Edward Bok called it “The Jungle,” this deeply folded landscape between Tiger Creek and Patrick Creek south of Lake Wales. While the wild forests around it were turned to orange groves, this basin with its mix of creek floodplain, wet prairies, and bayhead swamps between the sand ridges remained. An outstanding example of the ancient islands that once stood above the waves as Florida submerged in Miocene times, this carefully preserved piece of the Lake Wales Ridge has one of the highest concentrations of rare plant species in the United States. It’s thanks to the vision of Ken Morrison, the second director of Bok Tower Gardens, and his son Steve -- who spent thirty years overseeing restoration of the natural habitats -- that nearly 5,000 acres of this special landscape are protected as Tiger Creek Preserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.
Location: Babson Park
Length: 6.3 miles
Lat-Lon: 27.8315, -81.4566 (Wakeford Road trailhead) and 27.8080, -81.4924 (Pfundstein Road trailhead)
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate
No pets or bicycles permitted
For the Wakeford Rd trailhead, drive east from Lake Wales along SR 60 for 9 miles to Lake Walk-in-the-Water Rd. Continue south on that road for 3.6 miles to Wakeford Rd. Turn right and follow the road to where it ends. The trailhead is on the left.
For the Pfundstein Rd trailhead, drive south from Babson Park on Scenic 17 for two miles. Turn left on North Lake Moody Rd. Make a left on Murray Rd. The road goes downhill through citrus groves, crossing a railroad track. Make a left on Pfundstein Rd. Pass the sign for the Cooley Trail before you reach the entrance for the Pfundstein Road trailhead on the left.
At Tiger Creek Preserve, you have multiple options to plan a hike based on your favored distance and your own ability to scramble up and down the sand ridges of the Lake Wales Ridge. Most visitors start at the Pfundstein Trailhead, the older and more well-established entrance to the trail network, and hike north along the linear Pfundstein Trailhead to some turnaround point, such as Patrick Creek, Heron Pond, or the Highlands Loop. Using this trailhead to connect to the other trails, you can hike from 2 miles to 11.8 miles round-trip, with several optional loops along the route.
With the addition of the Wakeford trailhead at the north end of the preserve, it’s also now possible to do an end-to-end walk by using two cars (make plans to meet friends to drop a car at one end and hike to the other), or to use this northerly trailhead to access the newest trails in the preserve, using the Wakeford Trail to reach the showy Creek Bluffs Trail and/or the Highlands Loop. During our research, we each hiked with a friend to come up with a different route. The following hike (shown in the video above) is the end-to-end hike across the preserve, north to south. We’ll add details for other possible routes later on.
0.0 > Sign in at the Wakeford Road trailhead kiosk. Step through the gap in the fence and make a left to follow the beaten track of the Wakeford Trail, a forest road through scrubby flatwoods. The landscape is quite open despite the dense understory.
0.1 > Make a sharp right at a well-signed intersection in deep soft sand, continuing on the next forest road. Tall grasses peep through the saw palmetto. Pass two junctions where it’s not obvious which way you should go. Stay left at each one.
0.4 > At a “Trail” sign on a stump, follow the blazes and the direction of the arrow down a footpath to the right. The trail quickly loses elevation to reach a crossing of Tiger Creek at the bottom of a hill. Cross this bridge to the boardwalk and enjoy the view. It’s a bit of a scramble up the bluff along a switchback that gets you to the top at a T with a forest road. Turn right.
0.6 > The white-blazed Wakeford Trail ends at the pink-blazed Creek Bluffs Loop with a prominent sign on a snag. Since this loop is relatively easy to reach from the trailhead, we skipped it and stayed on the shorter uphill side of the route: we’ll describe it as a separate hike, since it’s worth hiking on its own. Stay left at the fork to follow the sand road uphill to a panorama of prairie below. Watch for where the footpath veers right off the forest road and stick with the pink blazes.
0.9 > Past a bench overlooking a scenic swale, at a double white blaze on a snag with a sign “To Highlands Loop” pointing away from the Creek Bluffs Loop, follow the very short Highlands Loop connector to the left. It leads to one of the oldest hiking loops in the preserve, originally built by the Florida Trail Association. A sign at the end of the connector faces the Highlands Loop, which is blazed orange. Turn left to walk beneath the longleaf pines. The trail slips between clumps of saw palmetto on the bright white sands of the Lake Wales Ridge.
1.4> Turn right and follow the blazes briefly down an old forest road before the trail makes a left at the “Tricia’s Peak” sign, entering an oak hammock and rising up the next ridge.
1.7 > At Tricia’s Peak, atop one of the highest scrub ridges in the preserve, the trail offers a particularly pleasing panorama of the prairies and pines below. It’s here a bench honors Tricia Martin, one of the preserve’s long-time managers. Step up for an outstanding view. A map is posted behind the bench. From here, the trail drops down through the sandhills.
2.3 > Meandering up and over the rolling sandhills, you continue to enjoy views off across the ridges and into the valleys. The trail enters the intimate spaces of oak hammocks where gnarled sand live oaks knit a canopy overhead. Cross a two-track forest road, followed by another with deeper soft sand in a quarter mile. In between, the oak hammocks dominate.
2.8 > You can see down into a large prairie off to the right. A plank bridge leads over a trickle of a waterway coming out of the prairie after the trail follows it a while. After you scramble out of the drainage, the trail comes to its next major intersection, the junction of the Highlands Loop and the Pfundstein Trail. If you were doing a loop out and back from the Wakeford trailhead, you’d stay on the Highlands Loop. On this linear hike, turn left to start the Pfundstein Trail, which is blazed white.
3.1 > Sandhills dominate this part of the preserve, with healthy stands of sand live oak. After crossing one forest road before the trail burrows down a corridor edged with saw palmetto, make a left to join a forest road to traverse the drainage of a bayhead swamp. Rocks laid on the road help you keep your shoes mostly dry.
3.3 > Leaving the forest road to the right at a marked turn with a map, you immediately come to a junction with the Heron Pond Loop. This is an optional loop to take along this linear hike but given its location, it’s worth the walk. Turn left. A small memorial presents the trail in memory of Ken Morrison. It was his life’s work to preserve this landscape, with the help of The Nature Conservancy. He worked not just in boardrooms and at fundraising events, but personally built and maintained trails and restored rare species along the Lake Wales Ridge. Keep left to walk the loop counterclockwise.
3.6 > As the Heron Pond Trail is blazed red, it’s sometimes tough to see the blazes amid the red blanket lichen on the sand live oak trunks. The trail climbs through the sandhills, noticably, to reach a bench overlooking its namesake pond, a marshy depression in the deeply folded valley below.
3.8 > After working its way down from the crest, the trail comes to a T with a forest road. Turn right to take it between the wetlands. When you reach the opposite shore, take the path to the left to the bird blind, a resting spot with a beautiful view across the open water of the pond. Return along the shoreline, turn left, and look for the right turn to keep looping around the pond.
4.1 > Walking through more sandhills and patches of scrub on the slopes well above the pond, you cross a sand road that angles sharply down the hill to the prairie. We were told that each of the hills on this loop supposedly have names, and this one is Achy Breaky Hill. The trail no longer goes down the forest road, but provides a nice view downslope.
4.4 > After a more gradual descent through the forest to the scrubby flatwoods, cross that same forest road. Walking beneath the oaks and pines, you quickly reach the end of the Heron Pond Loop. Turn left at the junction with the white-blazed Pfundstein Trail.
The trail tunnels through more picturesque oak hammocks before crossing a deep soft sand road. On our first visit to this preserve 18 years ago, the trails followed these roads and were difficult to traverse. It’s only very recently that all trails have been made actual footpaths, which is what makes a hike here so enjoyable now.
4.7 > While walking beneath the pines, you start to see another bayhead swamp off to the left, down in a swale at the bottom of the hill. You pass a bench. Reaching a soft sand road, the trail turns left at a map to join it downhill to cross the bayhead. It can get a little squishy here sometimes.
5.0 > After you leave the road and rejoin the trail, a bench looks out towards the Patrick Creek floodplain, where a pair of eagles are nesting in a tall pine. The number of dead trees are surprising. Extensive flooding along Patrick Creek soaked the roots of those trees for so long after Hurricane Irma that most of them died.
5.2 > Reaching the big sign at the junction of the Patrick Creek Trail, make a right to go down to the creek for a look. You walk through open pine flatwoods with views off to the right into the creek basin, and hear the fuss of the eagles as they work on their nest.
5.4 > A bench sits off to the left as you reach Patrick Creek. The water levels remain high, flooding a portion of the bridge and making the the Great Sand Pine Loop inaccessible. The creek is still a beauty spot worth seeing!
5.6 > Return to the trail junction and make a right to head towards the Pfundstein trailhead. The trail climbs up and over numerous small ridges, each with views down to the line of dead trees that show you the location of the Patrick Creek floodplain.
6.0 > Notice the round grassy swales, almost as if they’d been planted under the pines? These unique biomes are cutthroat grass seeps. Found nowhere else in the world but Florida, cutthroat grass grows in spots where moisture seeping from the sand feeds its minimal water requirements. This endangered grass is protected along the Lake Wales Ridge. Beyond a showy seep, you reach a bench in a clearing in the sandhills.
6.3 >The last stretch of the trail is very scrubby as you draw close to the end of the hike, with diminutive oaks pressing close on both sides. Dropping down a slope, you can see the Pfundstein trailhead up ahead and reach it after 6.3 miles.