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!
[mappress mapid=”283″ alignment=”left” initialopeninfo=”false”]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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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:
- Florida Forest Service
851 County Road 630 East
Frostproof, FL 33843
- Check the calendar for hunting weekends
- Lake Arbuckle Park and Campground
2600 Lake Arbuckle Road
Frostproof, Fl 33843
- Campground reservations: ReserveAmerica
- YouTube video by a fan hiking in the Arbuckle Tract
Places to explore near Lake Wales Ridge State Forest
· Bok Tower Gardens: Beautiful oasis atop Florida ‘mountain’
· Kayaking Arbuckle Creek, unexpected wild beauty at a bombing range
· Lake Kissimmee State Park: Where Old Florida lives on
· Highland Hammocks State Park: Forest canopy shades trails and camping,
· Tiger Creek Preserve: Nature Conservancy preserve hikers’ heaven
· Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: Camp under starry dark skies
· Drive the Cracker Trail: Scenic route through cow country
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.
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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.