LAKELAND — 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, midway between Orlando and Tampa, Circle B Bar Reserve 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:
- Circle B Bar Reserve is 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 (see below and pick one up at the nature center), showing how Circle B Bar Reserve 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 give you an excellent chance of seeing alligators. Trails may also bring you in close proximity to alligators. Be careful during spring mating and nesting season; in spring, some trails may close because the nests are too close to the trails. On a March hike around the lake, we stepped VERY carefully around enormous gators.
- Circle B Bar Reserve has 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 near the nature center. Lots of things that might take away from Circle B Bar Reserve’s 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.
Once a cattle ranch — the source of its name — Circle B Bar Reserve has been returned to its natural state. Thousands of migrating birds recognize it as a great place to vacation and other creatures saw it as a perfect home. Wildlife proliferated and Circle B is home to otter, bobcat, armadillo, fox and many species of insects and reptiles.
On a June day, I walked several trails on a day so breezy that thick mats of Spanish moss hanging from the oaks were horizontal in the wind. In June, not your prime birding month, we 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 Circle B’s lovely Shady Oak trail and the Alligator Alley trail were high and dry.
On a March visit, which IS prime birding season, the parking lot was almost full and there were many people on the trails. Still, the place is large enough that we never felt like we were in a crowd. One advantage to other visitors — folks point out wildlife so you don’t miss seeing something special.
On this visit, we got good views of the American eagles that nest here, plus armadillo and racoons, many gators, all types of heron, white pelicans, sandhill cranes plus the common waterfowl like coots, moorhens and ducks.
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.
Planning your visit to Circle B Bar Reserve
Rambler tip: It’s a 2.2 mile loop if you take three terrific trails: Shady Oak (.7 miles), Alligator Alley (1.2 miles) and Heron Hideout (.3 miles.) The one trail I would skip is Eagle Roost, whose habitat is being restored and offers less in wildlife viewing (and no shade.) On a hot day, there are two shaded trails — Treefrog and Shady Oak, though neither takes you along the lake. For that, add Alligator Alley, which is mostly shaded.
Circle B Bar Reserve
- 4399 Winter Lake Road
- Lakeland, FL
- Website for Circle B Bar Reserve and nature center
Circle B Bar Reserve trails are open 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Standard Time) and 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Daylight Savings Time)
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:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.