Crooked River Preserve: A Local Gem

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Back home again in Davenport, Florida, Arnie and I donned hiking boots again to go out and see what we could discover in our own backyard. Although we saw some amazing landscapes on our recent trip through the Appalacian States, the Florida landscape easily holds its own in terms of beauty and thriving ecosystems.

Using the website, floridahikes.com , anyone can find a natural walk nearby their home that fits their ability and stamina. Today, we chose a nearby hike at Crooked River Preserve, a 1.7 mile loop just up the road at the northernmost end of the Lake Wales Ridge. The Crooked River Preserve showcases a wide variety of habitats in a short hike.

The Lake Wales Ridge stretches from Minneola down towards Lake Okeechobee, creating the “spine” of the Florida peninsula. Here in our Windmill Community, we live right along that spine or ridge.  The high, well-drained sandy soils of the Lake Wales Ridge were prized by citrus growers, who found them ideal for their groves. As you walk along the trail and look down, you can see fine white sand that would also be prized on any beach. US 27 – which follows the ridge was known as the Orange Blossom Highway. Sadly, we are losing more and more of these old groves to development all the time. We need the protected wild places, but do we really need another  Wawa gas station? Soon, we will only be able to imagine driving down 27 with the windows down while breathing in the sweet scent of citrus blossoms in bloom. It will be in our imagination only because the groves will all be gone.

We are bearing witness to the massive residential and commercial development that continues and the natural areas like Crooked River Preserve are becoming more rare. This small Preserve, maintained by the Lakes County Water Authority,  is penned in on all sides by this very development that has  crept along the northern end of the Lake Wales Ridge.

We are grateful that we have this little piece of natural Florida left to enjoy. The price to visit is vastly cheaper than a day at Disney……..in fact, there is no charge to stroll through here. It’s well marked and maps are provided at the Trailhead. Crooked River Preserve showcases several habitats including some open scrub, stands of oak hammock, sink hole swamps, and the trail also walks you down to a picture perfect and mostly un-visited corner of Lake Louisa by following part of the Palatlakaha River. It is a hidden gem in our own backyard!

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This hike is only 1.7 miles and it is about a 2 out of 5 in terms of difficulty. It is mostly sand, well packed, so the footing is good and the walking relatively easy.  Kudos to the Lakes County Water Authority whose crews who are maintaining this trail as it is wide and visibility is very good. Branches are cleared away, rest benches provided and viewing areas cleaned out for easy enjoyment.  Even on an easier hike, always prepare by taking sunscreen, lots of water, bug repellent, and a fully charged cell phone for emergencies.

If you would like to enjoy Crooked River Preserve, from US 27 in Davenport, drive North  from Windmill Village just above Lake Louisa. Turn left on Lake Louisa Road and follow it for 2.7miles to the trailhead on the left. There is a wooden sign and parking is ample. Remember to sign in on the clipboard before yous start your hike and sign out when you leave

About Today’s Hike

There are two trails that form a loop through the Preserve: the Cypress Trail, blazed orange, winds out to the Palatlakaha River and the shore of Lake Louisa. The Sink Hole Trail, blazed blue, winds around some sinkholes.  There are also multiple side trails blazed in yellow that spur off the two main trails. These are worth the time to explore as they lead to some interesting things to see. The trail is very well marked with fence posts painted with the right colors.

This morning’s canopy started out with a stand of laurel oaks. Alongside the trail, as we entered the forest we noticed grapevines blanketing the sides of the trail in gigantic mounds. Alas, they were picked clean by the birds, so no wild grape jelly for us this year! Spanish moss drifted down from the oaks giving the forest a misty romantic feel.

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Backing up the oaks, the riverbank is delineated by a border of cypress. This clearly shows the floodplain of this river.

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We hike slowly, stopping frequently to listen for birds and wildlife. We like to stand very still and look up into the canopy to see what’s looking down and then down to see what is looking up. Sometimes we have been able to see owls or birds looking at us wondering what we are doing intruding on their home. Today we were glancing around and spied a young black racer curled up on the edge of the trail. He departed quickly when we took a step in his direction.

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Butterflies were everywhere today on our hike. This is a small 64 acre preserve, so it does skirt civilization along the way. We could, at times, hear passing cars on Lake Louisa Road not far off to the left.

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One stretch of the trail goes down to the Riverbank (my favorite) What a treat to sit still on this bank, looking out on the river flowing slowly north and listening to the songbirds overhead. The Palatlakaha River is tannic but you can see that it has a sandy bottom. Peeking through the cypress, we could catch a glimpse of what this land must have looked like before all of the development.

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We came upon a  massive oak has a gigantic root ball where it’s split into five separate trunks, creating an octopus. In another place, an oak that had uprooted  still supports a living tree!

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There is an area with a bench trailside to sit down and rest and look across the Lake at Lake Louis State Park which is undeveloped. , unlike the near shores with rows of lakefront homes. We really like Lake Louisa State Park too and will write about that sometime soon. It is  a former ranch and orange groves that is still undergoing restoration to longleaf pine forest. If you have not yet visited this park, it is really close to where we live and it actually has a sandy white beach. On breezy days, you can sit comfortably on the beach and enjoy the whitecaps skipping across the water. Lake Louisa is a great place to go to read a book or for a picnic!

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One of the spur trails was really interesting. It is called the Fern Trail,with Southern woods fern growing in this shady area of understory. Like most ferns, it likes a damp environment and this shady area right by the lake was that! In this damper area of the preserve, we had to double back on the Fern Trail spur because a recent rain had pooled in the road and we did not want to get our feet wet.

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The Preserve has several sink holes with  ponds filling the bottom. The trail scoots around the rim of the sinkhole with just a slight border of vegetation between the pond and the trail, but there is still plenty of vantage points to peer in. We spent a few minutes listening to the songbirds in the canopy at the sinkhole and then turned back to the trail, enjoying the easy walking on the almost power-white sand and noticing the light gray lichens that decorated the sides of the trail here.

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There is so much life to be found here. Lichens, plants, animals: this little hike has it all. We live on the ridge of some of the oldest land in the Florida peninsula. It is teeming with biodiversity and species found nowhere else on earth–which is why this little patch means so much amid the sprawl that now surrounds it.

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IMG_4663   It took me awhile to identify this alien looking blossom that we noticed growing on a vine among some other flowers. It is Bitter melon, also known as Balsam apple. It grows along fence-lines, Hammocks, and Orange groves, so it is no surprise that we saw it in this preserve.  It is an alien looking  annual creeping or climbing herbaceous vine.that was artificially introduced

The yellow flower produces an egg shaped, ribbed fruit with a bumpy surface, 3-4 inches long, golden yellow to bright orange, splitting open when mature to reveal bright red arils which contain seeds. This is the most alien looking plant that I’ve ever seen; something you might see on an episode of Star Trek.

We had to be careful of the giant anthills on some of the trails.

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Without a doubt, this is the biggest toadstool we have ever seen! Look at the size of it in comparison to my hiking boot!

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There was an area where very large, old Muscove grape vines crossed the trail, dangling from the oak trees.

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IMG_4660IMG_4661At one point on the trail, it heads over towards Lake Louisa Road and takes hikers walking close to the fence line. The sand gets softer and thus, the walking a little bit more difficult. This accounts for the sore knees tonight. Along the sides of the trail here are open patches of scrub with butterfly plants are all around. There were butterflies fluttering about on them everywhere too!

Backing up  the butterfly plants, there were tall pines that provide important bird habitat.  Whether these pines are alive or dead, they serve as a vital part of the eco-system. We often see hawks and an occasional eagle perched or nesting on the dead ones. One interesting sight was this pine in the third photo that was a victim of a lightening strike.IMG_4655IMG_4656IMG_4662 The struck pine stood alone charred and burnt with no other evidence of fire anywhere around it. We sure do hope that more folks get out and enjoy this small piece of paradise in our own backyard. We also thank the Lakes County Water Authority for making it available to the creatures who call it home.

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