Discover Lake Wales Ridge State Forest for hiking, exploring, camping


Off a dirt road in the Arbuckle Tract in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is pretty  little Lake Godwin.

Pretty little Lake Godwin is off a dirt road in the Arbuckle Tract at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is for explorers – folks who like to find places that aren’t in the guidebooks. It’s the sort place where you can hike for miles, hear only nature and have a chance to spot wildlife, including bear, bald eagles and endangered scrub jays.

It’s a quiet spot — right next to a bombing range!

Its proximity to the vast and occasionally used Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range adds to its remoteness and gives wildlife room to roam. The state forest hugs the west side of Lake Arbuckle. The other side of the lake is the bombing range with 20 miles of undeveloped land.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest also adjoins a great little out-of-the-way county campground on Lake Arbuckle, a lake that’s a favorite among bass fishermen.

hiking-arbuckle-tract

A hiking trail in the Arbuckle Tract at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

We were seeking a new place to explore on a drive south on U.S. 27 and I remembered reading about nice hiking trails in the Arbuckle tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. There isn’t extensive signage and few people outside the area know about it. It’s worth finding!

armadillo-arbuckle

Armadillo snuffling along the trail in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

The Lake Wales Ridge is the narrow strip of slightly higher elevation land that runs north and south through Central Florida. (Here’s a map.)

In ancient times, when most of Florida was underwater, the ridge was an island where plants and animals continued to evolve in isolation.

Today the scrub ecosystem on the ridge has a high concentration of rare and endangered plants, such as pygmy fringe tree, scrub plum and scrub-blazing star.

lily-pads-lake-godwin

Lily Pads on Lake Godwin in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

The Lakes Wales Ridge State Forest is divided into several separate sections and is located a few miles off of US 27 just outside Frostproof.

When you look at a road map, you’ll see this rural area has a tempting number of scenic-sounding country roads (starting with one called North Scenic Highway!) We enjoyed winding our way back into the forest on Lake Reedy Boulevard, then Rucks Dairy Road and finally the unpaved School Bus Road. You should stop at the entrance kiosk at the intersection of Rucks Dairy Road and School Bus Road to pick up a trail map.

Hiking trails from the McLean Cabin area, pictured here, go along the shore of Lake Arbuckle.

Hiking trails from the McLean Cabin area, pictured here, go along the shore of Lake Arbuckle.

It’s wild and pretty, but don’t expect dramatic scenery. It’s a subtle beauty, all the more enjoyable because you’ll probably have it to yourself.

We explored two areas: We took a dirt road to a parking lot at Lake Godwin, where there’s a dock overlooking lily pads and view of the round little lake. There were clean restrooms, picnic tables and several hiking options. We hiked a ways meeting only an armadillo.

We then drove on through the forest to McLean Cabin, where there are nature trails and a cabin with facilities used by groups.

We’ll come back to this location to take a longer trail that goes alongside Lake Arbuckle.

A good “sampler” hike is the one-mile interpretive loop, the Old Cabin Nature Trail. It leads around a prairie lake through wet flatwoods, scrub, and extensive cutthroat seeps. It starts at the McLean Cabin.

Volunteers with Florida Trail Association constructed most of these trails, and if you walked all the connected loops, you’d cover 23 miles.

Camping options in Lakes Wales Ridge State Forest

Lake Arbuckle Park and Campground

Lake Arbuckle Park and Campground

There’s a terrific little-known county campground on the northern end of Lake Arbuckle next to the state forest. Lake Arbuckle County Campground has a picnic shelter and tables, restrooms and a boat ramp. The camping sites are widely spaced and shaded, some overlooking the lake. Rates for RVs are $23 per night for up to four persons with electric and water. Tents with up to four persons (without electric and water hookup) are $10.

While we explored the fishing dock and shoreline, we watched a shy limpkin. Wading birds, bald eagles and osprey are also seen. If you’re a fisherman, here’s advice on how to approach Lake Arbuckle.

Within the state forest, there are several areas designated for primitive camping. You need to bring water and register in advance. (Florida Forest Service, 851 County Road 630 East, Frostproof, FL 33843. 863/ 635-8589.)

Planning your trip

The Arbuckle Tract is located 5 miles south of the town of Frostproof on Lake Arbuckle Road.

The other major area of the state forest is the Walk in the Water Tract, located two miles east of the town of Frostproof on County Road 630. Here, you park at the trailhead locations around the perimeter of the tract and hike into the forest.

For camping permits, visit the forest office:

  • Florida Forest Service
    851 County Road 630 East
    Frostproof, FL 33843
    863/ 635-8589
  • Lake Arbuckle Park and Campground
    2600 Lake Arbuckle Road
    Frostproof, Fl 33843

Places to explore nearby:

Not a camper? Here are two nearby vintage hotels that are affordable and full of character

 

 

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