Orlando may be more famous for the likes of Disney World, Universal Studios and other memorable amusement parks, but there is more to it than simply as an iconic tourism hub for visitors from across the world. Florida’s wetlands, lakes and other habitats are close at hand, and there are plenty of walks, wilderness areas and parks that will appeal to the nature fans out there. So whether you’re a bird spotter eager to catch a treasured glimpse of an eagle or bear, or simply looking to put a few miles under your belt during your Florida visit – there’re plenty options available in and around Orlando. These are just some of the ones available.
The Seminole-Wekiva Trail
Running for nearly 14 miles (22.5km) along the trackbed of the defunct Orange Belt Railway, this popular local trail in Seminole County – a section of which is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail – will make a good low-level route for walkers of all abilities. Not only that but its paved surface makes it ideal for cyclists too – and those who explore its length will likely meet dog walkers, runners and hikers during their travels. Those who wish to extend their walk further may wish to check out the Cross Seminole Trail, which it actually connects with. And, such is the Seminole-Wekiva Trail’s popularity, that other extensions are in the offing.
Disney Wilderness Preserve
Set amid 11,500 acres, this former cattle ranch site near Kissimmee was purchased to replace habitats lost through Walk Disney World’s expansion and is managed by the Nature Conservancy. Today it contains around 3500 acres of restored wetland habitat and is home to more than 1000 different species of animals and plants. The preserve offers a mix of walk lengths, ranging from the one mile (1.6km) trail to Lake Russell, up to a two-and-a-half mile (4km) loop. Habitat which can be enjoyed during the walks include longleaf pine savannas and the cypress trees near Lake Russell.
Econ River Wilderness
The Econ River Wilderness Area isn’t just an option for walks but offers a mix of trails that will appeal to cyclists, horseback riders and runners. It covers a 240 acre (97 hectares) site to the west of the Econlockhatchee River – near Oviedo – and is home to around 3 miles (5km) of routes that wind their way through a mix of habitats – including pine flatwoods and river swampland. Eagle-eyed walkers should keep a keen lookout for some of the area’s wildlife, which includes bobcats, white-tailed deer and racoons. And, speaking of the river, there are fishing opportunities in the local area too. Although, if you prefer simply to experience the calming local nature, there are benches at spots on the riverbank on which to relax as well.
Black Hammock Trail
The Black Hammock Trail in Seminole County should make for a good option for families and offers a mix of routes covering 4.5 miles (7.25km) of this 700 acre (280 hectares) site next to Lake Jesup. Its mix of well-defined boardwalks and trails are popular not just with walkers, but also cyclists and horseback riders, and parts of its paths are even wheelchair accessible. Wildlife and photography fans will also find much to enjoy – the site is home to a range of habitats that include swampland, pine flatwoods and scrub, and a wide array of fascinating species might be glimpsed during your visit. These include white-tailed deer, the barred owl and even bobcats.
Bear Creek Nature Trail
Another short loop that should appeal to walkers of all abilities, this 1-mile trail (1.6km) is a veritable oasis of nature amid the local housing of Winter Springs. Its landscape of shady creek waters and oaks, palms and cypress trees are a world away from the routine suburban landscape just a short distance away – making for a welcome short escape into nature for those looking to recharge their spiritual batteries. Would-be hikers should bear in mind, however, that the trail is not clearly marked in places and it can be muddy in spots too.
Big Tree Park
Located at one end of the popular Cross Seminole Trail, Longwood’s Big Tree Park – not to be confused with its much smaller namesake in downtown Orlando – is home to a boardwalk that guides walkers around some truly ancient trees and offers a fascinating glimpse into ‘deep time’. And by ancient, I do mean ancient. Until as recently as 2012 the park was home to one bald cypress specimen – The Senator – that was thought to be more than 3500 years old. To put that into perspective, it was a sapling when the Mycenaean civilization in Ancient Greece was just getting going, and also coincided with the 18th dynasty of Egypt. That particular tree may now be gone – tragically lost to fire – but a cloned cutting, aptly named The Phoenix in recognition of its resurrection from the flames, now sits in the park. Other examples of ancient trees along the walk include the 2000-year-old Lady Liberty – another bald cypress.
Split Oak Forest Wildlife & Environmental Area
Owing its name to a miraculous 200-year-old oak that somehow survived despite being split right down the middle, this site to the south-east of Orlando is home to around 9 miles (14.5km) of marked trails and routes. What’s more, there is a range of habitats and wildlife viewing spots to enjoy, offering the potential chance to glimpse everything from sandhill cranes, to songbirds to gopher tortoises. The trails themselves range in size from less than a mile (1.6km) for those taking in the swamp, to an upland route that covers more than 5 (8km). Those who prefer to take in the sights on horseback can also do so, by arrangement.
Historic Babb Landing
Located amid the cypress trees of Shingle Creek, this 2 miles (3.2km) route winds its way back in time to the era of late 1800s pioneers, complete with historic structures which were relocated to this 160 acre (65 hectares) site. The local area is home to a mix of wetland and dry prairie habitats and a range of species. If you’re lucky you might just spot a bald eagle and sandhill crane. What’s more, the site isn’t just popular with walkers – there are fishing and picnicking options available too.
Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail
Those of a more adventurous disposition may wish to consider the 7 miles (11km) loop through the Black Bear Wilderness Area in nearby Sanford. As the name suggests, not only does it provide more of a wild touch than some of the other walks, it is also home to black bears – which you may spot if you’re quiet and patient. They aren’t the only wildlife you may spot either. Indeed, deer, wild boar, alligators, otters and armadillos are just some of the species you may encounter. And even if you strike out, the sounds of birds and other wildlife will likely make their presence felt. Naturally, the longer route and rougher terrain mean that this walk likely won’t be suitable for the less fit among your group.
Orlando’s landscape is home to plenty of walking trails and wildlife-spotting options. So whether you’re eager to explore the wetlands, or simply looking for a day or two amongst nature while also visiting the fairy-tale fantasies of Disney World – there’s something for everyone. For more destination guides and accommodation about Orlando, check out Trip101.