The preserve includes the Seminole County Environmental Studies Center, extensive interpretive trails, a shimmering spring, and a floodplain forest where you’ll always see birds busy looking for their meals. Bisected by the paved Cross Seminole Trail, it’s well worth a visit any time of year, whether you arrive by bicycle, car, or on foot from neighboring communities. It’s also home of the famed “Mud Walk,” cherished by generations of schoolkids.
Location: Winter Springs
Length: 2.6 miles (more possible!)
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to extreme
Restroom: At the Environmental Education Center, when open
Open sunrise to sunset. The park gates close at dusk. The Environmental Studies Center is closed on weekends. Restrooms are also available across the street at the ballfields of Soldier Creek Park.
Learn more from the Friends of the Seminole County Environmental Studies Center and Seminole County Natural Lands
From Interstate 4 exit 98, Lake Mary / Heathrow, drive east on Lake Mary Blvd for 1.6 miles to Longwood-Lake Mary Road. Turn right and continue 2.5 miles to where it ends at Ronald Reagan Blvd. Turn left, and make the first right onto General Hutchinson Parkway. The entrance to Big Tree Park is on your right – a stop there is a must to see The Senator and Lady Liberty. Continue down General Hutchinson Parkway through the preserve to the traffic light at US 17-92. Turn left. After 0.8 mile, make a right at the light onto SR 419. Drive 0.6 miles to the preserve entrance, on the left across from the ballfields at Osprey Trail. Enter the gates and park on the right.
Start your hike by wandering in from the parking lot to the Seminole County Environmental Studies Center. On weekends, it’s closed, but on weekdays, it’s a treasure trove of interpretive information and a place to pick up a trail map. Yes, you can get lost on these twisting, winding trails, but there are a handful of landmarks that let you orient yourself. The Center is the first one, close to the entrance and SR 419. The Cross-Seminole Trail is another, as it bisects the preserve and then parallels the entrance road. Soldier’s Creek sets another boundary – only the paved Cross Seminole Trail crosses it, there are no other bridges – and Lake Jesup forms the final border to this portion of the preserve. Stay on marked trails and you’ll be fine.
Start your hike at the Raccoon Pavilion just outside the Environmental Studies Center. Walk straight ahead past the Pine Woods Trail entrance. At the “Florida Trail” sign, turn left past a picnic pavilion, down a path less traveled at a three-way fork. Trails branch off everywhere, which is why this preserve is both fun and a bit tricky to navigate. At the “Primary Trail,” continue down it as it narrows through a stretch of ferns. As you reach the banks of Soldier Creek, a shallow, sand-bottomed stream, turn left to follow the creek downstream. A bench overlooks the creek in the shade of an enormous slash pine.
The trail swings out to a picturesque spot on the creek where water pours through a rotted log, creating a small rapid. Past a trail junction, the footpath slips between two massive slash pines and winds its way through a wild orange grove. You can hear water rushing as you emerge at the paved Cross-Seminole Trail. Cross over it and head downhill, continuing along the route paralleling Soldier Creek. At the “Limpkin Trail” sign, keep to the right. The trail becomes a boardwalk beneath maples and sweetgum. Another boardwalk leads off to the left at an observation deck. Continue straight, rounding the base of an enormous cypress. Cypress knees rise up to three feet from the forest floor. This is a floodplain area, and can be under water after heavy rains. Beyond a bench, the trail becomes a boardwalk again and crosses a series of bog bridges. Look around and up and you’ll see more massive cypresses, including a huge one next to the next bench.
As you emerge into an open area after a mile, a canal meets Soldier’s Creek, which flows off to the right towards Lake Jesup. Look straight ahead and off to the right a little to see one of the largest cypresses in Florida. The tree’s crown rises well over the surrounding forest canopy, and a large cavity is noticeable near the top of the tree. Turn left. Turn right to cross the boardwalk over the canal. This boardwalk, an out-and-back trip that you should not miss, zigzags through a forest of awe-inspiring cypresses, enormous just not at their bases but well up in the canopy as well. Osprey may be seen perching in the high branches. The boardwalk once ended with a sweeping view of Lake Jesup, but it stops short of the view now due to reconstruction needed at the very end.. Turn around and retrace your steps.
Back at the canal, turn right. More massive cypresses surround you in the floodplain, where there is a bench at 1.4 miles. The trail is like a broad dirt road. A hint of sulfur rises into the air near a milky teal pool, a natural spring bubbling up to feed the forest. Steps lead down to its edge, where a sign calls it “Question Pond.”
Continue along the main trail, where the scent of orange blossoms persists. Take the next boardwalk to the left to enter the presence of greatness. Lean back and stare up, tracing the trunk of this cypress towards the sky. It has such a massive cavity near the top a whole family of bears could den in it, if they could climb that high. Benches provide a place to hang out and watch the birds. A sign, “old bald cypress tree,” estimates the age of the tree to be between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.
Returning to the main route, turn left. A boardwalk off to the right leads into the Hydric Hammock Loop, which leads you along an accessible boardwalk into the dense forest of tall cabbage palms. Flagged cross trails with mushy footprints vanishing down mucky corridors are part of the Mud Walk. Oranges dangle from the surrounding citrus trees and roll down the boardwalk past a bench. . Stumps of cabbage palms make natural planters for a profusion of sword ferns. At the exit to the loop, at 1.9 miles, you encounter the staging area for the Mud Walk, where the kids get oriented beforehand and hosed off afterwards. An interpretive marker explains the canal and how it changed the hydrology of the swamp.
Follow the boardwalk. Slipping between two tributaries, the walkway ends up at a fork. Go straight ahead, following a part of the Mud Walk. Continue straight. A sign behind you says “Wet Trail.” A giant of a loblolly pine tree, a good six feet in circumference at its base, makes you stop and take pause. As the trail reaches a boardwalk bridge, cross over to the old forest road along the canal.
Continue straight ahead on a forest road perpendicular to the canal. It’s an old tramway used by cypress loggers, and it returns you to the Limpkin Trail junction at 2.2 miles. Turn right and climb up to the Cross Seminole Trail. Walk a little ways on the pavement to your right, but leave it again when you see the “Florida Trail” sign to your left. Heading back into the woods, you see a marker for a tulip popular on the left. It’s a common tree in the Appalachians, but not so common in Florida. This is one of the southernmost spots where tulip poplars grow in the wild.
The elevation increases a little and the trail transitions into a patch of oak scrub. A maze of short trails winds through this pine forest as you draw close to the Environmental Studies Center. You can exit the trail system by following the Cinnamon Fern Trail to the right, the Rusty Lyonia Trail to the left, and walking beneath the picnic pavilion. Take the first left after that, which meanders past picnic tables before reaching a boardwalk. Returning to the Raccoon Pavilion near the Environmental Studies Center, you’ve walked 2.6 miles.