UPDATE: Only the part of this loop that is part of the much larger Lake Apopka Loop Trail is still open…roughly half of it. In my humble opinion, the least scenic half.
The Clay Island Loop Trail in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area reminds me of a larger scale Orlando Wetlands Park. This multi-use trail (Hiking/Biking/Equestrian) runs atop berm roads with canals, marshes, swamps and forests on either side. There are several observation decks and towers along the way, including one on the shores of Lake Apopka.
They mark this trail at 5.8 miles, but with side excursions to all the observation towers I clocked slightly over 8 miles. The last tower I visited was near the end of the loop — it was much farther away than it appeared from the main trail. Check out the WonderMap (below) and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Like Orlando Wetlands, this 20,000+ acre recreation area is actually an actively managed natural water filtration system. Lake Apopka is the headwaters of the Ocklawaha River. The lake and river became extremely polluted from agricultural runoff, so the St. Johns River Water Management District began a restoration program. This work continues today, as agricultural lands are restored to functioning wetlands that clean the water naturally.
This is great news for wildlife and nature lovers alike. More than 348 species of birds have been spotted here, along with alligators, bobcats and otters. Wildflowers and butterflies are everywhere. Bald eagle families cry out to each other as they soar by. A startled alligator does a splash and dash every hundred yards, which never fails to startle me.
Bummers? — Yes, there are a few. At the trailhead you are greeted with 3 warnings, one that is most concerning: These lands are former agricultural land that were subject to regular use of agricultural chemicals, some of which, such as DDT, are persistent in the environment and may present a risk to human health. You are warned not to fish here and to stay on the roads. Enough said. Probably not a place for children or pets.
Another bummer for me was a row of white plastic tanks on the side of the trail marked Aluminum Sulfate. That’s along the first stretch as you head due east toward Lake Apopka. The last unpleasantness was at the junction where the Clay Island Loop Trail turns south and the Lake Apopka North Shore Trail swings north. Here there are large pumps between a canal and the lake droning away. But the smell. Gag. Thankfully it only lasted for a hundred yards or so.
Once past that, the scenery improved right along with the smell. There are trees draped in Spanish moss along the trail, providing some relief from the sun. Before long you’re at the edge of Lake Apopka, an observation tower waiting for your viewing pleasure. The lake is large enough (3rd largest in Florida) that the opposite shore is a thin line on the horizon.
I was skeptical and unimpressed until I got past that pump station, but most of the rest of the hike was beautiful. The last little stretch was paved at some point, but only patches of pavement are left. It’s totally exposed, so on a bright, hot day it’s a tough finish for this hike.
Know Before You Go! >> Check out the Photo Gallery, Video and WonderMap (below). If it’s right for you, head on out there. If it’s not, check out our Bucket List and Where to Go to find your perfect outdoor spots.
Clay Island loop Trail WonderMap. Tip >> Click on waypoint flags for GPS location photos.
St. Johns River Water Management District / Recreation
Clay Island Trailhead is located at: 28.674312, -81.707364