Florida Mountain Country

Field of Florida Fall colors
Fall Flowers in the rolling hills of Ferndale Preserve.

Leave it to Florida to make mountains out of sandhills. No doubt the Green Mountain Scenic Byway meanders through some beautiful rolling countryside just west of the state’s 3rd largest lake, Lake Apopka…but “mountain?” Well, this countryside does include the highest point on the Florida peninsula: Sugarloaf Mountain, elevation 312 feet. You can leave your crampons and oxygen at home…

This is the northern reach of the Lake Wales Ridge, the spine running down the central peninsula. While these elevations are a joke as mountains go, they do offer spectacular vistas — Florida is so flat, you don’t have to be elevated much in order to see great distances. This is a great area to hike, bike or horseback in the hills and experience the views and rolling terrain.

Intrigued by the whole “mountain” thing, I chose 3 places to hike and otherwise investigate in a single day, but came across another couple in the process. Good fortune! I actually started in the lowlands at Oakland Nature Preserve, since I’d heard a lot of good things about the preserve, and it sits just southeast of the ridge. In all I hiked about 5 1/2 miles, the highlight being the 3000 foot long boardwalk to Lake Apopka, meandering through a lush Florida swamp as it carries you to a covered dock along the shore. The little side trails are nice walks, but the red trail is undergoing restoration, so it’s pretty well torn up…still a nice little hike. You can enjoy the preserve 365 days/year for free, but donations are happily accepted.

Oakland Nature Preserve boardwalk
The 3000 foot boardwalk at Oakland Nature Preserve.

Next I headed to the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook and Trailhead, just up the road in beautiful Montverde. Sitting above the forest canopy at 132 feet above sea level is a new 3-story sheltered steel observation deck that provides broad vistas across miles of forest canopy. The trail itself switchbacks down the mountainside (hahaha) and disappears into the forest. From here you can connect to trails that circle much of the lake…about 18 miles. I enjoyed the overlook, but saved the hiking (or biking) here for another day…I still had more mountain country to explore.

Green Mountain Overlook
The Green Mountain Overlook.

Next stop was Ferndale Preserve, snuggled up against Lake Apopka’s western shoulder. With a high point of 162 feet and rolling fields covering the countryside, the views are expansive — from Lake Apopka to the Orlando skyline on a clear day. This small preserve is home to more than 180 species of birds and 50 species of butterflies, as well as gopher tortoises, bobcats, and a wide array of other critters. The multi-use trails are short, but really quite scenic. If The Sound of Music were to be remade in Florida, this would be a good location…

Beautyberries at Ferndale Preserve
Beautyberries and friends at Ferndale Preserve.

Mountains? No. Still, this area is rich with natural beauty and diversity, from the highest point on the peninsula to a 38 square mile lake. Not to mention all the outdoor recreational opportunities available; the 3 places above are all within a few miles of each other. Clay Island Loop Trail and the rest of Apopka’s North Shore Restoration Area trails are right next door. I also passed the West Orange Trail and the South Lake Trail — these are wide, paved multi-use trails that wind through some pretty countryside. Bottom line = There’s plenty to do here, it’s easy to get to and well worth checking out.

West Orange Trail
West Orange Trail.

 

The Gopher Tortoise, a Keystone Species; so-called because more than 350 other species share its burrows…including venomous snakes, so don’t go sticking your face in a burrow. They are listed as Threatened in Florida. This curious one was travelling the sand hills of Ferndale Preserve.

 

Lake Apopka from Oakland Nature Preserve —

Lake Apopka from Oakland Nature Preserve

 

Green Mountain Trail from the overlook —

Green Mountain Trail

 

Killarney Station, West Orange Trail —

Killarney Station West Ornge Trail

 

Oakland Nature Preserve WonderMap. TIP >> Click on waypoint flags for GPS location photos.

 

Green Mountain Scenic Overlook and Trailhead WonderMap.

 

Ferndale Preserve WonderMap.

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