If you’re squeamish about alligators, stay away from the waterfront trails – although in my opinion, they’re the best trails in the reserve. Ramble the Shady Oak Trail and the Lost Bridge Trail instead, and enjoy the nature center. But be sure to walk out to Lake Hancock anyway to see how pretty a pristine cypress-lined lake can be.
Length: 3.5 miles (up to 6 miles possible)
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: At the Nature Discovery Center, plus portable toilets for when the center is closed on Mondays.
Open 5 AM – 8:30 PM. Dogs are not permitted, with good reason – gator bait! Bicycles are permitted on any of the trails, although I wouldn’t risk riding one down Alligator Alley myself. Numerous benches are available along the trails.
Be very, very, very watchful of small children along the causeway trails through the swamps and do not let them anywhere near the water. They’ll love the Nature Discovery Center, with its treehouse to climb and fox den to burrow into. The center is open Tue-Sat 9-4 and Sun 12-4.
This park is part of the Trek Ten Trails Program in Polk County
From Interstate 4, take the Polk Parkway (east or west) to SR 540 (Winter Lake Road). Follow it west. It zigzags and makes a turn near the municipal dump before entering a tunnel of forests and swamps. Watch for the park entrance on the left. For my hike, I parked at a picnic spot directly inside the gate, but if you want to skip that section of the Shady Oak Trail (0.7 mile each way), keep driving and you can park near the Nature Discovery Center, from which the trail system radiates.
Starting from the trailhead right near the entrance gate – parking is next to the picnic tables – the Shady Oak Trail starts off with a kiosk that celebrates the importance of Florida’s wetlands. Why here, in such a dry area? This is the purpose of Circle Bar B – wetlands restoration for the sake of the Peace River.
Within a moment, you’re under the oaks on a well-mown path, with yellow sulfurs flitting past. The understory is thickly choked with low vegetation, including an unfortunate amount of caesarweed, but the path is well-defined and clear. Even in late afternoon, there is a full symphony of birdsong and chatter of squirrels. Off to the right, you can see a line of light through the understory, defining where the re-created wetlands start.
After five minutes of walking, the oak canopy above you knits more densely together, providing deep shade, their curved trunks and thick limbs coated in resurrection fern. Streamers of spanish moss glisten in the shafts of light that filter through to the forest floor. The habitat transitions as more cabbage palms appear poking through more openings in the canopy.
At 0.6 mile, you reach an intersection with Heron Hideout. If you’re just here for birding and photography, not hiking, head down that way immediately into the open impoundments, where the action is. To hike the circuit out along Lake Hancock, stay on the Shady Oak Trail, which continues straight ahead as a loose environmentally-friendly concrete path to the Nature Discovery Center complex. It’s a very pretty setting, with picnic shelters and grills set under the oaks. If the center is open, pop in there first for an overview of the environments and wildlife you’ll see along your hike.
A trail junction encourages you forward towards Lake Hancock as you continue down the trail. The paved path ends at a kiosk “wetlands are filters.” The Lost Bridge Trail veers off to the left at 0.9 mile; continue straight ahead, rambling beneath the oaks. The trail is not so shady until you pass interpretive information about the butterflies of the reserve and enter a hammock of very old live oaks. A red-shouldered hawk cries out overhead, but it’s no match for a cacophony of birds along the lake. Passing an outdoor classroom under the oaks, the trail soon emerges in a grassy prairie with a view out along the shore of Lake Hancock.
A hiker marker at 1.3 miles beckons you forward onto the lakeshore path. Here’s where you need to assess your wildlife interest and savvy before you continue forward. What I didn’t know when I hiked this next segment of trail – but you should – is that Lake Hancock has one of the densest alligator populations in the state. Keep very alert for alligators along the trail as it becomes a causeway between lake and marsh. Alligator slides are common (and even more common along Alligator Alley) – indentations on either side of the causeway caused by regular use by alligators to cross the path.
Passing a water monitoring station, the trail offers sneak peeks of the lake through the cypresses along the shoreline. Lake Hancock’s shores are entirely natural on the far side, lined with cypress and busy with birds. According to an interpretive kiosk you’ll encounter, the lake has a surface area of seven square miles and water capacity of 3 billion gallons. On average, it’s only two feet deep. Wading birds are likely to startle you as they burst out of hiding places at your approach. The marsh on the right is covered with water spangles, providing good camouflage for young alligators.
At 1.5 miles, a boardwalk stretches out into Lake Hancock with a sheltered sitting area at the end. The panorama of lake and cypresses is so beautiful it’s hard to tear yourself away from it to keep hiking, especially when ibis and little blue herons are picking their way through the shoreline shallows. The trail continues as broad as a road, paralleling the lake. Off to the right, the marsh becomes more extensive, now stretching to the horizon.
The causeway pops out into the open after 2 miles, providing clear sweeping views of marsh and lake in all directions, a prime place for birding. White and glossy ibises pick their way past a stand of Virginia willows. Past another bench, the causeway makes a jog to the right. The marsh views on the right become even more open, the better to track bird activity. A constant breeze riffles from lake to marsh. Another bench at a culvert provides an open and busy wildlife watching area as birds – and alligators – wait for fish to flutter through the pipes in whichever direction they’re flowing today. Turtles rest on fallen logs, and dragonflies fill the air. Birds and alligators are all around you, but unless they move – which the birds frequently do as you approach – you may never notice them, since they blend into their habitats so well.
As the causeway narrows and makes an obvious curve, a dense stand of cypress begins to obscure the lake view. This is Alligator Alley, and it’s well named. Alligator slides are everywhere. Keep alert. I had my attention on one alligator and missed the one right behind me until I turned around and we startled each other. The causeway narrows rather tightly. A stand of alligator flag marks a flag pond, a deeper spot in the marsh. It’s a comfort to have a few feet of elevation over your surroundings.
The waterway on the left becomes a canal topped with water lettuce. Great blue herons and Louisiana herons poke along the shallows. To the right, the wetland is vast and open. Lantana and primrose willow add splashes of color along the causeway. It begins to broaden again, now flanked by canals with the sweep of marsh to the right. Red maple is turning crimson and purple in autumn.
Coming up to an intersection, you have a choice of several trails. To the left is the Eagle Roost Trail, which I didn’t have time for on this hike but is excellent for photographing and spotting birds out in the open. There is no shade, unlike the route I took, but you will see wildlife. The Eagle Roost Trail now connects with the Fort Fraser Trail, a bicycle trail between Bartow and Lakeland. Straight ahead is the Marsh Rabbit Trail, which you can use to create a loop back to this point around the marsh.
Even if you don’t have the time to do this sunny loop, linger a bit at the first impoundments past the culverts on the Eagle Loop Trail. In the shallow marshy areas, flocks of moorhens and coots fuss at each other. In the open water to the left, anhinga and cormorants gather in large numbers to feed on the many fish in the water, and you may even – as I did – see an osprey come down and pinpoint a large fish for dinner.
Turn right to return to the Nature Discovery Center complex via the Heron Hideout Trail. Also crossing a vast marsh impoundment, it has shallower water where ibises prefer to feed. I was told by visitors that they’ve seen flocks of white pelicans and roseate spoonbills passing through here on their migratory routes.
Returning to the Heron Hideout and Shady Oak trail junction at 2.9 miles, turn right to return to the Nature Discovery Center (if you parked there, haven’t visited there, or need the restrooms) or turn left to exit back to the Shady Oak trailhead.
0.0 Shady Oak trailhead near front gate
0.6 junction Shady Oak & Heron Hideout
0.7 Nature Discovery Center complex
0.8 trail junction at center
0.9 Lost Bridge Trail junction
1.2 Prairie along Lake Hancock
1.3 Hiker marker at lakeshore path
1.5 Lake Hancock observation deck
2.0 Scenic views along Lake Hancock
2.2 Bench along Alligator Alley
2.5 4-way junction
2.9 junction Heron & Shady Oak
3.5 end at Shady Oak Trailhead