One of the great joys of fall in Central Florida is the explosion of swamp sunflowers – primarily Helianthus angustifolius – that appear along the edges of Lake Jesup, Puzzle Lake, Lake Harney and certain other slow-moving segments of the St. Johns River to the northeast of Orlando.
Motorists notice them in abundance as they cross over Lake Jesup on the 417 headed from Oviedo towards Sanford, but what most of those folks whizzing along at 70 miles an hour don’t know is you can walk right up, and sometimes into, those fields of bloom on foot thanks to several hiking trails on the rim of the lake at Sanford. Here’s where you can find them.
NOTE: Any and all of these trails may be very wet, since the river levels are high right now.
1. Cameron Tract, Lake Jesup Conservation Area
Easy to get to – just off Lake Mary Blvd by the Sanford International Airport – and a short hike out to the prairie edge of Lake Jesup, with expansive views. The best sunflowers will likely be a bushwack off trail to get closer to the lake, so bring your GPS.
2. Marl Bed Flats Tract, Lake Jesup Conservation Area
The loop trail at this little-known site leads right out to the edge of the lake with expansive views – the mirror image of what you see from the 417, except from land. You can follow the lakeshore all the way to the 417, as a matter of fact, by going west, off the marked trail. Trails here are not well marked and the road leading in is a one-lane narrow road with steep dropoffs into canals on both sides; the parking area is tiny, too.
3. Lake Jesup Wilderness
By far the best place to see sunflowers. Very accessible and popular due to its boat ramp, this wilderness area at the end of Sanford Ave has a trail that goes through the floodplain – and masses of sunflowers – before it gets to higher ground on a berm overlooking the flower-filled prairie. The trail also leads to the west side of the 417 but is missing a connector or two between berms which means some serious wading when water levels are high. Best views are closest to the parking area and down to the right within the first half mile if you make it to the berm.
4. Lake Harney Wilderness
There are two trails at this wilderness area in Geneva. You’ll want to take the loop trail leaving the far end of the parking area to get to the expansive views of the lake and its wildflower-studded rim. The sunflowers don’t tend to be as thick here as along Lake Jesup.
5. Puzzle Lake
We’ve seen the sunflowers from our car, whizzing along SR 46 between a trailhead for Little Big Econ State Forest (primarily used for hunters, but may give access to views) and the bridge over the St. Johns adjoining the Jolly Gator Fish Camp. They look most vibrant to the south.