Location: Orange City
Length: 7.3 miles
Lat-Long: 28.942571, -81.339894
Fees / Permits: $6 per carload ($4 individual) state park fee
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: at the parking area
Camping is no longer permitted along this trail. Due to the trail’s length and terrain, bring a lunch, plenty of water, and mosquito repellant for this hike! The level of the St. Johns River determines whether portions of this trail will be flooded.
Take I-4 east from Orlando to exit 114. Head northeast on SR 472 for 3.5 miles to US 17/92 south. Take US 17/92 south towards Orange City for 1.5 miles. Turn right on West French Street. A large overhead state park sign calls your attention to the turn. The paved road ends after several miles. The park entrance is on the left. After you pay your fee, take the left fork to drive to the lower parking area.
The trail starts near the exit of the lower parking loop. A kiosk at the trailhead contains a rough map of the trail. It’s an out-and-back walk to the St. Johns River around a very large lagoon, transitioning between bone-dry and soggy habitats as it makes a large horseshoe curve.
Immediately as you start down the trail, there’s a large warning sign that says “4.5 miles one way to trail end.” Don’t believe it. Measured, the trail is slightly over 3.5 miles each way – I’ve walked it twice and my measurements came out the same on both trips. Still, it is a long walk, and you should be prepared with adequate water, since nearly a mile in each direction is in the full sun of a scrub forest.
The hike starts in a hardwood hammock with a smattering of southern magnolia among the oaks, and is marked – occasionally – with a bootprint symbol on a post. Netted chain and cinnamon fern grow beneath the loose canopy. Off to the right, not far off, is the floodplain forest that edges the lagoon. You never glimpse its waters – unless the St. Johns River is high and they flood into the trail farther on – but the lagoon is always a presence down the slope from the trail. Gaining some elevation, the trail passes under older loblolly pines, some with signs of turpentine tapping, and scattered American holly.
The understory becomes a thicket on the left as the trail transitions into scrub under the oak trees, with towering rusty lyonia, some rising to tree size, overhead. Blueberry bushes grow in clusters. A line of light to the left through the trees belies how close you are drawing to the open scrub, which is the process of being restored to ideal Florida scrub-jay habitat. Scrub-jays are frequently seen around the campground in this park, near the park entrance, and we glimpsed them along one section of this trail as well.
At 0.4 mile you reach a bench and a T intersection with a forest road. Powerlines rise off in the distance beyond a flat, mostly featureless restoration area. Turn right. Walking along the edge of this restoration area, the views aren’t especially pretty. The landscape is roughed up, awaiting the regrowth of young scrub plants. You pass a road leading off to the left to a line of trees in the distance. The trail follows the ecotone between the scrub and a mixed oak and pine forest to the right; a line of cabbage palms in the distance on the right marks the edge of the lagoon.
In morning, there is no shade, and it gets hot quickly. You hear the chirps of towhees in the underbrush, and see sandhill cranes flying overhead. Passing milepost 1, the trail jogs back and forth a little, and you pass a large tree on the left for the first time since you started walking along the restoration area. Listen closely and you may hear the “shreep” of a scrub-jay sentinel in the distance. The forest is a dense thicket on the right, and chunks of rocks are scattered about. You soon discover why around the next bend: the remains of a homestead, complete with foundation and cistern. Situated between the rail line (which still exists nearby, and you’ll notice only if a train passes through) and the river, this was where a family once lived, maintaining orange groves in what is now scrub forest. A spill of fossilized snail shells across the ground lends a clue that the home probably sat atop fill taken from an ancient Timucuan midden.
After the homestead, the trail sweeps upward to the left, becoming deep soft sand underfoot as it leaves the treeline at a fork. At the top of the hill, it passes a bench as it curves to the right and into the heart of the scrub. Look left towards the cell tower and you may see blurs of blue, a family of scrub-jays making their way between the smaller trees. Gopher tortoise tracks leave impressions in the soft, sugar-like sand through this section. It’s a relief after you pass a road on the right: the elevation drops, and sand transitions to firmer footpath underfoot, a grassy road along the pond pines. By 1.6 miles, the trail draws close to the park boundary fence and the powerline briefly before swinging away from the fence and into the pond pine forest in a slow descent.
Reaching a bench at 1.8 miles, you’re now firmly into denser forest and will remain in a series of forests through the end of the trail – that difficult section of open scrub is behind you until the return trip. Unfortunately, many people turn back before this point, not realizing the “truly worth hiking” part of this trail is past this rough section. Pines and oaks rise well overhead, denser on the south side of the trail. You feel a distinct drop in air temperature as the trail drops down into a floodplain between two small stretches of oak scrub. Passing a short spur to the fenceline on the left, the trail keeps dropping in elevation, passing a massive pine tree on the right. You dip into a beautiful cypress swamp at 2 miles, with a wonderous interplay of floodplain plants– red maple and sweetgum, clusters of cypress knees, cabbage palms, dense stands of ferns, and bromeliads clinging to hanging vines. Here’s an important decision point. If you have to wade through this swamp, and the wading is more than ankle-deep, the trail will be impassible from flooding later on. Except for those scrub uplands, the entire Pine Island Trail is easily affected by the rise and fall of the St. Johns River, with the lagoon creeping beyond its marshes and into the woods. If this section of trail is dry, you should have easy going the rest of the way.
As you rise out of the floodplain, the trail is flanked with massive live oaks, their gnarled limbs covered in bromeliads and ressurection ferns. Rising up on twisted trunks are clumps of older saw palmetto. You pass a back gate to the park on the left. The trail climbs upwards beneath the canopy of sand live oaks into a patch of scrubby flatwoods with only a smattering of shade. You pass a hydrology station for water monitoring at 2.5 miles. An abrupt change of habitat happens on the descent out of the flatwoods: the trail curves to the left into the deep shade of a lush hammock of palms, pines, and large live oaks. Spanish moss waves in the breeze.
In the coolness of a palm hammock, the trail continues to descend. Another shift in habitat, and there are more oaks and pines up ahead. You feel a cool breeze filtering through the forest from the St. Johns River. In the next patch of slash pine forest, the saw palmetto crowds closely as the trail narrows. Pine cones spill across the rooty footpath. Passing a bootprint marker and a mileage marker soon after at 3 miles, you continue the descent under the limbs of ancient oaks arching over the trail. Lumps of spaghnum moss cover a fallen palm. As the trail continues to snake downhill, you’re following its curves through another palm hammock in the floodplain. A low spot in the trail belies where the lagoon can spill over and swamp the trail; there are old footbridges, strewn about by floodwaters, in the high grasses to the right. The watermarks on the trees are several feet high. You may have to wade this short section, except in the driest of seasons.
Rising out of the floodplain into a palm hammock where the outspread limbs of live oaks form horizontal counterpoints to the verticals of the palm trunks, the trail enters its final and most beautiful section. This slight ridge above the St. Johns River is home to an ancient forest that envelopes the trail in deep shade from its high canopy. The trail keeps narrowing, squeezed by saw palmetto through a short stretch of pines. You can see a ribbon of sky up ahead through the trees. Descending back into the hammock, you pass an unusable privy – the primitive campsites here were washed away and abandoned after the hurricanes of 2004 – and the trail narrows down even tighter. Follow it as it slips between the trees, past the old markers for the campsites, and makes a sharp left before it pops out on the banks on the St. Johns River after 3.6 miles, just beyond a “Mile 4″ sign. A sweeping view of the river is before you; sparkling mussel shells and colorful wildflowers line the shores.
Since this is an out-and-back, you must retrace your steps. Savor the slow ascent beneath the deeply shaded hammocks, and you’ll feel the uphill by the time you rise out of the cypress swamp and keep walking uphill into the oaks and pines at 5.5 miles. Pausing at the bench in the woods, keep hydrated to gather your strength for that short but energy-sapping push across the soft sand of the open scrub on the way out. Don’t miss that all-important turn at the bench at 6.9 miles to re-enter the last stretch of forest, that final shady portion en route to the trailhead. You complete the hike after 7.3 miles.
|0.4||T intersection / bench|
|0.6||Road to left|
|1.1||Bench in scrub|
|1.3||Road to right|
|1.8||Bench in woods|
|2.0||Fenceline on left|
|2.3||Back gate on left|
|3.3||Low spot in trail|
|3.6||St. Johns River|
|4.0||Low spot in trail|
|5.4||Bench in woods|
|6.2||Bench in scrub|
|6.9||T intersection / bench|