An urban park just on the fringe of the industrial area east of downtown Lakeland, Saddle Creek Park draws a lot of attention for its primary attraction—fishing. Like those at nearby Tenoroc Fish Management Area, the oddly shaped lakes are remnants of phosphate mine pits, filled with water and stocked with game fish like largemouth bass and speckled perch. There are always anglers here, and the campground near the back of the park keeps busy all winter. The hiking trails, however, are far enough away from the bustle of US 98 traffic that folks don’t even realize the trails are there.
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 28.063930, -81.880635
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate to extreme
There are restrooms near the campground. Use mosquito protection for this hike: with all the water around you, mosquitoes are always present, especially at the prime times to see the birds.
Follow US 92 east from Lakeland or west from Auburndale to find this large city park on the north side of the road. Turn north on Saddle Creek Park Road and follow it for 1 mile, passing a campground on the left. Bear right and follow the road to where it ends past the maintenance yard and restrooms at the trail kiosks.
There are two trails that start at the back of the park. One links this park and Tenoroc FMA. We haven’t had the chance to hike it yet. You can’t mistake this trail entrance as it has an iron ranger for payment of the fee to walk in Tenoroc.
The older trail, however, established by Boy Scout Troop 123 of Winter Haven, is the original Saddle Creek Park Nature Trail, and is free. It’s part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and an excellent place to see flocks of herons roosting early in the morning and late in the day.
Saddle Creek drains these low-lying floodplain forests southward into Lake Hancock, and this trail parallels its route, with some scenic views down into the floodplain. Since sweetgum and maple trees sport orange, gold, and purple leaves in late fall and winter, it’s a great fall foliage walk.
The hike starts at the wooden kiosk and follows wooden markers along the berm between the lake and the floodplain, coming up to an observation tower that has aged past its former glory and is now closed. Pass the tower to continue along the trail, which splits in two to form a loop through the forest. Staying on the clockwise side, you’ll see the charred stump of an ancient cypress rising from the floodplain, and if you walk down to it, you’ll be amazed at its size.
At the T intersection, turn right to make the loop back to the tower, or left to continue out to the end of the trail. Unfortunately, non-native invasive species have taken over this forest, from air potato and Brazilian pepper to rosary pea. Serious work is needed to restore the uplands to their former glory. But to the left, the hike continues to follow the bluffs above the impoundments, offering views through the trees across the water, and the opportunity to do a little birdwatching. It ends on a peninsula out into one of the impoundments, and you must retrace your path to return to your car.