More than a million people live within twenty miles of Wekiwa Springs State Park, where Orlando’s suburban sprawl encroaches from several directions. It’s one of Florida’s most busy and popular state parks, with Wekiwa Springs – a first magnitude spring that forms the Wekiva River – the primary destination for most visitors. With more than 42,000 acres protected along the federally-designated Wild and Scenic River basin among several adjoining state parks, this is a truly wild place. You’ll sample the wilderness along the Wekiwa Springs Hiking Trail. This extensive trail system immerses you in vast landscapes where deer and Florida black bear roam.
Looking for a much shorter hike? Try the Wet-to-Dry Trail near the Wekiwa Springs swimming area.
Length: 10.2 miles
Type: loop with shorter options
Fees / Permits: State Park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate to difficult, depending on water levels
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: at the trailhead
Leave plenty of time to complete the full loop. Shorter options are available; refer to the park map. Parts of the trail are shared with off-road cyclists and equestrians. Insect repellant is a must. Leashed dogs permitted. The park is busy on summer weekends and will close the gates when maximum capacity for parking is reached.
Wekiwa Springs State Park website
From I-4 exit 94, follow SR 434 west for 1 mile to Wekiwa Springs Road. Turn right. Drive 4.1 miles to the park entrance on the right. Once you pay your admission fee, take the left fork of the park road and follow it to where it ends at Sand Lake trailhead.
Leaving the Sand Lake trailhead, walk up the sidewalk through the low scrub forest. Restrooms are at the top of the hill on the left. Passing them, you reach a trail junction at 0.2 mile. Numbered markers appear all along this hike, corresponding to the park map: the better to make it easier for park personnel to find lost hikers. The first marker you pass is Marker 23. Continue straight ahead at the junction to start walking clockwise around the loop.
The trail drops down a little as you enter an oak scrub with tall rusty lyonia, slash pines, and loblolly pines. The footpath is well defined and marked with white blazes. There is a fork where it seems the trail might cross the road, but instead it heads downhill to the left, descending over roots into a floodplain forest with lots of cinnamon ferns beneath the sweetgum and loblolly bay. The park road is visible to your right. The sweet aroma of wet pine needles fills the air as you walk across thick pine duff.
At 0.4 mile there’s a bench off to the right. Behind it, the orange-blazed East-West Cross Trail heads off to the right. You’re standing beneath tall pond pines. Follow the white blazes as they guide you left and away from the park road, tunneling into an oak scrub with a low canopy. As the trail drops down to the edge of the floodplain forest, ferns fill the understory, and the air becomes markedly cooler. Traversing a bridge over tannic waters at 0.6 mile, the trail climbs up into a mixed forest of pines and loblolly bay, dense with saw palmetto in the understory. The trail is now blazed in orange, yellow, and white, and ascends into open scrubby flatwoods. Blazing star peeps up between the saw palmetto and gallberry. A large stand of sand pines is off to the right, a bayhead swamp to the left. Turning away from the scrubby flatwoods, the trail climbs uphill into the sand pine scrub before reaching sandhills with an open understory. The trees creak overhead, and several deer dash across the footpath. Wildlife sightings are common along this loop. A pileated woodpecker flits between the oaks.
Leaving the sandhills for the cover of a mixed hardwood forest of hickory and oak at 1.1 miles, the trail sits atop a small ridge where the landscape drops severely to the left into a massive floodplain forest along the Wekiva River basin. At the junction where this trail, which continues towards Wekiwa Springs, meets the East-West Cross Trail, don’t believe the mileages on the sign– they’re missing decimal places. Turn right at this junction, where there’s a bench, and scramble uphill to cross the park road. The trail is now blazed both orange and white. Leading through sandhills past Marker 2, the trail turns to the right beneath the longleaf pines, paralleling the campground. Colorful wildflowers peep out of the wiregrass in spring and fall. Passing a side trail to the outdoor ampetheater, you cross the campground road at 1.3 miles. The trail drops down and crosses a sand road, continuing into open scrub.
You see a diamond marker on a tree as the trail intersects an equestrian trail where scrub yields to expansive rolling sandhills. After a prescribed burn, the wiregrass perks up, enabling fall wildflowers to put on a show, tall purple arcs of blazing star and bright dots of yellow buttons among the most colorful. Walking through an oak hammock – the climax community – in the middle of the sandhills, you enjoy a spot of deep shade. Crossing the paved road into Camp Wekiva, the youth camp, after 2 miles, the trail drops steeply downhill through tall longleaf pines, with a nice example of a catface scar from turpentine tapping on a pine on the right as you enter the next oak hammock, just past a sand road. A glimpse of Lake Prevatt is off to the left as you quickly descend to the lakeshore through a hardwood hammock. Past the next forest road, the forest is much denser. You can hear moorhens along the shoreline but saw palmetto blocks the view. A bench sits above the lake at 2.5 miles, but has no view of the water. After crossing a dirt road, the trail climbs up and down small ridges in the sandhills beneath the longleaf pines, dipping through a dry streambed.
By 2.9 miles, there is a junction of trails at a bench at Marker 10. Off to your right, the blazes are red, orange, and blue, leading back to Sand Pond. The red marks the mountain biking loop, which now joins this trail’s white blazes. Be cautious of bicycles moving at high speed. A big sinkhole sits off to the right, with saw palmetto and mature trees growing from the bottom. The trail descending into an area filled with cabbage palms, a clue that the water table may be near the surface. At 3.5 miles, at Marker 11, the trail crosses a powerline road. There is a bench just beyond the crossing. Continuing through the sandhills, you walk beneath a canopy of turkey oaks and longleaf pine. Coastal plain palafox engulfs the trail in a sea of white wildflowers during the fall months.
The landscape opens up on the right as a large depression appears off to the right, enough of a swale to suggest an underground stream beneath. Cross over a forest road and horse trail at Marker 12, and soon after, a side trail leads to the right to a deep sinkhole that opened up in 2000, a year that we had many sinkholes throughout this area. When I first hiked out to this sinkhole to photograph it for my book “Sinkholes,” it was brand new, fresh, with sand still slipping down the sides, and had water in the bottom. Now the trees rising out of it are well-established at the base. A wall of vegetation rises to the right, perhaps delinating another sinkhole or a swale.
At 4 miles, the habitat transitions from sandhills to hardwood forest with large oaks, densely overgrown with tangles of grapevine. The trail begins to slope downhill, and there is a hint of water in the air. A nursery of young longleaf pines grows in an open spot. In the shade of pines and oaks, the trail skirts around a small sinkhole and rises slowly into the sandhills, into another sea of coastal plain palafox, where yellow sulphurs dance between the blossoms under the pines. Reaching Marker 13 at a forest road crossing in the pines, the trail continues through this broad open habitat with its extensive views. By 4.6 miles, you can see a nursery in the distance as the trail pulls within sight of the park boundary fence, with a cell tower and a smattering of traffic noise from Rock Springs Road through the back gate of the park.
The trail turns back to the interior of the park, away from the boundary, into the rolling sandhills, a big traverse with a view of more than a half mile. Crossing a forest road that’s used as an equestrian trail, you come to a bench set in the shade of the oaks. Marker 15 is at another forest road crossing with a bench next to it. By 5 miles, the view is less expansive as the understory closes in. Entering a corridor flanked by tall saw palmetto, push through the fronds to ascend a slight rise to Marker 16 at a forest road where the expanse of sandhills spreads out before you. Soon after, there’s a bench next to Marker 17 at a green-blazed horse trail. The trail winds its way past a large patch of pine savanna, working its way down to a bayhead swamp. Scrub intrudes into the understory as the trail reaches another back gate to the park at 5.5 miles.
Heading downhill fast, the trail dips into a cypress swamp. Here, the blazes are red, white, and green along a tannic stream, the mountain bike, equestrian, and hiking trails briefly sharing the same route. With tannic swamps on both sides, you’re in the heart of a palm hammock, and there’s no doubt the water will be at least ankle-deep ahead. The thick mud underfoot tries to wrench off your shoes. Sweetgum and cypress tower over a stand of native bamboo. Climbing out of the muck to slightly elevated drier terrain, the trail reaches a bench. If you haven’t lathered on the mosquito repellant, break it out now. Soon after, Marker 19 is the intersection where the mountain bike and equestrian trails depart, and the white blazes guide you deeper into the swamp, part of the floodplain of Rock Springs Run. Although you can’t see the run, you’re very close to the Kelly Loop Trail at Kelly Park.
Crossing a bridge that might not span far enough to cross a swiftly-flowing stream, the trail drops into deep mud. Live oaks tower overhead, creating a high canopy; palm fronds slap you in the face. Marker 19a is next to a tributary pouring past to empty into Rock Springs Run. As you can tell from the condition of the footpath, this waterway frequently swamps the trail. After the next bridge over a side channel, you walk down a palm-lined corridor, darkened by the glistening fronds of needle palms. All around Marker 19b, at 6 miles, look up and notice the sheer size of the trees around you, true ancients of the forest. Tulip poplar, near the southern extent of its range, is among them.
Wild coffee appears in the understory as the trail remains mucky and wet, becoming a little indistinct within this riot of greenery, a tight and tricky corridor under the palms. Keep looking for the next white blaze. The dense corridor yields to a more open understory in a palm hammock with slightly drier ground. Walking beneath southern magnolia, you’re along an ecotone with an upland area. The trail gets grassy underfoot for a short stretch, then reverts to damp swales under the cabbage palms. It’s an interesting junction of habitats, with pines coming in from the right and the floodplain to your left. A slight rise in elevation, and cinnamon ferns grow beneath tall loblolly pines. By 7 miles, you enter a palm hammock where the live oaks, pines, and cabbage palms are equally ancient, forming a very tall canopy. Sunlight filters through the fronds to the forest floor.
Rounding a pool of standing water, a puddle in the pines, the trail continues to parallel the floodplain forest of Rock Springs Run. Here and there you see hints of it off to the left. A tannic waterway weaves its way past on the right as you head through a thicket of saw palmetto into another ancient and stately palm hammock. Climbing out of the splish-splash of the palm hammock into the pine woods past Marker 19c, the trail heads down a corridor between saw palmetto. Shade dissipates as the trail ascends into scrubby flatwoods dominated by pond pine, a counterpoint to the cool, shady habitats you’ve enjoyed for the past hour, the footpath now level, solid, and without roots in the way.
Pass marker 19d in the middle of the scrubby flatwoods. The trail curves left and starts to sweep downhill towards the floodplain again, reaching Marker 20 next to a bench in the shade at 7.8 miles. Just past it is Camp Cozy, a mowed square in the forest, a primitive campsite with a fire ring surrounded by benches, and a spigot with non-potable water. The trail continues through the camp, making a sharp left as it narrows to cross a stream over a bridge and descends back into sloppy, muddy goop along the floodplain. Scattered tulip poplar leaves stand out in yellow against the mud, their distinct tulip shapes catching your attention. Mosquitoes buzz in swarms under the sweetgum trees. A hint of blue sky off to the left lets you know you’re near Rock Springs Run.
At 8.4 miles, the trail reaches a forest road. To your left, you can walk down to the edge of Rock Springs Run. The trail turns right and ascends to Big Buck Camp, which paddlers can access. Formerly a hunt camp when this land was owned by the Apopka Sportsman’s Club, it remains a primitive campsite with picnic benches and fire ring. Water taken from the spigot here must be treated. As the trail leaves the camp, it winds through a dense palm hammock, with palm fronds hitting you in the face and cypress knees underfoot. Finally, you reach a bench with a view of Rock Springs Run. Sit and savor this hard-won view. The trail ever-so-briefly continues within sight of the waterway before it enters a maze of cypress knees and turns away from the run, heading uphill.
Reaching Marker 21 at a junction with a forest road and a double blaze, don’t make the turn. Continue straight ahead, following the trail up an old logging tramway into the floodplain forest. Sluggish waters spread across the swamp on both sides. This part of the trail was closed for many years, but reopened after a lot of chainsaw work to clear felled trees. Shaded by a dense canopy of oaks and cypress, the swamp is abuzz with mosquitoes. Sword fern swarms both sides of the trail around 9 miles. The canopy lifts, as loblolly pines, elms, and hickories tower overhead. You can see a fair distance down the tunnel of tramway ahead. A tricky, makeshift balance beam of a bridge gets you over a cut through the tramway where the tannic water flows through. A more substantial bridge is just beyond it. As the trail bursts out into sunlight, there is a mix of oaks and sweetgums overhead.
At 9.5 miles, you reach the intersection with the East-West Cross Trail at a bench at Marker 22. Continue straight ahead, following the white blazes. You cross Mill Creek on an old bridge. Bamboo lines both sides of the tramway, yielding to a straighaway in the pines. The corridor widens significantly from tramway to forest road width, quickly rising up to a T intersection at 10 miles. Look to the right, and you can see the restrooms at Sand Lake in the distance. Turn right. Keep to the left at the fork. Passing Sand Lake, you see benches on the far side, overlooking the scenic view. Reaching Marker 23, you’ve completed the loop. Turn right and walk past the restrooms, down the sidewalk, back to the parking area, finishing the 10.2 mile hike.