With a big, beautiful nature center and well-groomed trails, Tibet-Butler Preserve offers a spot of wilderness in the dense urban mass west of Orlando. The trail system loops through many of this region’s major habitats, including longleaf pine forest and scrub, bayhead swamp, and cypress-lined lakeshore. These are gentle interpretive walks, perfect for families to get their kids outdoors and listen to the hoot of a barred owl or the cry of an osprey within earshot of the train at the Magic Kingdom.
Length: 3.6 miles
Lat-Long: 28.442688, -81.541774
Type: Loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Dogs and bicycles are not permitted.
The Palmetto Passage, the wildest trail in the complex, often closes due to flooding.
Before hiking, head to the environmental center for a quick lesson on habitats and wildlife, and to find out what’s new along the trail system.
The preserve includes a picnic area, butterfly garden, and wheelchair-accessible sandbox, all at the nature center. Open daily 8-6.
From I-4 exit 68, drive north on SR 535, passing the entrance to Walt Disney World at the first light before you turn left at the second light onto CR 535. Drive 5.3 miles to the park entrance on the right. The entrance road loops around to parking in front of the Vera Carter Environmental Center.
After signing the trail register, descend to Pine Circle and turn right, heading through the narrow passage between the saw palmetto. After passing the Screech Owl Trail, skirt a damp area off to the left, alive with swamp lilies growing under dahoon holly and red bay. Deerberry jingles its dark black berries in the breeze.
At 0.2 mile is the intersection with the Palmetto Passage Trail, Turn right to stay on Pine Circle.
The habitat becomes scrubby flatwoods as the trail rises. The understory includes gallberry, winged sumac, and grasses; deer moss grows on decomposing pine needles. Small stands of scrub live oak provide cover.
You start to see the roof of the environmental center through the trees to the right as you wind down the sandy narrow passage. Cross the entry road on the crosswalk, making sure to check for cars.
The trail enters an oak hammock of large gnarled scrub live oaks draped in moss. Like Christmas tinsel, fallen pine needles decorate the branches of sand live oaks. The trail heads into an opening filled with royal ferns, and you soon enter the ecotone between the pine flatwoods and bayheads.
At 0.8 mile, Pine Circle intersects with the Fallen Log Crossing. Turn left, following the Fallen Log Crossing into a bayhead. On the boardwalk, look down and notice the tannic water collecting in the bottom of the bayhead. You’ll pass the Screech Owl Trail again, a hummocky shady connector trail through the bayhead.
Continue along the boardwalk into a thicket of loblolly bay and pines. It soon becomes a narrow footpath, grassy in the pine flatwoods. Passing a bench, reach the junction with the Palmetto Passage after 1.2 miles. Continue straight ahead. Reaching a rain shelter, the trail meets the junction for the Osprey Overlook. Turn right onto the short spur trail.
The spur trail follows the edge of the pine flatwoods along the oak scrub, entering a dense forest of oaks and pines. As you take the boardwalk to the observation deck, notice the marsh ferns and small pond cypresses with their fern-like needle clusters. The covered deck provides a view of the marsh along the edge of Lake Tibet.
Return to the trail junction and turn right onto the Tarflower Loop. Head straight at the loop junction. The footpath becomes sugar-white sand, blindingly bright. Sand live oaks cast puddles of shade, while rusty lyonia show off their crooked stems. When you reach a bench and a fence at the edge of the preserve, turn left to tunnel into the scrub forest. When the loop ends at 2.1 miles, turn right.
Passing the Osprey Overlook junction and rain shelter, continue to the junction with the Palmetto Passage. If the trail isn’t flooded, it’s a lot of fun to hike–rough and a bit wild, boggy and squishy, with plenty of trees to duck beneath. If you’re up for the challenge (I recommend it!), turn right onto the unblazed trail.
At first, the trail is nicely groomed, but it soon narrows and winds steadily downhill towards the bayhead swamp. The path can be tricky to follow; markers may be set in the ground at some points where you might otherwise lose your way. Crossing a log bridge, you can see where channels form as the bayhead spills over this rise and flows into the pine flatwoods. Logs and loose timbers serve as bog bridges in the low spots, and footing can be tricky.
When you cross what looks like a trail junction, stay straight ahead, reaching a patch of very old saw palmetto.
The trail continues under the low canopy of loblolly, which you must duck under in places. Passing an arrow sign, cross a forest road and continue straight ahead. The canopy opens and the trail gains elevation. Tacking through another part of the bayhead, the trail narrows tightly into a tunnel edged with loblolly bay. Gaining more elevation, the footpath gets crunchy with the crackle of oak leaves underfoot.
The trail is more deeply worn into the forest floor through the next section as it gets close to the road, twisting and turning before passing through a bog of ferns and spaghnum moss.
After 3.4 miles, the Palmetto Passage ends at a T intersection with the Pine Circle. Turn right. Repeating this short segment of the Pine Circle in the opposite direction, passing the Screech Owl Trail on the right, you return to the environmental center. Sign out at the trail register and walk out to the parking area, completing a 3.6 mile hike.