A guide to taking advantage of ag-recreation in Central Florida
by J.P. SMITH
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
There is certainly something marvelous about Florida’s nature and wildlife for the adventuring Floridian to discover. Summer trips and plans might have come to a close, but as the long summer days shorten, Floridians can continue to venture out and enjoy the beauty that is the Sunshine State by visiting a few of our many public lands and wildlife corridors.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manages the Great Florida Birding Wildlife Trail (GFBWT) and Wildlife Management Area (WMA) systems that stretch across the entire state. The GFBWT is a self-guided birding trail that interconnects public lands and wildlife corridors over 2,000 miles, some of which include Central Florida counties like Polk, Osceola, Highlands, Hardee, and Hillsborough. The WMAs are a more rugged park system that connect and provide explorers a way to experience nature and wildlife in their natural habitat with minimal human footprint.
The FWC is an excellent source for discovering more information regarding these locations. As with many of the sites, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD, aka the District) has either acquired the lands for preservation and restoration and/or works with the FWC (and other municipalities) in the maintenance of these public lands.
Here are just a sampling of locations and what they have to offer in ways of recreation.
Circle B Bar Reserve
Bicycling, birding, fishing, hiking, picnic facilities, wheelchair accessible.
Once a former cattle ranch, Circle B was acquired by the District and Polk County Environmental Lands Program with plans for restoration back to its natural hydrologic system. Circle B is an excellent choice for hiking or cycling with the family. Information signs throughout the reserve trail dive into the history of Florida agriculture, and there’s plenty of wildlife to observe. There are covered pavilions for picnicking and the Polk County Nature Discovery Center, which has educational exhibits that showcase Florida’s natural hydrologic system and functions.
Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho)
Airboating, boating, fishing.
In the city of Kissimmee in Osceola County is the 18,810 acre lake, known as Lake Toho to locals, where airboating and fishing are popular pastimes. Airboating can be arranged through commercial venues that are open for public use. The FWC offers excellent tips for the popular fish species that can be caught there, as well as the prime locations for anglers to find them. The FWC also has a citizen science-program, the Trophycatch Tracker, that provides rewards for anglers that document their catch and release trophy bass that are 8 pounds or more.
Edward Medard Reservoir
Boating, camping, canoe rental, equestrian use, fishing, hiking, picnicking, swimming.
This reclaimed former phosphate mine is located in Hillsborough County and now serves as a popular 770-acre outdoor hotspot for visitors. There are paved trails for bicycles and inline skating, and dogs are permissible if on a leash and cleaned up after. This is another optimal destination for families, especially if they also seek a location with playground equipment for “littles.” Visitors can take in the scope of the reservoir from the observation tower. For those looking for horseback riding, the equine facilities make tending your horse convenient before you head out on the 3.25 mile bridle path.
Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve
Bicycling, boating, camping, horseback riding, hunting, hiking, fishing, facilities
Found in the four corners of Lake, Sumter, Polk, and Pasco counties, this area consists of 10,000 acres, managed by the District. The preserve is natural Florida at its best, with verdant flora and fauna. Cypress ponds distinct only to the Florida landscape pepper the preserve. A vast portion of the Withlacoochee River’s 100-mile flowing waters are protected waters as an Outstanding Florida Water.
The GSWP is divided into five management units. Colt Creek State Park is a piece of pristine wilderness nestled within GSWP and includes activities for bicycling, boating, camping and primitive camping, equestrian use, fishing, hiking, pet access, and picnic facilities. East Tract offers similar activities with the inclusion of the Florida National Scenic Trail spanning over its 60 miles. Contact the Florida Trail Association for trail markings and guides. Hunting is another activity available at East Tract, which has regulations by FWC and restrictions on camping, hiking, and other activities during season.
Hampton Tract, Little Withlacoochee Tract, and West Tract also include the activities of bicycling, birding, boating and paddling, camping and primitive camping, equestrian use, fishing, hiking, and picnic facilities. West Tract also has hunting available.
A fall hike would be fun, in the unique lush natural beauty of 7 miles of unmarked interior road that is Jack Creek and the intersecting Josephine Creek, located in Highlands county. It’s also significant for its sand pine scrub, bay swamp, cutthroat grass seeps, hardwood hammock, pine flatwoods, and also that it serves to protect an expansive stand of the Lake Wales Ridge Scrub.
Lake Marion Horseshoe Scrub Tract
For a distinct Florida hiking and hunting experience, this public land showcases it all. These protected headwaters are home to pine flatwoods, cypress and hardwood swamps, oak hammock, scrubs, freshwater marshes, and wetlands. Water from Lake Marion and Reedy creeks supply a critical source of freshwater to the Kissimmee River, the Everglades, and Florida Bay.
During your nature and wildlife adventuring, let only your marvelous impression of natural Florida be what you leave behind and responsibly “Leave No Trace” that you were there.