Dancing along the rim of the St. Johns River floodplain, the Florida Trail through Seminole Ranch and the southern section of Bronson State Forest provides an unexpected array of botanical delights. Ancient oaks knit their limbs together to form grandly shaded hammocks. Towering cabbage palms rise like columns as far as the eye can see. The trail slips through delicate pitcher plant bogs in the pine woods, and clambers up and over and over stiles to lead you past tall terrestrial orchids. The diversity of wetland and shaded habitats along this segment of trail is striking, as is the scenery. A welcome addition to the Florida Trail, it routes the trail out of Orlando Wetlands Park and closer to the St. Johns River, but away from the Wheeler Rd / Fort Christmas Rd roadwalk it once followed, making this 9.4-mile section a special joy.
Length: 9.4 miles
Lat-Long: 28.569200, -81.013183 (Seminole Ranch trailhead)
28.591853, -81.042476 (Joshua Creek trailhead)
Fees / Permits: $2 per person fee at Joshua Creek Trailhead
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Please check hunting regulations before visiting, as hiking access / camping may be limited during certain hunting seasons. Be sure to wear blaze orange if hiking during hunting season.
The gorgeous backpacker’s campsite at Fern Camp in Bronson State Forest provides an overnight destination for hikers. Get water from Christmas Creek. Take care to appropriately treat any surface water sources used, as this is open ranchland, and cow patties are everywhere.
There are additional hikes accessible from the Joshua Creek trailhead:
Florida Trail, Bronson State Forest (2.2 mile round-trip)
Florida Trail, Chuluota Wilderness to Joshua Creek Trailhead (4.3 mile linear)
Wheeler Road Trailhead: From the intersection of SR 50 and Fort Christmas Road in Christmas, follow Fort Christmas Road north. Pass Fort Christmas Park on the left and turn right into Orlando Wetlands Park. Follow the entrance road to the parking area for Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, across the road from the entrance to Orlando Wetlands Park.
Joshua Creek Trailhead: Instead of turning right into Orlando Wetlands Park, follow the sweep of Fort Christmas Road to the left. Continue several miles to Philips Rd. Turn right. Continue 1.5 miles along Philips Rd to the sign for Bronson State Forest. Take the jeep track to the left of the sign. It empties into a very large parking area with a couple of picnic tables. Be sure to pay the day use fee and sign into the register before you leave a car here.
Starting from the trailhead across from Orlando Wetlands Park, open up the heavily counterweighted gate and follow the newly-created blue blazed connector trail out of the corner of the parking area at the kiosk and across a short stretch of pasture. Mind the red ant mounds and cow pies! Look for the first blue blaze on a pine tree. You’re into a mixed hardwood hammock within the first 0.1, back into the shade. The trail roughly parallels the old walk down Wheeler Road; in fact, in winter, when the leaves are off the trees, you can see the white sand of the road off to the left. The trail ducks under an enormous live oak with a low canopy shading the trail. Carolina jessamine blossoms are scattered across the forest floor. Within a quarter mile, the trail is swallowed up by a deeply shaded oak hammock and framed by saw palmetto as you enter the first of many, many palm hammocks you’ll walk through today. It is truly a minefield of cow patties through this section
As the trail curves to the right, you see a spread of green grass and some old cattle pens. After 0.3 mile the trail reaches a stile and crosses a forest road. This is where the Florida Trail used to emerge and head up the roadwalk. Water is available at the hunt check station, 0.1 mile to the left on this road. Cross the road and continue into a mixed forest of pines, oaks, and cabbage palms, bromeliads climbing up every tree trunk and dangling from grapevines. It’s obvious that the orange blazes were painted out to create this blue blaze connector. By a half mile, you’re walking in a wonderland of ancient oaks amid the palms, laden in resurrection fern and bromeliads. Wild coffee carpets the understory. The earth gets darker and marsh ferns appear en masse. Tall shiny lyonia arcs overhead.
Crossing an old bridge over an ephemeral stream, the trail continues through a very rooty area: watch your footing! Passing an extremely large oak with weathered bark, the trail veers left in an easterly trend. You see side trails here and there; stay with the main trail. By 0.9 mile you reach the new intersection with the orange-blazed Florida Trail. Turn left into the palm hammock to continue north towards Bronson State Forest. Floodplain forests crowd in after a mile, the earth spongy underfoot, masses of fungi and ferns enjoying the humidity. The trail dances around a small wetland and rises up slightly to zigzag through a maze of palm trunks.
At 1.3 miles, you cross a stile over a barbed wire fence in the middle of an extensive palm hammock. At the edge of the hammock, the trail passes through a portal, through the heart of an ancient live oak. Tiny bromeliads cling to rotting logs, and on the left, there are oaks that look like natural sculptures. Passing a large sand pile, the trail continues beneath more grand live oaks. A grapevine dangles down, cradling an arc of small bromeliads. The trail emerges at a parking area adjoining the “Garden Spot Trail” at 1.7 miles, just beyond a cable gate. The orange blazes lead you over a small bridge over a ditch filled with blue flag iris. There is a dahoon holly of enormous size on the left as the trail continues winding beneath oaks and palms, and a giant air plant to be spotted on one of the trees.
Rounding a large wetland area on the left, the trail goes through a close-knit stand of cabbage palms with grayish-green trunks mottled with orange and pink splotches of lichens. At 2 miles, you reach the spot where the trail formerly entered the woods from its roadwalk. It’s a beautiful palm hammock with mushy dark earth underfoot. Cedars are intermingled in this hammock. Although you can’t see it, the St. Johns River is nearby, and in an area filled with deep salt springs, it’s no surprise that cedars thrive. You normally only see this habitat along the coast. As the trail winds through this palm and oak hammock, you can look off to the left and see both stretches of natural prairie and pastureland stretching to the back fence of Orlando Wetlands Park. As you wander along, looking up into the glorious canopy of this hammock, you might smack straight into the “hugging tree” – an oak with its arms outstretched for a cozy embrace. By 1.5 miles, you reach a picnic table right along the trail. Used as a hunt camp destination, it can serve as a camping area other times of year. Bromeliads drape down from the oaks.
Leaving the picnic table, turn left to continue along the trail. You enter a cathedral of palms, their tall, skinny trunks rising around you. Rein-toothed orchid rises from the forest floor, and a Florida box turtle peeps out from under a palm frond. The trail jogs to the right away from an old section of trail which is intentionally blocked so you no longer enter Orlando Wetlands Park. You continue through the cathedral of palms. By 2.9 miles, the trail dances along the edge of the forest within sight of the forest road met at the picnic table, but staying in the shade; the understory is getting thicker with cabbage palms and marsh ferns. The trail heads out to the road and follows it for a short piece to cross a wetland area, where a jubilee of tadpoles is underway in the shallows. A potential water source is off to the left (mind the gators) as the trail follows the limerock road to a turnoff on the left, where it heads back into the woods. Atop a short berm, the trail now parallels a broad open area to the right, with tall grasses and an expansive sky just beyond the treeline, marshes off to the St. Johns River. A footbridge and a trail sign mark the outflow of water from Orlando Wetlands Park, where birds gather. While the flow is steady, it is treated, reclaimed sewage, so it may not be the best water source.
The waterway marks a junction of trails. The blue blazes lead over a stile into Orlando Wetlands Park, while the orange blazes continue straight ahead. Dark earth underfoot as we wind our way through the cedar and oak hammock, which drops down into a wetlands area inundated at certain times of year. Lance-leaved arrowhead grows from the mushy ground, as do brilliant green sprays of needlerush. A goldfoot fern drapes sprays of green fronds at shoulder height from the bootjack of a cabbage palm. Say thank you to the trail maintainers as you reach the first stile over a barbed wire fence, as they’ve thoughtfully wrapped a garden hose around the barbed wire so you don’t snag your pants as you climb over the stile. On the other side, it’s still a soggy habitat, with cedars, oaks, and masses of marsh ferns on both sides of the trail, beneath the cabbage palms, as the trail zigzags amid them.
The trail becomes hummocky underfoot, and it’s obvious it can flood through this area, 3.9 miles in. A mucky spot is surrounded by dahoon holly. Soon after, look for a strange natural earthen structure on the left, it looks like a hobbit house. The next stile is easy to cross thanks to the garden hose protection. The habitat soon shifts to a small slough surrounded by wax myrtle, and it’s here you’ll find another stile. The purpose of all these fences – and the stiles – is to provide ranchland for ranchers who historically let their cattle graze across the landscape of what is now Bronson State Forest. The trail follows the top of a berm, beneath cabbage palms, in deep shade, before it drops down into an undulating landscape, and you’re off into another palm hammock. By 4.3 miles there is a slippery, somewhat mucky drainage area that you’ll step through quickly, through cabbage palms hardly six feet tall and the lichen-speckled trunks of dahoon holly arching overhead. As you walk through the soggy hummocks of what is certainly a swamp in the St. Johns River floodplain at certain times of year, the water lines on the trees should give you pause. This is not a trail you want to take on when it’s truly wet.
At 4.9 miles, the trail enters another beautiful palm hammock, the ground not as rollicking underfoot, but still full of ferns. Cabbage palms surround you: to the right, to the left, and up head. By 5.2 miles you start to see cypresses for the first time along this hike, indicating another type of swampiness off to the right. When their needles are full, they blot out the blue skies over the St. Johns River. The canopy here is quite tall. Grapevines cascade down from high above. The trail crosses a drainage area, offering wooden stobs to step on to keep your feet dry should the water be flowing. You continue into more oaks, palms, and cedars.
One of the more beautiful camping spots along the Florida Trail flanks the footpath at 5.9 miles as you come up to the sign for “Fern Camp.” Shaded by ancient live oaks, their limbs a fuzzy green from resurrection fern, this campsite is large enough for a large group. It has a fire pit and logs to sit upon. Beyond the campsite, the trail passes a squared-off concrete footer, perhaps the location of an old well, before heading down a straightaway broad enough to walk side by side. It then narrows down and snakes through another palm hammock.
Within a half mile there is a major shift in the habitat, to a park-like atmosphere with an open grassy area under live oaks. Rising up from this area, you enter scrubby flatwoods, an indicator that the trail is rising up in elevation out of the river floodplain. Cows graze in open range here, so be mindful of cow patties in the foopath. You see the first intrusion of the outside world since you entered this ribbon of green along the St. Johns floodplain, a cell tower rising in the distance to the left. Wildflowers like flat-topped goldenrod and wild bachelor’s button flourish in the understory of these pine flatwoods. Crossing a single track forest road, the trail leaves the open prairie amid the pines and comes to a long bench – and a bridge! Take a moment to sit here and enjoy the flow of the creek in its deep basin, which serves as a good water source if you need it. This is Christmas Creek, along which soldiers during the First Seminole War in 1825 built a wooden stockade on Christmas Day. While the exact location of that site isn’t known, there is a fascinating reproduction of the fort along Fort Christmas Road, a museum well worth a visit.
Once you’ve crossed Christmas Creek at 6.5 miles, the trail winds through a thicket of silvery blue saw palmetto before entering a low-lying area with cypress knees and tall pines and oaks with strongly buttressed bases to stand up against periodic flooding. Rising up from the palm-lined corridor, the trail pops out into open sky, with open prairie among towering pines – a pine savanna. There is a certain marshy character to this landscape, fed by seepage springs, as you pass sprays of neeedlerush, delicate lovegrass, slender wiregrass, and clumps of bachelor buttons. The feel is very much that of South Florida prairies. At 6.8 miles, the foopath leads right through the heart of a pitcher plant bog before slipping into the shade of an oak hammock.
Once firmly in scrubby flatwoods, you can see a number of communications towers area. The trail turns northwest and comes up to a forest road crossing at an old gate at 6.9 miles. Watch for the sign and follow it down the corridor to the left, down the fenceline. Leaving this corridor carved through a gallberry thicket, the trail turns sharply left and enters the cover of a canopy of pines and oaks. It circles a little wetland in the flatwoods at 7.2 miles, the type of spot carnivorous plants love because its acidic and soggy. Sundew grows here in abundance, and the trail is a little soggy underfoot before the habitat transitions again, this time into the higher, drier sandhills. Turkey oak, loblolly pine, and slash pine dominate the sparse canopy, the ground cover a soft haze of grasses.
As the trail makes a sharp right, you see numerous armadillo holes. perfectly round, as though an armadillo condo was established here. While these creatures grub up the soil, the larger divots – enough to throw you on the ground and off in the wrong direction on the trail – are from wild hogs, which have roamed these forests for more than 500 years, thanks to the Spanish explorers who brought livestock to Florida with them. Amid scrubby flatwoods in transition to sandhills – or viceversa – the trail continues winding through this expansive landscape before narrowing down into a tight corridor defined by gallberry, wax myrtle, and saw palmetto. Be cautious of tripping over the large palm trunks underfoot, and following the wrong trail – there are lots of wildlife trails in this area, leading in all directions.
At 7.6 miles, you cross an open area which might serve as a forest access road for rangers. On the other side of the clearing, the trail continues through a forest of pines, oaks, and palms, passing a deer stand on the left. Since this is a wildlife management area, deer hunting is permitted on designated dates during the fall and winter. Young cabbage palms emerge from the understory under a low canopy of oaks. At a double-blaze, the trail turns down a grassy corridor that is an ideal browsing ground for wild turkeys. Under the curving branches of dahoon holly, more rootballs try and trip you up underfoot through a small floodplain area at 8 miles as the trail comes up to the base of a tall slash pine. Continuing through this potentially soggy area, coming up to what looks like an opening through a broad prairie, the trail turns right and zigzags for a bit down a corridor defined by saw palmetto.
Climb up, up, up through loblolly bay and gallberry through this rough and rugged footpath through the saw palmettos, and at 8.2 miles, there is sky overhead for a moment before the trail drops down to dance along the edge of a rooty floodplain with tall red maples overhead and lots of roots to trip over. Rising back up into thickets of gallberry and palmetto, you cross a short boardwalk at South Slough. Walk under a bower of southern magnolia all tangled together in the understory.
At 8.7 miles the trail rises into the open sandhill, passing a cluster of Spanish bayonet in bloom. There are mounds of wiregrass everywhere. Crossing beneath a powerline, the trail continues towards the tall longleaf pines. By 9.2 miles, you reach the junction with the well-marked blue blaze to Joshua Creek trailhead. Turn left and follow the blazes between stands of sand live oaks, tacking between spots of shade and passing a scattering of cow bones in the wiregrass, to reach the trailhead parking area. Pass through the stile and sign yourself out at the trail register. You’ve completed 9.4 miles between the trailheads.