A Walk on the Wild Side

Central Florida's Lakes Country offers hiking opportunities to suit every taste.

On a recent trip to central Florida's Lakes Country, I stopped by a nature festival held on the Circle B Bar Reserve. I couldn't help thinking how festival guests mirrored other hikers I'd met on this trip. Many were content to stick on or close to the festival grounds: taking nature walks, enjoying the air moss-draped oaks and the breezes off Lake Hancock. Others trekked off into the recesses of the 1,267-acre wilderness, one of 10 such environmental lands Polk County has set aside for public enjoyment.

Whatever you're looking for in a hike - from a half-hour stroll with the kids to a miles-long trek in the wild - central Florida's Lakes Country offers in abundance.

I decide to start easy.

Audubon Trails

Ridge Audubon's Babson Park Audubon Center sits on the Lake Wales Ridge. Probably Florida's most unique habitat, the Ridge is a relic sand dune system left over from the days when seawater covered much of the area. Today, this desert-like region houses forest and scrub systems in which a plethora of rare plants and animals live.

Though it runs only a quarter mile, Babson Park's Caloosa Nature Trail offers a taste of Ridge wonders. Gaze at long-leaf pines, wildflowers, warblers and red-cockaded woodpeckers. I'm even lucky enough to spot the burrow of a gopher tortoise.

A richer, greener environment awaits at the Street Audubon Nature Center in Winter Haven. Tucked into a suburban neighborhood, this sanctuary nonetheless seems a tropical Eden. As you walk Street's hiking trails, check out the butterfly garden - spotting monarchs, spice bush swallowtails, and friends. Birders can find red-bellied woodpeckers and mourning doves. In April, the wildflowers abound. My favorite walk takes me along Lake Ned, where I see a tortoise and her offspring resting on a log. Cutting my teeth on the Audubon trails, I feel ready to head into deeper woods.

Into the Wild

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest offers a more intensive view of the ecosystem seen at Babson Park. I travel here via SR 17. Lately designated a scenic route, it is all rolling hills and orange groves. The forest offers two primary hiking areas, the Arbuckle Tract and the Walk-In-The-Water Tract.

The Arbuckle Tract is a little foreboding - so complete is the sense of isolation. Forget the nature centers and vending machines available on the Audubon trails. Here, a display map on a wooden frame is all the welcome a hiker gets. The terrain is scrubland, naturally rugged. On the one-and-a-quarter-mile looping Paula Dockery Trail, I'm forever climbing over or limbo-ing under trees and stumps - including those of pine and scrub oaks. The rewards are many: one-of-a-kind scrub views, bumblebees utterly undisturbed by my presence. If you love it, primitive camping sites are available for $10 per night.

I've unwittingly saved the best for last. At Lake Kissimmee State Park, everything looks lush. It's nesting season, and eagles and osprey have been spotted in the past weeks. Hiking trails - the North Loop, Gobbler Ridge and Buster Islands Trail - originate from the picnic area. Each takes about three hours to complete. Park literature advises you to "take only pictures, leave only footprints."

I start off on the North Loop, and almost immediately spot my first eagle-in-the-wild. Moments later, I pass through an area which has recently undergone a prescribed burn. The trees are blackened, the land smells like smoke, and I can't help but feel as if I've meandered into one of the haunted forests of folklore.

Plugging on is easy - the trails are well marked. I branch off onto Gobbler Ridge. The land goes from burned black to spring green, and a bit marshy. A pair of red-shouldered hawks circle above my head before they realize I'm too big to hunt.

Losing the trail for a moment and blundering around in the forest, I come across two deer lying down under the shade of a large oak. Having spent their lives on protected land, they emit a remarkable serenity when faced with an interloper. Later, I spot what I can only assume is a family of sandhill cranes, two gray-and-red adults, and juveniles whose feathers have not yet turned - they're still a downy yellowish brown. The color is no doubt protection. Unlike clumsy me, the cranes blend into the wilderness.

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