An Orange County natural land protecting more than 200 acres near Christmas, Savage Christmas Creek Preserve is a mosaic of prairies and wet pine flatwoods with islands of bayhead swamp and scrub forest, traversed by a tangle of nearly 8 miles of trails that are mostly optimized for equestrian use. There are two trails within the loop system – the Blue and Green Trails – built as footpaths. The remainder are old forest roads that are a bit rough underfoot. Following the outer loop and the loops off of it, you can wander for 4.8 miles, or trim down your mileage by selecting shorter loops.
Length: 4.8 miles
Lat-Long: 28.557349, -81.030192
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Open dawn to dusk. Dogs are not permitted. Equestrians are welcome.
From the intersection of SR 50 and SR 520 in Bithlo, drive east 3.6 miles along SR 50 to SW Christmas Road (which is before Fort Christmas Road) on the left. Turn left and follow Christmas Road for 1.8 miles to the trailhead on the left.
Start from the main trailhead off NW Christmas Road. The Orange Trail is the connector to the overall trail system, which consists of a series of loops you can traverse in whatever configuration works for the mileage you want to do. A broad forest road with horse hoofprints in the sand – this is a popular equestrian destination – the Orange Trail is flanked with colorful wildflowers in fall, particularly tall feathery pink sprays of blazing star, some with forked stems. Wild vanilla pokes up over the gallberry. This first section of trail can get wet, as evidenced by puddles in the deep divots of the road. Yellow and purple wildflowers draw your attention across the scrubby flatwoods landscape.
After a quarter mile, you reach the first trail junction. The Yellow Trail comes in from the left, with an “End of Trail” sign to the right. Continue straight ahead on the Orange Trail, which is roughed up underfoot like a plowed firebreak. A beautiful spray of lopsided Indiangrass leans over the trail. The understory beneath scattered pines is wiregrass and saw palmetto, with quite a sweeping view off in the distance to the right. The forest to the left is denser, with sand live oak rising up from saw palmetto.
At the next junction, a firebreak comes in from the left and the landscape begins to get scrubby, dense and unmanaged. Rusty lyonia pokes up through the understory. Footing is difficult and downright annoying after a while anywhere the pathway has been disked. The trail curves through pine forest and becomes wetter underfoot. There are deer tracks and racoon tracks in the mud, and spiders weave bowl-like webs close to the ground, sparkling like cups of ice in the morning dew.
By 0.6 mile you reach a T intersection where the Orange, Yellow, and Green Trails meet. Turn right to follow the green and yellow-blazed Tarflower Trail. This side loop is as broad as a firebreak and has wood chips strewn across its surface. The trail curves to the left and enters a thicket of pond pine. It’s damp underfoot. Coming up to the bottom of the loop, continue straight ahead. Loblolly bay, dahoon holly, and wax myrtle intrude into the footpath, explaining the growing wetness – a bayhead swamp. Surrounded by ranchland, you can hear cows in the distance. Although the forest road continues straight ahead, there’s an “End of Trail” sign at 0.9 mile.
Turn left. A broadly mown swath of grass leads into the pine flatwoods, where tarflower may be seen in bloom during the summer months. At 1 mile, the trail makes a sharp left turn, following a mown path through the thickets beneath the pines. The trail curves to the left and you return to the bottom of the loop. Turn right to exit the Tarflower Loop. When you reach the junction of the Yellow, Orange, and Green Trails again, continue straight. It’s still a difficult surface to walk on, with wood chips and pine duff atop the roughed-up forest road. The trail curves to the right before rising up into scrub forest, where low bush blueberries and gopher apple provide opportunities for gopher tortoises to grab a meal.
At the next T intersection, turn right to start the red-blazed Dragonfly Loop. Deer tracks are everywhere in the firm sand underfoot. Sandhill cranes cry out in the distance. The next arrow is at a spot pointing away from where you think the trail might go off to the left but it doesn’t. This forest road gets wet underfoot; we found puddles and flowing water in places. At the next junction, continue straight down the median of the forest road. Sundews thrive in this soggy portion of the trail just before you discover fence stakes discourging your travel in what looks like a logical direction. It’s too wet over there. Follow the curve of the trail around the wetlands to come to another group of stakes from the opposite direction. Wild bachelor’s button grows profusely in this damp environment, along with low grasses.
As the trail rises up a little, the pine flatwoods are dotted with loblolly bay. At a dense stand of lovegrass at a T intersection, the Red Trail turns left. You’ve walked two miles. The trail curves through another area of standing water in these wet flatwoods, but enough gravel has been laid on the forest road that you may not get your feet wet, depending. Where the trail rises in elevation a little, the understory is once again very thick with vegetation.As you cross an old firebreak, a marker points out that you should continue straight ahead. The ground gets firmer as you gain elevation. A cypress swamp is obvious in the distance. At the next T intersection, the trail turns left, still blazed in red. Uplands are ahead, with sand live oaks and colorful wildflowers.
By 2.5 miles you reach the cross trail inside the Red Loop, which comes in from the left. Stay on the outer loop by continuing around the curve. Cypress domes sit off to the right amid the open pine flatwoods. The saw palmetto is over shoulder height on the left as you walk through the open prairie, well-decorated with wildflowers in fall. You see a large communications tower off to the right. After passing an indistinct trail to the left, you come up to the junction with the Yellow Trail at 3 miles. Turn right.
A bench provides a place to rest in the shade of the oak hammock before the trail emerges in more open scrubby flatwoods. Goldenrod grows profusely along the trail’s edge, and you see a cypress dome off to the right. Young longleaf pines have staked a claim in the white sands among the prairie grasses and St. Johns Wort. As the sand gets softer underfoot, you come to a confusion of trail junctions at 3.3 miles. The Yellow Trail, meant for equestrian use, goes straight ahead to an alternative trailhead. The Green Trail turns left and starts following a perimeter road along a rancher’s fenceline. Follow the Green Trail.
Passing a gate in the fence, the trail sticks right to the fence line, following it around a corner. Watch for an actual hiking path off to the left. It’s the only path marked specifically for hikers in this preserve. The trail winds into the scrub forest, past tall saw palmetto and diminutive forest perfect for Florida scrub-jays. The green hiker medallions point you down this footpath through the scrub. Rusty lyonia thrives through this area, as does prickly pear. The footpath ends all too soon, at 3.7 miles, joining the Yellow Loop at a T intersection. A thick stand of blazing star accents the prairie on the left. Turn right.
Watch for the trailhead for the Blue Trail on the right. Marked with a hiker symbol, it’s a footpath marked “Hiking Trail Only” and heads right back into the scrub habitat. Deer moss and reindeer lichen thrive in the open white sands. You zigzag between large clumps of saw palmetto, some of which bears a silver hue. Off to the right there are clumps of pines in the distance. Dried sand live oak leaves sound crispy underfoot. Making a sharp right followed by a sharp left, the trail tunnels deeper into the scrub forest, showing off panoramas of scrub and flatwoods.
The Blue Trail ends at the Yellow Trail after 4.2 miles. Turn right and continue following this broad forest road. You quickly come to another intersection, this time with the Red Trail, which takes off to the left. Continue straight ahead into a stretch of very pretty pine flatwoods with older longleaf pines towering overhead. By 4.4 miles, you complete the outer loop, reaching the Orange Trail. Turn right to exit, reaching the trailhead at 4.8 miles.