LAKELAND FL — If you don’t live near it, you probably don’t know about Circle B Bar Reserve, a Polk County park that is just as impressive as many of Florida’s state parks. (And Florida state parks are award-winners.)
Located in Lakeland Fl, midway between Orlando and Tampa, it is just 20 minutes south of I-4 on the Polk Parkway toll road, SR 540. Circle B Bar Reserve is especially terrific for birding from fall through spring, when nature photographers flock there to capture images of the huge white pelicans, tropical-pink spoonbills, leggy sandhill cranes, iconic bald eagles and dozens of other birds. (Photos by some of these talented wildlife photographers are on this page.)
But there’s much more to this park:
- It’s free, including the nature center.
- Wonderful and extensive trails wrap around Lake Hancock and wind through Banana Creek Marsh. An easy-to-read trail map is available, showing how trails are broken into manageable segments. You can put together a loop totaling six miles or take a short stroll. The three-quarter-of-a mile Lost Bridge Trail, for example, is a loop under a canopy of oaks. Waterfront trails may bring you in close proximity to alligators. (Be careful during spring mating and nesting season.)
- There’s an impressive environmental education center — a free museum about Florida ecology. Polk’s Nature Discover Center recently completed a $625,000 upgrade to add interactive exhibits and is widely used by visiting classes of students.
- Shady picnic tables and grills are set amidst a forest of ancient live oaks. Lots of things that might take away from the natural atmosphere aren’t permitted, such as music, balloons or volleyball nets. This makes it a peaceful place to picnic and observe the beautiful surroundings.
As its name suggests, this 1,267-acre park was once a cattle ranch.
Originally a wetland, it had been drained to create fields for grazing. But in 2000, Polk County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District purchased the site and began to restore the wetlands now known as Banana Creek Marsh.
Once Circle B Bar Reserve got back to nature, thousands of migrating birds recognized it as a great place to vacation and other ceatures saw it as a perfect home. Wildlife proliferated and the area is home to otter, bobcat, armadillo, fox and many species of insects and reptiles.
I walked several trails on a day so breezy that thick mats of Spanish moss hanging from the oaks were horizontal in the wind. It was June – not your prime birding month – and yet in short order I saw osprey, hawks, egrets and heron. There were alligators in the marsh and around the edge of the large, brown Lake Hancock.
It had rained extensively, but the lovely Shady Oak trail and the Alligator Alley trail were high and dry.
Hancock Lake is lined with cypress trees and their knobby knees. The views from the Alligator Alley trail over the lake were panoramic.
The only sounds I heard were made by animals.
For visitors to Tampa or Orlando, or Detroit Tiger fans attending spring training in Lakeland, Circle B Bar Reserve is an excellent way to see a whole lot of authentic Florida in one short visit. But I bet visitors who come for a taste of the real Florida vow to come back.
I’ll return in winter when the migrating birds are back!
Resources for planning your visit
Circle B Bar Reserve
4399 Winter Lake Road
Trails are open 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. Polk’s Nature Discovery Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 12 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free.
There are two locations for restrooms: In the nature center when it’s open or portable restrooms in the parking area.
Folks on TripAdvisor rave about the place. One visitor called it “a free safari.”
Nearby: Visit the campus of Florida Southern College, voted the nation’s prettiest campus and home to the largest grouping of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings in the world. Here’s a Florida Rambler story about the campus.
The photographers featured in this article have many wonderful works on Flickr from Circle B Bar Reserve and around Florida. Here are links to their work: