlife to see.
1.5 > Open pools with American lotus adjoin the trail as you reach a T intersection with Wetlands Blvd. Turn left to head north on this central trail (turning right is a shortcut back to the trailhead). Red-winged blackbirds cling to the cattails, kicking up a fuss when the wind blows. You may spot a limpkin amid the shallows.
1.7 > At a T intersection at treeline with Bald Eagle Blvd, a covered picnic bench sits in the shade. Turn right at this corner to start following the perimeter levee (not to be confused with the Perimeter Trail) east. Clusters of purple hyacinths rise from patches of open water, and a strand of cypress trees is filling in nicely. In the oak trees to the left, wood storks gather during late winter, nabbing sticks with which to build their nests.
2.2 > As you near the junction with Vulture View, it’s obvious how it got its name, with all the vultures hanging out in the dead trees. This is where the outflow of the wetlands is processed, running under the levee in culverts and being shunted into a canal. A bridge to the left links to the Perimeter Trail. Continue straight ahead into a tunnel of vegetation to join the Wilderness Trail.
2.4 > The Wilderness Trail ends in a small clearing adjoining the outflow canal. A white-blazed bridge sits to the left. It leads to a back way to connect to the Florida Trail in Seminole Ranch by using the Perimeter Trail. Turn right to enter the forest on the North Woods Branch Trail, following the nicest piece of the original Florida Trail route through Orlando Wetlands Park. It quickly enters a majestic palm hammock where ancient live oaks break up the symmetry of the cabbage palm trunks.
2.6 > Crossing a grassy old forest road at the Orange Mound sign, the trail continues across a wooden bridge and into another beautiful oak and palm hammock. Dwarf palmetto crowd the understory. Look up, and you’ll notice both resurrection fern and greenfly orchids along the trunks of the live oaks.
2.8 > Crossing a wooden bridge over an ephemeral waterway, the trail leaves the palm hammocks behind and makes a right onto an old forest road. The surrounding oaks are densely covered in bromeliads. The footpath curves around a marshy area with wax myrtle and red maples, and can get muddy at certain times of year. A little rise in elevation makes for a spot covered in puffs of deer moss.
3.2 > Leaving the woods along a series of bog bridges, the trail emerges behind a chickee, another one of the rain shelters built around the park and a good spot for a break before you head back out into the full sun on the levee. Climb up the berm and make a left to start walking around Lake Searcy on Osprey Blvd.
3.7 > At this eastern end of Lake Searcy – a manmade lake which provided fill for the levee system – the views are outstanding looking back west across the open water. Moorhens tend to cluster in the reeds near the shore. In late winter, blue flag iris blooms along the shoreline.
4.2 > Lake Searcy grows more marshy as you approach an observation platform at the entrance to the South Woods Branch Trail. Take a moment to climb the platform and survey the views, as the remainder of the hike will be in the woods. A sign you passed notes that the lake was named for the ranchers who’d worked this land. Vultures tend to hang out around this platform but will leave when you approach. Cross the bridge to enter the forest on the South Woods Branch Trail.
4.5 > The trail parallels a swamp to the right, and the footpath is squishy underfoot. Passing a bench in the deep shade, you’ll see royal ferns and marsh ferns. The numbers correspond to an interpretive brochure available online or at the visitor center, and mostly point out the plants along this trail. You pass a side trail to the right that leads back out to Osprey Blvd on Lake Searcy after it goes through the location of an old campsite from when this footpath was the Florida Trail.
4.8 > Emerging from the shady hardwood hammock at the South Woods Branch Trail trailhead, you can see the parking area across the grassy expanse. You can make a beeline for it, or turn right and walk up to Osprey Blvd. Turn left and you might see what we saw along this one corner of the wetlands park.
5.0 > Following the curve of the levee around to the picnic pavilion and restrooms, you return back to the visitor center and parking area.
Explore the park
- Bike ride at Orlando Wetlands Park- One of the best ways to explore Orlando Wetlands Park is by bike. You can see a lot more than you do on foot. John recounts his journey around the park on his first bicycle trip in many months.
- Black-bellied whistling duck- As seen at Orlando Wetlands Park
- Florida Trail, Wheeler Road to Joshua Creek- Along its 9.4 mile route, the Florida Trail through Seminole Ranch and southern Bronson State Forest provides an unexpected array of botanical delights