Dancing along the rim of the St. Johns River floodplain, this segment of the Florida Trail provides a parade 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.
There are delicate bogs of pitcher plants in pine savannas, terrestrial orchids in wetlands, and bobbing butterfly orchids far overhead.
The diversity of wetland and shaded habitats along this segment of trail is striking, as is the scenery.
Traversing the central portion of Seminole Ranch Conservation Area and the eastern side of Bronson State Forest, it offers connectivity to trails in several directions.
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Length: 8.6 miles linear
Trailhead: 28.569200, -81.013183
Address: 25382 Wheeler Rd, Christmas
Fees: $2 per person at Joshua Creek trailhead
Restroom: At Orlando Wetlands Park
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Hiking only. Leashed dogs welcome. Insect repellent a must.
Active cattle leases mean the potential of encounters with cows and bulls along the trail, largely seen nearest the two trailheads.
All of this segment is within a hunting zone. Check ahead regards hunt dates and wear bright orange if you choose to hike during hunts.
Always check on water levels in the St. Johns River in advance of hiking this section. Flood conditions can make the northeast corner of this route dangerous to traverse.
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 at the curve onto Wheeler Rd, passing under the Orlando Wetlands Park sign. Follow this entrance road to where two trailheads face each other. The Seminole Ranch Conservation Area trailhead is on the right.
Joshua Creek Trailhead: Instead of turning right at the curve, follow the sweep of Fort Christmas Road to the left. Continue a half mile to Philips Rd. Turn right. Follow Philips Rd for 1.5 miles 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.
In the corner of the Wheeler Rd trailhead, open the gate to follow the blue-blazed connector trail across a short stretch of pasture. Cattle are often loose here.
Look for the first blue blaze on a pine tree. The trail enters a mixed hardwood forest, ducking under the spreading limbs of a large live oak.
The trail is swallowed up by a deeply shaded oak hammock and framed by saw palmetto. Mind the cow pies!
Reaching a pair of stiles at a quarter mile, cross a ranch road. Water is available at a hunt check station 0.1 mile north. The trail continues into a palm hammock.
By a half mile, its a wonderland of ancient oaks amid the palms, laden in resurrection fern and bromeliads. Wild coffee carpets the earthy understory.
Crossing an old bridge over an ephemeral stream, the trail continues through a very rooty area before passing a massive oak with weathered bark.
The blue blazes end after 0.8 mile at a T intersection with the orange-blazed Florida Trail. Turn left to continue north towards Bronson State Forest.
Floodplain forests crowd in, the earth spongy underfoot. The trail circles a small wetland and rises up slightly to zigzag through a maze of palm trunks.
At 1.2 miles, 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 1.5 miles, just beyond a cable gate.
The orange blazes lead you over a small bridge over a ditch filled with blue flag iris. The trail winds beneath oaks and palms beyond.
Rounding a large wetland, the trail goes through a close-knit stand of cabbage palms with grayish-green trunks mottled with orange and pink splotches of lichens.
At 2.3 miles there is a picnic table along the trail, within sight of a parking area used seasonally by hunters. Bromeliads drape down from the oaks.
Past the picnic table, enter a cathedral of palms, their tall, skinny trunks surrounding the footpath. Rein-toothed orchid rises from the forest floor in winter.
The trail dances along the edge of the forest within sight of the road met at the picnic table, but stays in the shade. Reaching the road, it leads up it briefly before crossing.
After a brief walk on a berm where the open floodplain of the St. Johns River stretches off to the horizon on the right, reach the outflow of Orlando Wetlands Park.
Don’t be surprised to hear an alligator splash out of sight. At this trail junction at 2.9 miles, a staircase stile connects to the trail system within the adjoining park.
While clear and naturally cleansed, the outflow of the wetlands park is treated effluent, so you may not want to use it as a water source.
The trail continues into a seasonally flooded area where the footpath is earthy and sometimes muddy underfoot.
Slipping between wetland areas, the trail reaches an old stile at the land management boundary for Bronson State Forest at 3.3 miles.
The stile and a segment of fence are still partly in place but otherwise snipped away so you can walk around it. An old Florida Trail sign is on the post.
The trail dives into another dense segment of oak and palm hammock before reaching the next stile on the edge of a wetland area.
Once across it, the footpath follows a raised berm with the wetlands to the left.
Edged by ferns for a stretch, the footpath continues into an area where slender cedars thrive among the large oaks.
Sawgrass and ferns creep into the trail as it makes its way around a series of wetlands that lie to the west.
While these wetlands aren’t always visible, they have an effect on the surrounding forest, and the footpath itself.
Past a giant air plant that makes its presence known under an orange blaze, cross yet another stile. The trail twists and winds between cabbage palms and marsh ferns.
After you pass a permanent survey marker, more wetlands lie to the west of the footpath, around 4.2 miles. It can be mucky in here.
They drain and seep into the low spots that the trail traverses. Be cautious of obvious drainage areas and solid-looking dark ground hiding mud holes between roots.
In 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 pause.
This is not a piece of trail you want to take on when it’s truly wet. It can be bypassed, if needed, using the Orlando Wetlands Park stile to follow its fenceline to the River Trail.
Follow the blazes carefully through this tangled jungle of palms. Eventually, the canopy lifts as large sweetgum and red maple trees form the high canopy.
Bits of open space glimpsed between the trees, belie how close the trail lies to the St. Johns River ‘s open floodplain around 5.2 miles, as do the cypresses in the forest.
Cross a small bridge over a seasonal drainage. Soon after, the trail rises out of the floodplain and crosses a forest road.
Walk beneath large oaks and citrus trees on higher ground as the trail reaches a 4-way intersection at a stile at 5.6 miles.
This junction marks the intersection with the white-blazed River Trail, which starts at the back fence of Orlando Wetlands Park, 0.9 miles south of here.
The River Trail hops the fence and continues another 10.9 miles north to the Econlockhatchee River, crossing three more trail along its linear route.
The Florida Trail goes up and over this stile, too. Turn left after crossing to follow the orange blazes down the fence and into the woods.
In less than a quarter mile, the trail reaches Fern Camp, the only designated campsite along this section. It’s a beauty, set under a canopy of ancient live oaks.
Beyond the campsite, the trail passes a squared-off concrete footer, perhaps the location of an old well. There is no water near the campsite, however.
The trail continues down a broad straightaway before narrowing to snake 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.
With a habitat shift to scrubby flatwoods soon after, the Florida Trail moves farther away from the river floodplain.
Beyond the pines, a cell tower rises in the distance. It remains a landmark in that direction for the remainder of this hike.
Crossing a forest road marked as an equestrian trail, the Florida Trail reaches Christmas Creek, a viable water source with a bench near the bridge, at 6.2 miles.
After the creek, the trail winds through a thicket of silvery blue saw palmetto before entering a low-lying area with cypress knees and trees with strongly buttressed bases.
Leaving this floodplain area around 6.5 miles, it pops out into the open skies of a pine savanna. Keep alert and you’ll notice bogs of pitcher plants hidden in the tall grasses.
Crossing the scrubby flatwoods, the trail turns northwest and comes up to a forest road junction, once again intersecting with an equestrian trail.
Bear left onto the trail marked by the FNST sign. The footpath continues along the edge of a pine savanna with a dense understory of saw palmetto.
Beyond the savanna, the trail enters a large hardwood hammock with ancient live oaks and cabbage palms.
Cross a sandy forest road in the middle of the hammock at 7.2 miles. The dense forest continues on the other side.
Opening up into pine flatwoods after a corridor edged by tall saw palmetto, the trail starts to lose elevation quickly.
The low point is South Slough, a sluggish waterway bridged by a low boardwalk at 7.9 miles. Water is sometimes flowing here.
Beyond the slough, the trail climbs, passing under a bower of southern magnolia all tangled together to create a lower canopy.
Soon after, the trail emerges into sandhill habitat with sand live oaks and turkey oaks. A cluster of of Spanish bayonet may be in bloom.
At 8.2 miles, a ranch road with an overhead power line bisects the landscape. We’ve often seen cattle roaming here, as there is a gate to an adjacent ranch within view.
Mind the meandering cow paths that branch off the Florida Trail as you continue through the sandhills–keep watching for orange blazes.
A tenth of a mile later, reach the well-marked junction with the blue-blazed trail leading to the Joshua Creek trailhead.
Turn left to following this quarter mile meander through the sandhills, ending your hike at the trailhead after 8.6 miles. Sign the trail register before you leave.
Learn more about Bronson State Forest
See our photos from this Florida Trail segment
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