Protecting more than 14,000 acres along the Wekiva River basin, Rock Springs Run State Reserve is well known for its Florida black bear population. While the trail system here was established more than a decade ago by the local chapter of the Florida Trail Association, it is no longer managed by them and is a multi-use trail. Two loop trails provide access to a vast landscape of pine flatwoods and scrub forest that Florida scrub-jays call home.
Length: Up to 12.3 miles
Lat-Lon: 28.805196, -81.453799
Type: stacked loops
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate to rugged (soft sand)
Bug factor: moderate
Open 8 AM to sunset. Leashed dogs permitted. Allow enough time to finish the loop. Due to iffy trail markings and many cross roads, it’s easy to get lost in here – carry a map and GPS or compass with you. Trails are shared with equestrians and off-road bicyclists and are primarily forest roads. The loop closest to the trailhead has little shade, so take plenty of water with you.
Be aware of hunting season before you hike – this is one of the few state parks that permit hunting, hence the “reserve” name. Always wear blaze orange during hunting season.
take I-4 exit 101A, Sanford. Head west on SR 46 for 7.4 miles, passing Lower Wekiva River State Preserve and Seminole State Forest. Slow down when you see the chain-link fence on both sides of the road. Turn left into the preserve, and stop at the self-serve pay station to drop off your Florida State Parks entrance fee. Drive 0.6 mile straight down the entrance road to the hiker parking area, on the left.
Start your counter-clockwise hike around the loop at the hiker kiosk, just before the parking lot. A bench at the top of the hill marks the trailhead. The white-blazed trail starts out through a small stretch of sand pine and oak scrub, sharing the footpath with a blue-blazed biking trail. Winding through an oak hammock, it emerges into open flatwoods, scattered longleaf pines with an understory of wiregrass and saw palmetto, straying into scrubby oak hammocks now and again.
At 0.9 mile, the trail makes a left onto a jeep road, then a right at the fork. You’ll be following this network of jeep roads for most of the trek. Pay careful attention to the white blazes, as veer right off the jeep trail at 1.1 miles to lead the trail into a narrow corridor crowded by saw palmetto and gallberry, crossing several bog bridges. Beware of false leads through the underbrush—game trails created by deer and Florida black bears.
Emerging from the dense forest, you rejoin the jeep trail and turn right. The hum of highway traffic fades as you move further out into the vast expanse of flatwoods, with pond pines scattered amid the longleaf, the saw palmetto at eye-level in places. Watch for the yellow blooms of St. Johns wort, the pink bursts of pale meadow beauty. After a right turn onto another jeep trail at 1.7 miles, you cross two intersections. At the second, the footpath leaves the jeep trail again, at a 45° angle to the left, leading through an open sunny stretch past some scrub live oaks until it turns right into the shade of a dense stand of pines and tall oaks, then veers left past an old piece of fencing. Dense, shoulder-high saw palmetto crowds the trail. This is not a trail you should expect a manicured hiking experience on—the footpath is no broader than those the Timucuan used to walk to the river.
At 2.8 miles, you pass a seasonal waterhole on the right, a ditch that drains the flatwoods. After you cross a plank bridge, the trail turns left onto a jeep trail, then makes a 45° right into open flatwoods, an unbroken sea of saw palmetto and gallberry with scattered pines. Faint blazes stand out against the charred bark of the pines. The trail meets up with a white sand road – Scrub Road – and parallels it. Across the road, the climax sand pine forest was clear-cut to restore the original oak scrub. You reach the sign for the North-South Cross Trail it at 3.6 miles. This is your decision point for the loop. To do only the North Loop, turn left (and resume the narrative with the North Loop below).
Turn right at the fork to continue on the South Loop. At 4.4 miles, you reach a fork. The trail goes slightly to the left, through the trees and across the broad meadow. Follow the faint jeep track through the meadow to rejoin the road you were on at 4.8 miles. After you pass a “No Vehicles Allowed” sign, the road continues forward into a floodplain forest, with cabbage palms and sweetgum, tall bald cypress and luxurious marsh ferns. If the river has been high recently, you may see scattered puddles filled with hydrilla. A damp, earthy smell rises from the rough ground. Skirt the swampy spots, and head down the cleared road as it enters a hydric hammock, yielding to an island of loblolly pine as you draw closer to the river. At 5.7 miles, you meet Back Tram Road. There is a clearing straight ahead; if you walk down to the end of it, you can slip through the tall riverside plants to the edge of Rock Springs Run, clear and beautiful, eelgrass waving in the current. Return to the road and make a right.
Back Tram Road parallels Rock Springs Run through an oak hammock, keeping you in deep shade as you walk along the causeway. Pine flatwoods stretch off to the left. At 6.5 miles, look for a broad jeep trail to the right with a “No Horses” sign—the entrance to the riverside campsite. Curving into the floodplain forest, the trail ends at the campsite on a peaceful bend in the river. A live oak dips into the crystal-clear water. Sit on the bench and watch the sun sparkle on the water. This is a popular campsite for Scouts and other organized groups canoeing Rock Springs Run, a blissful wilderness paddle of about six miles from Kelly Park or Kings Landing down to a take-out along the Wekiva River.
Return to Back Tram Road and turn right. Notice the many ferns along the roadside, including the tall and showy southern woods fern. You’ll pass several more cleared areas and parking areas for equestrians and hunters—if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can drive back here when the back gate is open; the main challenge is getting through the deep soft sand on Spear Road. When you see the sign about “Water for Horses Only,” take a peek on the right—a small sulfuric spring bubbles out of the earth, a beautiful picture of tiny boils in the pure white sand beneath the glassy surface. Mosquitofish dart through the shallows. Continue walking along Back Tram Road until you meet Spear Road, at 7.8 miles. Turn left.
Spear Road provides a causeway through a hydric hammock, dense with ferns and bromeliads. Tall cattails rise from a marsh on the right, where moorhens paddle through the placid water. Century plants and needle palms grow in the shade on the left. As the road gains elevation, the habitat changes, returning to a drier mix of pines and cabbage palms. Watch for a gracefully curved pond pine on the right, twisted in a languid arc like a giant bonsai—worthless to loggers, but attractive to those who measure the beauty in nature’s art. At 9.2 miles, you pass through a gate and reach a kiosk at a parking area, an opportunity to sit on a bench and look out into the pine flatwoods, across the wiregrass prairie.
When you reach the intersection of Spear Road and Scrub Road at 9.6 miles, you’ve completed the South Loop and are now on the North Loop. Because of logging to restore the scrub habitat, the original footpath through this area has been lost. Turn right, walking along Spear Road until you see a yellow-blazed trail out into the scrub, to the left. Follow the yellow blazes along a corridor through the scrub, where patches of rosemary scrub seek to spread, and myrtle oaks and Chapman oaks vie to replace the cut sand pines.
At 10.3 miles, the yellow trail emerges onto Shell Mound Road. Although the original hiking loop through the preserve led off to the right, up into the northeast corner, through scrub, hammocks, and sandhills, clear-cutting to re-establish sandhill and scrub habitats has made it impossible to safely follow the blazes completely around the loop. This is your bailout point. To return to the parking area, continue straight across the road, meeting up with a blue-blazed hiking trail that joins in from the right. Continue straight through the scrubby flatwoods. The trail empties out onto Spear Road. Continue walking on the road, passing a canopied bench. Spear Road becomes pavement at 10.9 miles, at the equestrian trailhead. You’ll walk past the biker trailhead as well before you return to the parking area after 12.3 miles, completing your circuit hike.