Protecting more than 3,300 acres of the Deep Creek watershed northeast of Deltona, Palm Bluff Conservation Area was once a working cattle ranch. Free-range cattle still roam a large portion of the preserve through an agreement with local landowners. A half-mile entrance trail leads to two stacked multi-use loop trails covering 9.2 miles, and a 2.2 mile loop, the White Trail.
Length: 2.2 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
A large parking area adjoins the shared trailhead, with plenty of room for horse trailers. A group campsite is available for use not far from the trailhead, but must be reserved in advance. The land is managed by St. Johns Water Management District. Call 386-329-4404 for reservations.
Palm Bluff Conservation Area is located along SR 415 in southern Volusia County, just 1.9 miles north of the intersection with Howland Blvd in Deltona, north of Osteen.
I didn’t have high expectations for this hike, knowing that it’s in a landscape that’s been altered by cattle ranching and on a trail system primarily used by equestrians. I was delightfully surprised. Your hike starts at the gap in the fence right near where the long entrance road leads you into the grassy parking area. A kiosk sits just beyond, with information and maps. The trails are blazed with diamonds, typical of equestrian trails. Because of the time of day – I was worried about getting out of here before dark – I walked the shortest possible loop in the preserve.
White diamonds lead you into the pine flatwoods on an old two-track road. It’s a pretty setting, immersing you in a healthy forest while winding past clumps of ancient saw palmetto – note the size of their trunks – and a smattering of bayhead swamps between the pines. You’re walking on fallen pine needles, which is pleasant. Road noise from SR 415 filters into the forest, but you stop noticing it after a while.
When the trail makes a sharp bend to the right after 0.3 mile, it becomes more of a road. Horse’s hooves have churned up the sand in the bend, but this is the only spot on the hike where you encounter soft sand. You follow a straightaway through tall pines, with a thicker layer of pine needles underfoot. A social trail leads off to a pasture on the left, just beyond the screen of pines.
Ditches begin to parallel the trail as the road becomes a causeway through wetlands. Through much of this rural portion of Volusia County, it was common practice for ranchers to build ditches across their land so the cattle had dry land on which to graze; these lowlands in the St. Johns River floodplain (Deep Creek is a tributary) are naturally very swampy with many bayheads, floodplain forests, and cypress domes standing in the open prairies.
Because there are ditches, there are water lilies and ferns, and the potential of alligators. Don’t be surprised to see one in a sunny spot. While the trail remains the high ground, you walk through the heart of a small floodplain forest, always a joy in fall and winter for the smattering of crimson color from red maples and purples and yellows from the sweetgums.
After the trail rises out of the swamp, you come to the junction with the Red Trail. This is the lengthy loop that leads out through expansive flatwoods to the floodplain forests of Deep Creek, and connects with the Yellow Trail to provide 9.2 miles of meandering through backcountry. According to folks who’ve done it, you will get wet and muddy out there, especially since you have to cross Deep Creek. The long loop is why this is a favorite destination for equestrians. A cattle gate guards the entrance to the loop, with a sign asking you to close it behind you so the cattle don’t get out.
To stay with the White Trail, don’t turn left where you see the red diamond. Continue straight ahead on the same forest road. Within a few moments you’ll see a double white diamond indicating the beginning of the loop through a dip. Turn right to walk through the dip, and start meandering through another lush and lovely section of pine flatwoods with some very tall slash pines. I spotted a pileated woodpecker high up in one pine tree. The sounds of birdsong increase the deeper you go along this loop.
After you pass a pine with a diamond blaze and a stick trapped inside the pine’s bark, watch for a small pond on the right, its waters reflecting the tall pines surrounding it. You’ve walked a mile. The trail makes a sharp left here to start the loop back around, and the pine forest gives way to a crossing through a slender cypress strand on a causeway. Tannic waters flow sluggishly through this landscape. There is another small pond on the right, frequented by birds.
Rising up out of the cypresses, there’s a gain in elevation as the trail reaches what feels like it was once a sandhill forest, but was planted in pines. There is another sharp left turn. Live oaks provide puddles of shade. Clumps of saw palmetto flank the footpath. You emerge into a small clearing before another bit of elevation gain changes the habitat. It’s now a scrubby flatwoods, with saw palmettos forming a wall on one side as the pines over the scrub give way to a scrub forest itself. While I saw no Florida scrub-jays, I can imagine them living here. Underfoot, colorful lichens cover the sand. It’s obvious that pines were planted through this scrub once, especially when you get to the line of tall prickly pear cacti along the footpath.
Scrub gives way to rows of pines with a grassy carpet beneath, a cattle pasture likely turned to pine plantation. It doesn’t take long before the habitat feels a bit more natural again, as the trail curves left to begin the straightaway that brought you here. You pass the beginning of the loop and the gate to the Red Trail in quick succession. From this direction, the floodplain forest surrounding the causeway is more showy.
Coming to the double white diamond marking the curve, you’re in the home stretch. Walking back through the mature pine flatwoods to the kiosk, you reach the end of a 2.2 mile hike on the White Trail.