We don’t have mountains in Florida, but we do have a few hills that can add interest to Florida trails.
That’s why Lake Wales Ridge is one of the best places in Florida to spend a few hours hiking.
In fact, Lakes Wales Ridge is a real Florida treasure, although not a well-known one.
Lake Wales Ridge once was an island poking up through a shallow sea. It’s 150 miles long and, at its highest point, reaches 312 feet above sea level. It is Florida’s oldest and highest landmass. The ridge stretches from I-4 on the north to Lake Placid on the south, roughly along US 27.
The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve is one of several good hiking locations here. It’s on the east side of the ridge and the Nature Conservancy preserves it because it holds “one of the highest concentrations of threatened and endangered plants and animals in the country. “ Plants grow here that are not found anywhere else; its defenders like to call this region America’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands.
Located about five miles north of the little town of Frostproof, Tiger Creek Preserve is 4,869 acres with about 10 miles of trails. There are no restrooms, no water and no picnic tables. Admission is free.
Tiger Creek Preserve offers an excellent trail map and well-marked trails that are kept in good condition, with boards placed alongside mucky spots to provide a dryer route.
In hours of hiking, you will not encounter a building or a paved road. Tiger Creek Preserve is absolutely quiet. Occasional hills offer sweeping views of the forest and prairie and down into small ponds.
We hiked the 7.2-mile-long Highlands Trail and then took a short spur to Patrick Creek, where we dangled our feet in the duckweed-covered stream.
On our hike, we were thrilled to see six swallow- tailed kites swooping overhead. We spotted deer twice – one group of two and one group of three. There were wild flowers and many scenes of lovely pine forest.
If you’re looking for a long hike, at 7.2 miles, the Highland Trail is a good choice. We decided the first two miles were the prettiest and, unless your goal is length, we would recommend branching off from the Highlands Trail for the Heron Pond Loop trail (two miles) and the Patrick Loop Trail (.9 miles) instead of walking the longer Highlands Trail loop.
Much of the way is through an open pinewood forest along sandy trails, an area called the central highlands. It’s a sunny trail – wear hats, sunscreen, bring water and choose a cool, breezy or cloudy day.
The two shorter loops explore different habitats. We loved the Patrick Creek Trail, where a narrow bridge crosses the creek. We sat on the bridge and cooled our tired feet in the water. This loop continues beyond the creek into a forest wetland.
We had hiked too many miles to explore Heron Pond Loop Trail, but it sounds great: Seven of the 10 plants listed as endangered can be spotted here. The trail circles one pond and brings you to the edge of another, where water fowl are often seen. This trail offers elevation changes and some of the highest “peaks” in the preserve.
If you go to Tiger Creek Preserve, be sure to get a trail map and watch the blaze markings – the trails take some turns and are crossed by some dirt maintenance roads, so there are spots where you might get off your trail.
- Nature Conservancy’s website for Tiger Creek Preserve
- Directions to Tiger Creek Preserve, 674 Pfundstein Road, Babson Park, 33827. 863-635-7506
More hiking destinations on the Lake Wales Ridge
As we drove through this scenic rural countryside, we passed several other spots that look promising for hikers.
We had previously hiked in the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. Here’s the story about the state forest on Florida Rambler. There are several hikes here of various lengths in the state forest. Next time we visit, I want to hike the Reedy Creek Trail because it brings you along lovely Lake Arbuckle. You could spend several days just hiking within this state forest. Here’s a map of trails in the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.
We also passed a promising county facility, Crooked Lake Prairie in Babson Park. Crooked Lake is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, which means it is “worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes.”
Crooked Lake has two trails – a short Lake View Trail, which leads to a boardwalk across a scenic marsh along the edge of Crooked Lake, and the Scrub Trail, which a 1.6 mile loop through an open scrub flatwood habitat.
For a truly unusual destination, consider the Avon Park Air Force Range. Located along the Lake Wales Ridge, Avon Park bombing range is huge – 106,000 acres – and when they’re not practicing shooting bad guys, it’s open for lots of recreational use including extensive hiking trails and camping.
There are a number of state parks along the Lake Wales Ridge, all of which offer hiking trails:
- Highland Hammocks State Park, near Sebring
- Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park, near Sebring
- Lake Kissimmee State Park, 15 miles east of Lake Wales
- Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, between Sebring and Yeehaw Junction.
- Paynes Creek Historic State Park, near Wauchula.
Camping and lodging along the Lake Wales Ridge
There is an attractive little-known county campground located on the northern end of Lake Arbuckle next to the state forest . It’s close to Tiger Creek Preserve and adjoins the state forest. It 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.
Lake Arbuckle County Campground
2600 Lake Arbuckle Road
Frostproof, Fl 33843
Within the state forest, there are several areas designated for primitive camping. You need to bring water and register in advance.
For camping permits, visit the forest office:
Florida Forest Service
851 County Road 630 East
Frostproof, FL 33843
There are primitive campgrounds within Avon Park Air Force Range.
Not a camper? Here’s a nearby vintage hotel that is affordable and full of character. The 1926 Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park.
Others things to do along Lake Wales Ridge
- Nearby Arbuckle Creek is a terrific stream to kayak.
- Take a a scenic drive through Florida cattle country along the Cracker Trail