As temperatures become tolerable, Seminole County’s Natural Lands Program starts calling. Our own Georgia Rivas takes us on a tour of the best hiking trails and nature spots in town.
Did you know that Seminole County’s Natural Lands Program was established in 1990 by a voter-approved referendum? Did you also know the program protects 6,600 acres of preserved land – eight wilderness areas and one preserve – all of which is open to the public?
And, there’s more. The Natural Lands Program offers a variety of activities and educational experiences for all ages including guided hikes, swamp walks, special talks, and nature and navigation classes. How lucky are we to have all this available to us in our own backyard!?
Save for a handful of visits to Wekiwa Springs State Park, I really had not taken the time to appreciate our area’s natural resources and easy access to green space. So, when I learned about the many opportunities to experience the beauty of Seminole County in a copy of the Fall 2019 Leisure Services Guide, I was determined to take advantage of them.
After recruiting my husband Stefan to come along for the ride, we signed up for a free, 7.1-mile guided morning hike through Black Bear Wilderness Area in Sanford. The hike we chose was hosted in celebration of National Public Lands Day, an annual event in September carried out nationwide as a way to inspire others to volunteer in an environmental project or simply take a day to enjoy and appreciate nature. It was the perfect way to make my debut into Seminole County’s Natural Lands Program.
Off We Go
On an early Saturday morning, our group of 14 locals gathered in the parking lot of the Black Bear Wilderness Area in anticipation of our 7.1-mile loop led by volunteer Heather Woodward, a science teacher at Jackson Heights Middle School. After dousing ourselves in bug repellent and making friendly introductions, we were ready to hit the trail. It would be roughly four-and-a-half-hours of walking at a steady pace before our return.
Located in the floodplain of the St. Johns River, the trail system through Black Bear Wilderness Area is established on historic levees and stays dry most of the year. Though the trail is primarily flat, we navigated over uneven, sloping terrain, tree roots, and animal burrows, stopping along the way to observe various species of plants, both native and non-native to the area, and we even saw a few (very well-disguised) dusky pygmy rattlesnakes.
More than a dozen beautiful moss-laden boardwalks provided passage over wet areas where we were fortunate to see baby alligators and birds like the pileated woodpecker with its flaming-red crest, and the limpkin, a large brown-and-white bird known for its haunting cry. On a good day, you may even see a white-tailed deer, river otter, or a black bear.
As we walked along wetland habitats like the wet prairie, hydric hammock, and cypress swamps, our guide Heather and our sweep Rory (the last person in our hiking group who made sure no one got left behind) shared their extensive knowledge about Florida’s diverse flora and fauna. In moments of pause, we collectively enjoyed the peace and quiet – savoring the silence.
But, perhaps one of the best reasons to sign up for a guided hike through Seminole County’s Natural Lands Program is the chance to enjoy interesting and refreshing conversation with nature enthusiasts and local folks from all walks of life. Like Lake Mary resident Penny Macioszek, who signed up for the hike as training for her upcoming 70-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail from Tennessee to North Carolina next April. And Walter Carvalho of Sanford, who brought his wife and two children to spend quality time together.
If there’s one thing I got out of my first guided hike experience, it’s this: Don’t wait like I did until National Public Lands Day! Hiking season in Florida runs from October through April, and thanks to Florida’s flatter terrain, hiking is an accessible outdoor activity for the entire family to enjoy, all just a short drive from home. The time is now, so get out and stretch those legs! You’ll be better for it and gain a deeper appreciation for our home county.
To register for any Seminole County Natural Lands Program activites, visit Recreation.SeminoleCountyFL.gov. For more information, call 407-665-2211.
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