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

Last updated on June 1st, 2021 at 07:56 am

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. (Photo David Blasco)

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.

A hiking trail in the Arbuckle Tract at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. (Photo: David Blasco)
A hiking trail in the Arbuckle Tract at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. (Photo: David Blasco)

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 (Photo: David Blasco)

The Lake Wales Ridge is the narrow strip of slightly higher elevation land that runs north and south through Central Florida.

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 on Lake Godwin in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest
Lily Pads on Lake Godwin in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest..
Hiking trails from the McLean Cabin area, pictured here, go along the shore of Lake Arbuckle in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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. (Read a bit about the history of this cabin in the comments under this article.)

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 near Lake Wales Ridge State Forest (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Lake Arbuckle Park and Campground near Lake Wales Ridge State Forest (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 at Lake Arbuckle are $20 per night for up to four persons with electric and water. Tents with up to four persons (without electric and water hookup) are $10 for county residents and $15 for non-county residents.

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 eight designated campsites for primitive camping along trails. Here’s how to reserve a site. The fee is $8.93. You need to register in advance and bring your own water. There is no electricity. (Florida Forest Service, 851 County Road 630 East, Frostproof, FL 33843. (863) 589-0545

Planning your trip to Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

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. This is a beautiful hike that we took on another day. 

For camping permits in the forest office, visit the forest office:

Places to explore near Lake Wales Ridge State Forest:

Not a camper? 

There are a variety of lodges and hotels in the towns, ranging from the historic Hotel Jacaranda in  Avon Park to  a fishing-themed motel Camp Mack right outside the entrance to Lake Kissimmee State Park to a dude ranch nearby, Westgate River Ranch.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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Betty McLean Baust

Thursday 25th of February 2021

Here is the history of the McLean Cabin. It was built in 1955 by my dad, Donald McLean and my maternal grandfather, E. E. Collins. Dad leased the land, which is now the State Forest property, from Alico Land Co. for 30 years. The cabin was our cow camp. Dad had a herd of approximately 600 head of scrub cow/Brahma mix. My dad, mom and I would spend a week or so several times during the spring/summer months at the cabin while cow hunting. We had kerosene lamps for light and an outside pitcher pump for water. There was a two stall barn and corral for our horses, a one-holer outhouse and an outdoor shower. It was heaven on earth! We would also use it as a hunt camp in the winter months. I go to the cabin quite often to reminisce...there is an old watering trough by the pitcher pump...that was my swimming pool. The kitchen is original, but the table and chairs and the 2 sets of bunk beds are gone. I wish I had pictures of the interior from back then, but unfortunately none were taken. Enjoy Arbuckle, it is a magical place!

Tom

Friday 5th of March 2021

Thank you Betty! Im grateful to better understand the history behind the Mclean cabin. It would say historic Mclean Cabin but nowhere that I looked did it state why. I searched online and couldn't find much detail so that's when I decided to ask on this wonderful site thinking maybe I would get a small tidbit of information so that I could share along with some pictures on my social media site. My wife and I love traveling and exploring our state and started a Instagram / facebook and soon a Youtube channel of our adventures. It will be called Xploring Florida. I wish the forest page and/or pamphlet would tell some of the story you shared, Im curious how you happen to find out about the question? Thanks again for sharing!

Bob Rountree

Saturday 27th of February 2021

Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences!

Tom

Wednesday 24th of February 2021

What is the history behind McLean Cabin,?

Bonnie Gross

Thursday 25th of February 2021

Tom: My husband was intrigued by your question and asked the Florida Forest Service about it. They were kind enough to respond within hours. He learned a structure was visible in an aerial survey in 1941; it might be the same cabin. Here's more:

From Inventory and Assessment of Archaeological and Historical Resources, Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, Polk County, Florida, November, 2000.

"World War II and the years following created a period of growth in Florida. In preparation of the War, the Department of Defense constructed numerous military bases and training centers in the state. This provided jobs for residents in the vicinity of the military centers both directly and in supporting local enterprises. The property for the Avon Park Air Force range, which borders the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest to the east, was purchased in 1939 and construction began in 1942. By the end of 1942, 276 buildings and several airfields were completed on the bombing range (Stevens et al. 1997). Obviously, this had a huge impact on the local economy. The McLean Cabin site, a hunting camp, which is located on the Forest dates from this time period, and likely provided recreational hunting opportunities to the occupants of the Air Force range."

Paige

Sunday 7th of June 2020

This was such a great article, my husband, son and I are looking to stopping at this state forest this summer to hike and explore. Was nice to read your review and get a sense of the park.

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