Notable for its namesake, a live oak tree more than two centuries old that split down the middle and still lives, Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area encompasses more than 2,000 acres set aside as a mitigation bank for the sea of development that now creeps up to its western border. It is an open prairie landscape, dotted with lakes and ponds and oak hammocks, a habitat mix perfect for the sandhill cranes that reside here. The loop trail system provides several different ways to see the park, including a full circuit of 7.8 miles on the perimeter trail.
Get out and hike this one now. Sadly, Split Oak Forest is at risk of having a road forced through it and local residents are fighting it. See this article for more details.
Location: Lake Nona
Length: 6.4 miles
Lat-Long: 28.353333, -81.210917
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: at Moss Park
No dogs or bicycles permitted. Hiking only. Open sunrise to sunset. Camping is available at adjacent Moss Park.
To get to the main trailhead from the Orlando International Airport, go east on SR 528 (The Beeline) for 2.5 miles to CR 15 (Narcoossee Rd) and turn south. Follow CR 15 south for 7 miles. Turn east onto Clapp-Simms-Duda Rd. Go east 1.5 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the right.
To drive to Moss Park, which provides an alternate entrance to this preserve, take exit 13 on SR 528 (Beeline Expressway), just east of the Orlando International Airport. Turn south on CR 15 (Narcoossee Road). Drive 2.8 miles to Moss Park Road. Turn left, and follow Moss Park Road 4.5 miles until it ends at the park entrance. Continue along the main park road towards the camping area. The trailhead is on the right across from the campground.
With cross-trails and unmarked trails rambling across this vast landscape, there are many ways to hike through Split Oak Forest. The loop trail system provides several different ways to see the park, including a circuit of 6.4 miles on the perimeter trail, which our hike follows. Since the centerpiece of the park is the Split Oak, you’ll want to hike the northerly trails first.
0.0 > Pick up a trail map at the kiosk. Walk from the trailhead into the shade of the live oaks, and turn left at Marker 2 to follow the North Loop. Notice the FNST sign and orange blazes? A portion of the statewide Florida National Scenic Trail now crosses the preserve. You’ll follow it for a while.
0.3 > Turn left to stay with the orange blazes, rounding an oak hammock. The landscape opens into scrubby flatwoods, with a cypress strand obvious in the distance.
0.8 > Turn right at Marker 4, staying with the orange blazes. Walk past a very large oak near a culvert. At Marker 5, turn left. The trail enters a forest of tall longleaf pines and laurel oaks. Cinnamon ferns rise from the thick cover of needles on the forest floor.
1.2 > Meet the blue-blazed Lake Loop. It’s here you leave the orange blazes. Turn left and walk into the pine forest. The trail winds between saw palmettos into a stand of laurel and live oaks.
1.6 > After you pass a forest road on the left you come to the Lake Hart Spur. Take a peek down it to see if you can see the lake. If the waters are high, the trail will be flooded. It ends in the marsh. Return back to this junction and stay on the Lake Loop.
1.9 > After you walk through a grove of ancient live oaks, you come to the Bonnet Pond Spur. Follow it to the left to reach an observation deck overlooking this beauty spot. Return back to this junction and stay on the Lake Loop.
2.4 > At a curve, the Split Oak is off to the right. Take a walk over to it to see the unusual cave-like trunk. Interestingly, this is not the only split oak in this forest. Keep alert and you may count a half-dozen trees with their trunks splayed like this. This is the oldest and largest one, however. Just past the Split Oak you reach the next junction with the Lake Loop at Marker 11. Turn left to stay on the perimeter of the preserve.
2.7 > The trails at this point make a triangle around a large oak that looks like it’s been fenced in on purpose by a line of pine trees. The Swamp Trail heads off to the left towards Moss Park. It often floods, so don’t take it unless you are headed to Moss Park -- that’s the direction that the Florida Trail goes -- or if you are birding in the marshes.
3.3 > Meet the North-South Cross Trail. If you want to make a short hike out of this loop, turn right and you’ll be back to the trailhead after 4.2 miles. Otherwise go straight ahead to stay on the perimeter loop.
3.7 > Cross a culvert at Marker 18. The forest road becomes deep soft sand, difficult to traverse, as you reach Marker 19. Turn right. The curve leads back into the pine flatwoods.
4.1 > Coming up to the perimeter fence of the preserve at Marker 21, turn right to follow the boundary. A bayhead swamp may overflow into this area, making for a mucky wade at times.
4.4 > Just past Marker 23, look for a short trail on the right to an observation deck over a sawgrass marsh.
5.0 > After passing several unmarked forest road intersections, you meet the orange blazes of the Florida Trail again as it comes in from the left from the south end of the preserve. You’ll follow orange blazes for the rest of the hike.
5.3 > Make a sharp right to stay with the orange blazes, walking out of the sandhills and into the pine flatwoods.
5.8 > Enjoy the beauty of a tunnel of sand live oaks that stretches into the distance. The trail eventually curves out of the oak hammock and pops out into an open prairie. Watch for sandhill cranes.
6.0 > Walking through the open prairie, you can see the next several trail markers up ahead and activity at the trailhead in the distance.
6.4 > After you pass the back of Marker 1, you return past the entrance sign to the trailhead.