Protecting more than 3,300 acres of the Deep Creek watershed northeast of Deltona, Palm Bluff Conservation Area was once a working cattle ranch.
Across the longest loops in the preserve, free-range cattle still roam through an agreement with local landowners.
Deep Creek is a tributary of the St. Johns River. These lowlands are naturally very swampy with many bayheads, floodplain forests, and cypress domes standing in the open prairies.
We focused on the White Trail, which makes the shortest loop at the preserve, for a sample of what the larger landscape has to offer.
We didn’t have high expectations of it, given the ranching and tree farming on the land, but it turned out to be a delightful short hike.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2.2 mile loop
Address: 1275 SR 415, Osteen
Land manager: St. Johns River Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs welcome.
Overnight camping available for groups that obtain a permit in advance.
Insect repellent strongly recommended. On the Red or Yellow Loops, expect to get your feet wet.
Palm Bluff Conservation Area is located along SR 415 in southern Volusia County, 1.9 miles north of the intersection with Howland Blvd in Deltona, north of Osteen.
About the Preserve
A large parking area adjoins the 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.
There are three multi-use trails in the preserve, one of which is an extension of the longest of the loops.
All trails require following the white blazes from the trailhead kiosk for a half mile before reaching where the loop start.
The White Loop starts right off the white blazes at the half mile mark, and heads east into damper habitats, making a loop into drier ones on the return. It’s 2.2 miles to complete.
We provide full details on the loop and the approach trail farther down this page.
At that half mile mark, the Red Loop starts at a gate that warns you that cattle are loose behind it. This 6.1 mile loop on the east side of the preserve crosses a creek twice.
According to folks who’ve done it, you will get wet and muddy out there, especially since you have to cross Deep Creek.
There are no bridges, only fords. The entire area near the creek can flood deeply at times.
The long loop is why this is a favorite destination for equestrians. Add in the trip to and from the trailhead and it’s a 7.1 hike.
The official map shows it can be cut shorter using a forest road that crosses it about 2 miles in.
The Yellow Loop is attached to the far northeast corner of the Red Loop. It adds another 2.1 miles for an overall 9.2 mile journey from the trailhead.
Since it’s on the opposite side of the creek, it can also be inundated in times of high water, which is to say often in this particular part of the county.
The White Trail 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.
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 as you walk on fallen pine needles.
Road noise from SR 415 filters into the forest, but you stop noticing it after a while.
The trail winds past clumps of ancient saw palmetto – note the size of their trunks – and a smattering of bayhead swamps between the pines.
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.
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 wet rural region, it was common practice for ranchers to build ditches across their land so the cattle had dry land on which to graze.
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.
It is always a joy in fall and winter for the smattering of crimson color from red maples and purples and yellows from the sweetgum trees.
After the trail rises out of the swamp, you come to the junction with the Red Trail. It starts to the left through a gate.
Ignore the red diamond for that turn and continue straight ahead on the same forest road.
Within a few moments you’ll see a double white diamond indicating the beginning of the White 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.
The sounds of birdsong increase the deeper you go along this loop. Pileated woodpeckers wing between the pines.
After passing a pine with a diamond blaze and a stick trapped inside the pine’s bark, watch for a small pond, 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.
The pine forest gives way to a crossing through a slender cypress strand on a causeway where tannic waters flow sluggishly.
Pass another small pond, frequented by birds, before rising out of the strand into planted pines. The trail turns sharply left.
Live oaks provide puddles of shade. Clumps of saw palmetto flank the footpath. 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. 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 join the straightaway that brought you here.
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.
At the double white diamond marking the curve, you’re in the home stretch.
Walking back through the mature pine flatwoods to the kiosk, reach the end of a 2.2 mile hike on the White Trail.
See our photos from Palm Bluff Conservation Area
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Restoring a ranch back to natural habitats takes time, but brings to life the natural beauty of these soggy habitats in the Deep Creek basin near Lake Ashby
With marshes brimming with swamp sunflowers and old-growth forests along natural ridges, Lake Monroe Conservation Area protects the St. Johns River north shore at Osteen
Pull on your swamp shoes to explore one of Volusia County’s most remote trail systems along a massive basin swamp in the St. Johns River valley