On January 11, 1765, royal botanist John Bartram guided his canoe into the confusing waters of Puzzle Lake.
He and his son, William, scouted the marshes for several days, but found no clear route, and left assuming that Puzzle Lake was the headwaters of the St. Johns River.
At the northern end of Seminole Ranch Conservation Area, a loop trail system primarily in place for equestrian use offers excellent birding and lengthy causeways to roam along the marshy eastern shore of Puzzle Lake, one of the largest saline lakes on the St. Johns River system.
Length: 8.4 miles
Type: loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Trails are shared with equestrians and off-road cyclists. There is little shade along this trail, and mosquitoes can be fierce. Expect to wade in places where the landscape is not well drained. Be cautious of alligators.
Depending on the season, you might find a portable toilet stationed down at the boat ramp at Hatbill Park, 1.3 miles farther along Hatbill Road.
From I-95 exit 223, Mims, drive 4.2 miles to Hatbill Road. Turn left at the sign for Lake Loughman. Drive 2.6 miles south on Hatbill Rd to the parking area off to the right, next to a gate. Do not block the gate.
Passing through the gate, you follow the jeep trail through an oak hammock before emerging onto the open, wide grassy causeway. Spatterdock grows out into the trail. Slash pines tower in the dense forest on the left. A slough parallels the trail on the left, thick with marsh ferns. At 0.2 mile, you pass a bridge over the slough with a sign, “Carl’s Crossing.” This Boy Scout project leads to another sign, “David’s Cabbage Palm Campsite,” just off the trail in the palm hammock. The three benches arranged around a fire ring with grill provide a simple primitive campsite.
As you continue along the trail, wax myrtle grows tall along the fenceline. As the landscape opens up ahead, you can see several communications towers in the distance, on the other side of the St. Johns River. Passing a jeep trail off to the right at 0.7 mile, you catch your first glimpse of Puzzle Lake. You smell the unmistakable tang of a coastal salt marsh—one of the puzzles of Puzzle Lake. Pockets of prehistoric salt water lie deep beneath the marshes, bubbling up as salt springs. As a result, the salinity of Puzzle Lake and its surrounding lakes is nearly one-third that of the ocean, enabling salt-loving plants, marine crustaceans, and saltwater fish to live in and along this portion of the St. Johns River.
Where the trail curves to the right, you walk past black needlerush, four-foot-tall reeds that come to a tapering sharp point. Off to the left, the lake teases you with glimpses of open blue water. You’d feel the same if you were in a canoe. Islands of cordgrass break up the calm waters of Puzzle Lake, creating a confusing labyrinth for boaters. In her 1942 book Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings describes being lost in the vastness of Puzzle Lake. It took careful study of the slow drift of water hyacinths for Rawlings and her companion to find their way out to the river channel.
As you walk through a tall stand of rustling maidencane, the water comes up from the lake along a cut, touching the edge of the trail. Water lettuce floats along the placid surface. Thousands of tiny fish crowd the shallows, making the surface ripple. Puzzle Lake is a spawning ground, a confusion of mullet and bass, of perch and flounder, of stingrays and sharks. Jump over a marshy low spot in the trail as it begins a sharp curve to the right. Notice the dried salt on the grass in the trail, left behind after flooding.
The surrounding marsh mirrors the lake in general, with numerous open spots surrounded by dense cordgrass, turning from deep green to a wheat hue under the autumn sun. After you pass through a rusting open gate, you see a signpost (with a sign facing the lake) up against the trail; you’ve walked a mile. The trail draws close to a palm hammock, where tree swallows flit between the cabbage palm fronds. As the trail curves towards the right, away from the lake, a snipe bursts across the footpath, zigzagging into the safety of the grass. Undoubtedly the frogs in the trail caught its attention—there are hundreds of small frogs, performing cartwheels as they sense your footfalls, splashing into the ditches and puddles in their attempt to escape.
As the trail curves further to the right, you pass a short stretch of open marsh at 1.6 miles. Cattails rise out of the dark water, a sheltered habitat for turtles and alligators. Wax myrtle and sea myrtle grow in profusion behind the sloughs on both sides of the trail, providing home and shelter for hundreds of tiny songbirds. As you pass a jeep trail disappearing off to the left, just a few dozen feet ahead on the right is a marsh pond, its duckweed coating glistening like green linoleum. Spreading mats of smooth water hyssop grow across the middle of the trail, with plump succulent leaves and tiny star-shaped white flowers. The palm hammock on the right becomes more lushly forested, with dahoon holly and red bay interspersed amongst the cabbage palms.
At 2.7 miles, you reach a T intersection in the trail—not obvious until you actually reach it, as the main trail seems to swing to the left. This is your decision point for completing an adventuresome loop through the vast wet prairie, an inland coastal savanna. The loop is 3 miles long, returning you to this point, and there are several places where you will wade through ankle-deep dark water. If you do not wish to walk through the prairie, turn around now and retrace your steps back down the grassy causeway to the starting point, for a total hike of 5.4 miles.
Turn right to start the loop. The trail immediately gets hummocky underfoot. The palm hammock continues on the right behind the slough; on the left side of the trail, the savanna stretches to the horizon, broken only by scattered islands of cabbage palms. You reach your first water crossing, where a broad section of the swamp flows across the jeep trail. After you splash through the water, you reach a dry hammock of slash pines and cabbage palms with a thick growth of marsh ferns beneath them, and a profusion of wildflowers—pale pink meadow beauty, black-eyed Susan, and yellow wild bachelor’s buttons. After crossing another long pond-like stretch of shallow water, you see a communications tower straight ahead in the distance. The trail curves to the right.
At 3.5 miles, you reach the second T intersection in the trail. The trail to the right leads to the impassable canal. Turn left to continue your loop, following the causeway north through the savanna, towards the distant pines. Frogs splash in the sloughs on the sides of the trail. You enter an island in the middle of the marsh, a slash pine forest several feet above the savanna. It’s a high and dry spot, with the trees showing charring and regrowth after a forest fire. As you pass an overgrown road on the right, the trail keeps swinging to the left. The island ends, and you’re back out into the tall grasses of the savanna. Watch carefully for the next turnoff.
After 4.4 miles, a trail heads off towards the south. Turn left. Follow the grassy causeway through the savanna. You can see radio towers off to right, far in the distance on the other side of the St. Johns River. The savanna presents a complex mix of grasses, including lopsided indiangrass, white hairgrass, and smooth cordgrass. At the next trail junction, you can see a shimmering lake beyond the wax myrtle. Turn left.
Sloughs parallel the trail on both sides, becoming swampier as you progress. Eventually, the trail fills with water. Tread carefully along the right side, on the slim grassy edge between the drowned trail and the slough. At 5.8 miles, you return to the beginning of the loop. Turn right, retracing your steps back along the causeway through the marsh to Puzzle Lake. Enjoy the salt breeze one more time as you curve around the lakeshore, returning to the parking area after an 8.4-mile hike.