By itself, the Trail of Lakes is a 3.9-mile blue blazed connector between two portions of the Florida Trail around Camel Lake, a soggy, boggy walk in the Apalachicola National Forest. To enjoy it as a day hike with no shuttling, you can use the Florida Trail to create a 9.5-mile loop (starting and ending at Camel Lake) through a variety of habitats, many of them very wet.
The joys: pitcher plants in bloom each April. The lows: wet feet, depending on recent rainfall, which collects in the low titi swamps that the trail passes through. Except during hunting season, camping is permitted anywhere you can find a dry spot.
Location: Camel Lake Recreation Area
Length: 9.5 miles
Lat-Long: 30.277150, -84.986400
Fees / Permits: $3 parking fee if you park at the recreation area
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Yes, at recreation area
Recreation Area amenities include restrooms and picnic tables as well as a campground. A shorter hike, the Camel Lake Loop, starts and ends here.
Follow CR 12 south from the CR 12 and SR 20 intersection in Bristol for 11.4 miles into the Apalachicola National Forest. Turn left on FR 105, following the sign to Camel Lake Recreation Area. Drive 2 miles. If you want to park inside the recreation area, it opens at 8 AM and there is a fee. To start your hike earlier in the morning, park along FR 105 near the trail crossing.
Start your hike at the Camel Lake Recreation Area main parking area and head northwest to the Florida Trail crossing. Follow the orange blazes as they lead you past a picnic table and over a plank bridge. Routed interpretive signs identify some of the trees along the trail. After 0.8 mile, the trail drops into a wet area beneath the shade of fragrant titi trees. It opens up into a pine savanna where hooded pitcher plants rise from seepage bogs, some right in the footpath. You reach the 1-mile mark when the orange blazes lead you into dry sandhills, but it’s just a breather, as you’re back in the titi again within the next mile.
At 2.1 miles, you reach the Trail of Lakes junction at a jeep road with a routed sign to your left. Turn right to follow the blue blazes up the jeep road at the base of the sandhills. You are now officially on the blue-blazed Trail of Lakes. At 2.6 miles, you cross a forest road and enter a longleaf pine forest, where the high canopy shades an understory of saw palmetto. The trail parallels the forest road, staying close to the titi and passing by a small prairie pond filled with wheat-colored grasses.
At 4 miles, the Trail of Lakes turns right at a double blaze into the sandhills; you are surrounded by short turkey oaks. It drops down to follow the ecotone with the titi swamp. Crossing FR 136, the blue blazes lead you onto a jeep trail. Then the fun begins, as the trail turns into the shade of the titi and leads you across a series of balance-beam-like plank bridges over a flowing stream, with no cable to assist your crossing. Dodging cypress knees through a hummocky bottomland (flooded during the wet season), you cross two high bridges with cable handrails at 4.5 miles.
Soon you can see a large body of water in the distance—Sheep Island Lake. The chorus of frogs becomes louder as you reach a side trail to the lake at 4.7 miles. Walk down and enjoy the view of water lilies and the pristine far shoreline. The trail continues around the lake but out of sight of it. For the next mile, the trail jumps on and off of jeep roads, winds through stands of longleaf pine, and can be confusing to follow in places. Just check behind and in front of you to confirm you’re still following the blue blazes.
After 5.7 miles, you pass a clearing on the right for parking and see the outline of trees around Bonnet Pond, off to the right. This is the end of the Trail of Lakes, and you return to the Florida Trail. Turn right to head west beneath the oaks and pines towards Bonnet Pond; the trail provides an excellent view of this cypress-lined jewel.
Pine plantations and sandhills characterize the next mile or so of trail, which crosses and parallels jeep roads en route to Camel Lake. At 7 miles, a small pond sits in a depression to the right. The trail parallels a titi-lined drainage. Passing a sand pit piled with cut trees and construction debris, the trail crosses a jeep road and loops around the pit before making a sharp left into the sandhills. You continue down a long, straight stretch until the trail finally veers right at 7.6 miles. It emerges onto a sand road to bridge a broad creek. Watch for the Florida Trail signs, which direct you left and uphill into the sandhills.
At 8.7 miles, turn left and plunge through the titi into mixed hardwoods, where a series of plank bridges carries you across a cool drainage beneath tall cedars. As the trail enters the sandhills again, stay to the left at the fork in the jeep roads. You’ll soon see the campers and RVs in the Camel Lake Campground, signaling the end of the journey at 9.5 miles.