Monday, November 26, 2007

Hidden Osceola County

Osceola is the sixth largest county in Florida with over 1,350 square miles of territory. From north to south it stretches almost 60 miles and is for the most part uninhabited. The extreme northern part of the county is where the bulk of its 245,000 citizens reside, including us. This narrow corridor of densely populated suburbia, roughly paralleling U.S. Hwy. 192, comprises the southern edge of metropolitan Orlando. Osceola is also the 17th fastest growing county in the U.S. by attracting 100,000 new residents since the late 1990's.

Blessedly the rest of the county is still predominantly woods, swamps, lakes, prairies and vast ranches; with much of the agricultural land being devoted to cattle, citrus and turf farms. A lot of it is also preserved by the state of Florida as conservation and wildlife management land that is easy to access and enjoy.

This past Sunday we left the hurly-burly of U.S. 192 behind us and turned south on County Hwy. 523 heading for Yeehaw Junction to enjoy the wide open spaces and beautifully diverse landscapes of southeastern Osceola County that few of our neighbors even know of, much less have ever desired to visit.

Our first stop was at the Sunset Ranch trailhead located in the gorgeous Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. This stunningly beautiful loop trail takes you through enormous open groves of live oak draped with overhanging Spanish moss, dense cypress swamps, open Florida prairie and eventually leads to the shores of Lake Marian. It was easily one the most impressive nature trails I've ever hiked in Florida.
Enchanted forest

Giant cypress

Tall grass prairie

Lake Marian

Hwy. 523 terminates at U.S. 441 in the drowsy half-dead community of Kenansville where we hung a right and proceeded south another 20 miles to Yeehaw Junction where there is an entry ramp on to the Florida Turnpike for the trip back home.

This part of Osceola County still retains its rural charm and has many areas of unspoiled wilderness. This is a very good time of the year to get out and hike, the temperatures are moderate but still warm, the bugs much less of an obstacle to maintaining your sanity and scary reptilian creatures like snakes and gators are more subdued in the cooler weather.

Go forth and explore. It's what the world is for.

Kenansville, FL

Hostess stand in the Desert Inn
Yeehaw Junction, FL

Dining room and bar
Desert Inn

Window up above
Desert Inn

"How I wish I could be dreaming
And wake up to an honest love
I was wrong for I was watching
From the window up above."

------George Jones

Monday, November 19, 2007

The island behind our house

One of my favorite places in all of Florida just happens to be located directly behind our house here in Celebration. It is a slightly elevated patch of open prairie dotted with pine, palmetto and live oak which is completely surrounded on all sides by thickly wooded swamps. The only access to this "island" is by a trail that starts behind our garage.

Trail to the island

In fact this little known nature preserve is where the Disney Corporation relocates animals, especially the endangered gopher tortoise, when they develop new areas of their property that ends up displacing the local fauna. Every once in a while a Disney truck will pull up near our house and a crew of workers will head back into the swamp towards the island to do some sort of conservation work. Lately they've been grooming the prairie with a tractor to enhance the habitat for turtles. Other than these occasional visits from the conservation crew no one else even knows this place exists (besides Connie and I). It is our own private tropical paradise where we can readily see all kinds of wildlife and experience the peace and serenity of an untouched tract of primordial Florida.

The island

An ancient giant live oak

A beautiful tropical spider (Gasteracantha)

The funny thing is we can't get any of our neighborhood friends to join us on a "hike around the island" as we like to call it. They seem deathly afraid of venturing back into the murky depths of the unknown. I think they prefer their version of Florida to be throughly scraped clean of native vegetation, sprayed for bugs and covered in neat squares of uniform green fescue. Welcome to their Magic Kingdom. I certainly prefer mine.

Sunset deep in the swamp

Good-night all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Catfish Creek State Preserve

This past Sunday we took a delightful hike in Catfish Creek State Preserve which is located in an isolated area of the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem of central Florida. This unusual landscape of sand hills and desert-like flora reminded me of the high plateaus of Utah and Arizona. It was so quiet and still that I thought for a moment that we were actually in a remote section of the southwestern U.S. rather than in the 4th most populous state in the nation. Amazingly, we were the only people there on this particular afternoon.

Catfish Creek is a wonderful off-the-beaten-path sort of place located in eastern Polk County that preserves beautiful sections of scrub, sandhill, pine flatwoods and shallow ponds that are home to numerous rare plants such as scrub morning glory, scrub plum, pygmy fringe tree, and cutthroat grass. It is also home to several protected animal species including Florida scrub-jays, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and Florida scrub lizards. During our brief visit we encountered deer, turkey, assorted waterfowl, swallows, an eagle, scrub-jay and a wide variety of insects.

Isolated and empty road to the park.

Interior backcountry of the preserve

A very busy sand wasp (see the sand flying out behind the abdomen).


Fall wildflowers

The Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem is a rapidly vanishing Florida landscape that is home to many unique species of flora and fauna. This relatively untouched state park showcases one of the more remote and sublime landscapes you're liable to find on the entire Florida peninsula.

If you don't end up getting terribly lost trying to find the place you'll probably have the whole park to yourself once you arrive. Have fun kids! Send us a postcard.