Having backpacked the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail through Loxahatchee Slough before we knew it had named tracts, we’re extremely impressed at the transformation of this particular landscape.
Nearly a decade ago, the scarring left by the farming done through these wet prairies wasn’t just visible, but made hiking tougher. Invasive species cloaked many views.
With much effort in restoring the hydrology and gradients of the landscape, Palm Beach County ERM has brought it back to a wildlife-rich habitat on the very edge of residential Palm Beach Gardens.
In December before it opened, we were treated to a sneak peek. In summer, it’s much wetter in here, but still an outstanding new destination for hikers in the region, thanks to a series of newly blazed trails. And a destination.
The red-blazed Loxahatchee Loop (which includes the accessible Nature Trail) enables a 1.6-mile hike around the prairies and ponds closest to the trailhead.
With the help of the Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, which built and maintains the entire Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail, we tackled a longer 4.8 mile loop connecting that established trail with these new ones.
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Location: Palm Beach Gardens
Length: 4.8 mile loop
Trailhead: 26.8529, -80.2152
Address: 11855 Beeline Hwy, West Palm Beach
Restroom: near the fishing pier
Land manager: Palm Beach County ERM
Open dawn to dusk. These trails are for hiking only, no cyclists or equestrians. Dogs are not permitted.
A 0.6-mile round-trip paved Nature Trail from the trailhead to a sheltered overlook is ADA accessible.
From Interstate 95 in Palm Beach Gardens, follow PGA Blvd west, passing the Karen Marcus Sandhill Crane Access Park at the C-18 canal after 3.9 miles. Continue 2 more miles past it to the light with the Beeline (SR 710) and turn right. The Sandhill Crane Tract trailhead is on the right after 1.3 miles.
Start your hike at the kiosk at the beginning of the Nature Trail at the parking lot. This accessible path leads through oaks and pines before emerging into an open area at a junction with a dirt road.
The path to the left, blazed red and called the Loxahatchee Loop, is how you’ll return to this point. For now, cross the culverts over the canal straight ahead, keeping alert for wildlife on either side.
The paved trail continues through scattered pines with a dense understory. The skies open up ahead.
At 0.3 mile, this trail ends at a covered observation deck overlooking a large wet prairie, offering a nice panorama across it.
To continue on the red-blazed Loxahatchee Loop, follow the pathway around the edge of the prairie leading east from the observation deck.
As it gets into the woods, it can be very wet underfoot because of the outflow of the prairie. This is the first place our shoes were dunked.
Emerging at a T intersection with a maintenance road, turn left. By 0.6 mile the loop reaches the intersection with the Echoche Trail, another road that heads north.
Before turning off the Loxahatchee Loop onto the yellow-blazed Echoche (“Many Deer”) Trail, look south for another nice view across the wet prairie with the observation deck on its far shore.
While hiking the Echoche Trail, it’s easy to be drawn to its edges, since that’s where to see wildlife and nice wetland panoramas.
Be particularly cautious of alligators in this section, as they are often in or near the culverts flowing under the road.
Birds will catch your attention, too. Moorhens and coots call from the marshes, while herons and egrets pick along the edges.
The Echoche Trail is mostly in full sun, and serves as a maintenance road for management of this natural area.
Spadderdock, pickerelweed, and American lotus grow thickly in the wetlands, which have been restored by the removal of roads and ditches.
Nature heals quickly in this lush environment, so looking across the ponds and marshes, it’s hard to envision that this was once farmland.
At about 1.3 miles, a side path caught our attention and we walked over to observe a tower, which we initially thought was a bat house.
Instead, an interpretive sign spelled out the importance of chimney swifts and how their numbers have declined in the region.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the tall observation tower. A picnic bench is in the shade underneath it. It’s quite a climb to the top, but the view is well worth it.
It soars above the surrounding pines, affording a sweeping panorama across a restored landscape of wet prairies edged by pine flatwoods.
It’s in open prairies like this where flocks of sandhill cranes may gather. Consider it a different twist on a bird blind.
Just north of the tower is the intersection with the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. A sign points that out next to a pond on the right. Turn left instead and follow the orange blazes southwest.
The trail leads you across the prairie that the observation tower overlooks. It was wet when we hiked it, but the footpath was well worn and discernible.
On the far side of the prairie is a place we dubbed the Palm Oasis back when we backpacked the trail. There is now a bench here, looking back towards the tower.
The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail is usually a wet walk in any season, so expect flowing or standing water in various spots along it for the next mile and a half.
Wetlands adjoining the trail spill right over into it. At a post with a pole sticking out of it so it can be found when the grasses grow too high, turn left.
The trail corridor heads towards the pines, which have a dense thicket of dog fennel under them as well as scattered grasses.
As sea myrtle creeps in, bursting into butterfly-attracting mounds of white blooms in late fall, the footpath gets wet again.
At times it can be somewhat deep here, as the trail cuts along the edge of a large marsh that spills across it.
There was a significant enough flow of water that you could filter it when we walked through this wetland.
West of the marsh, the landscape opens up again into prairie dotted with pines. But the open feel doesn’t last long.
A haze of chalky bluestem takes over the understory. This tall amber-colored grass lines the trail for some distance, making a tunnel effect
At 2.7 miles, the trail crosses a boardwalk over a flowing stream between two large wet prairies.
When it reaches the far side, there is a bench overlooking the westernmost prairie, providing a beautiful panorama.
The trail makes a curve here, passing the first bench in the sun and going on to a second one in the shade of cocoplum trees.
This overlooks the eastern prairie, which is rimmed with a canal and edged by a pond dense with alligator flag.
The trail works its way around the pond into the pine flatwoods along the edge of the large prairie. Clumps of cocoplum and saw palmetto edge the footpath.
The view opens up briefly to reveal a nice panorama of the prairie before you enter the pines again.
As the pine flatwoods become more dense, the grasses and dog fennel lean out over the trail.
Clumps of wax myrtle and sea myrtle stand beside the footpath, which was surprisingly wet throughout the flatwoods.
Patches of prairie intrude beneath the pines, creating pleasant grassy open spaces. Between the trees, you can see the white line of a road up ahead.
Cross over a culvert over a canal that flanks the trail to reach it at 3.3 miles. This is the Wah-too-lah (“sandhill crane”) Hiking Trail.
The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail continues across this maintenance road through the woods towards the Beeline.
To continue the loop, turn left to leave it and start following the Wah-too-lah Hiking Trail east.
It runs in a very straight line, so you can see a long ways down it. This is helpful for spotting wildlife ahead, like wild turkeys and white-tailed deer.
After a stretch, the landscape opens up to the north so you can look across the canal adjoining the trail for some nice views.
Look into the canal, too. We saw herons and alligators, and a lot of splashing from turtles as we approached.
Walking between the pines, you reach a junction where a culvert crosses the canal for a maintenance road to the north. This is where the Loxahatchee Loop comes in, 4.1 miles into your hike.
We took a left onto it and a right jog to a path paralleling our route east, but it’s best to keep heading east on the main trail, since it is maintained and other routes are not.
After a short distance you reach a turnoff on the left where you definitely want to take a detour. This is the junction with access to the fishing pier.
Look in the opposite direction and you’ll see a bench and picnic table in the shade. We understand a toilet is now here too.
The pier provides a pretty view across the lake. Head back out to the trail junction and you’ll pass a bench along the water’s edge that does as well.
The red-blazed Loxahatchee Loop continues in a straight line due east from the end of the lake.
Once the trail is past the lake, the primary point of interest is the paralleling canal. Watch for alligators sunning along the far shoreline.
Pines adjoin the trail along the last stretch, occasionally hiding the canal.
When the canal comes out into the open, after 4.7 miles, the junction with the paved trail marks the end of this loop around the Sandhill Crane Tract.
Turn right to exit, following the path through the pines and into the tunnel of vegetation out to the parking area to complete this 4.8 mile hike.
Learn more about Loxahatchee Slough Natural Area
See our photos of the Sandhill Crane Loop
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
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