As I mentioned a few posts ago, when I flew into Orlando I went for a hike over at Split Oak Forest WEA. After I made my flight plans a few months ago I knew I wanted to hike somewhere, probably on the Florida trail, and I had thought I’d likely hit up Tosohatchee WMA. But over the last few months I began seeing a lot more press about a potential toll road proposal going through the southern portion of Split Oak Forest.
In late December, Osceola county commissioners ended up approving the toll road plans which was seriously disappointing to hear. Then, late last month a commissioner asked her fellow board members to rescind the vote based on being misled and being filed under a wrong state code. I’m not sure where things are on that currently but Friends of Split Oak Forest are fighting it as much as they can.
I could see evidence of road construction along FL-530/Boggy Creek Road but that appeared to be just a widening of that road. Along the way to the park I did see two sandhill cranes by the side of the road which delighted me. Once I got to the parking lot for the WEA I sat in the shade near the information kiosk and chowed my Publix sub and relished in the wonderful weather. As I was rearranging my luggage from the flight, packing up my backpack and putting my boots on, I noticed an animal wiggling along the ground across the street in the pasture. As I focused in I realized it was a river otter undulating around to a better area to access the creek that bisected the pasture. Score for a second wildlife sighting!
So, the Florida Trail has an unconnected section routed through the park, which is also unfortunate because of the potential road construction. Right now this is not on the main thru-hike path but part of a long proposed re-route that will eventually see that roadwalk dotted area on the eastern corridor around Orlando being shifted west to those conservation lands in the middle. About 20 years ago that dotted line (the eastern one—the one on the bottom left is the western corridor route and I don’t think there are really significant plans for that at the moment) actually went through private property but for some reason the FT was kicked off the land and access hasn’t been renegotiated since. A majority of that roadwalk isn’t horrible and is on a rather quiet road but a portion of it along SR-520 is pretty bad as the area sees very high traffic. Honestly, I don’t know that this will actually ever be completely re-routed. At the glacial pace that trail acquisitions take place it will probably be several decades before it would be finished.
So, in some aspect, I was hiking on the Florida Trail for this hike!
Right off the bat it was clear that spring has arrived to central Florida. Many plants were blooming and the air and light had that sign that things were changing.
There are multiple trails, old road-grades, traversing the property. While there are several main trail routes, you could easily choose your own adventure and head off and explore where you pleased. I dipped down to check out a pond and see what it had to offer and found this ground orchid.
Coastal Plain Staggerbush, Lyonia fruticosa
Back on the main trail I found this stunning lyonia blooming a few feet off the trail. I will admit that a lot of my flora knowledge in Florida was based primarily in south Florida and I’ve gotten exponentially better at taxonomy in the 10 years since I’ve left. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of plants I was seeing—well, I was familiar with them in that I’d noticed them before but I had never gotten around to know them previously.
Hooded Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia minor
As I was planning my hike here, I hopped onto iNaturalist to figure out what I might see. That included several locations of pitcher plants and many of those locations were not obscured. I knew I was close to a patch of them when I had stopped off at the lake so I opened the app and it lead me right to them. It was easy to see because they were also about 20′ off the trail and people were visiting them frequently as a small path had been worn down into the woods to see them. Very cute little plants, if I may anthropomorphize for a minute!
Roundleaf Bluet, Houstonia procumbens
I found these bluets a little further down the trail and knew they were some kind of bluet right off the bat but wasn’t sure what species. Also very cute and I saw them several other times in the next few days.
As I was oogling this gorgeous oak tree I noticed a squirrel bounding off about 50 yards to the west. It stopped and I got a good look at it—it was a Sherman’s fox squirrel! I didn’t have time to get my long lens out and switch before I lost track of it but I was super stoked to have seen one!
I was incredibly disappointed to figure out onnce I got home that I had not managed to find the main Split Oak at the park. I had used this map which had the oak labeled near the intersection of a trail junction. And when I had arrived at that junction there was a small sign saying “Lake Trail” and then under it “Split Oak” pointing down the trail, right towards this smaller split oak. The entire time I was at this oak I thought, well, this isn’t as big as I had imagined or remembered seeing in photos and wow, there’s a lot of young pine around it, but well, I guess this is it??
Nope. So sad. I should have followed Sandra’s directions which as it turns out, the oak is on the Lake Loop and I completely bypassed that loop because my own loop was going to be 4 miles and I had somewhere else to be. And there wasn’t another sign pointing out that the oak was down that lake trail. Argh. Oh well.
By this time I wasn’t in the stop and wandering stage, knowing I really needed to get back to the car so I could stop back at Publix for a few items for the weekend. However, not far from here I did see another Sherman’s fox squirrel which also evaded my ability to get a photo of it!
Late afternoon glow in the Spanish moss…*sigh*.
It was an excellent 4 mile jaunt for the afternoon and really made me miss how much public land access Florida has to offer. And someday I will have to return to actually see the real Split Oak at Split Oak Forest!