A Walk in The Woods
These great adventures are waiting just outside of DeLand.
May 6, 2021
Oak trees and soft streams have been the picture of peace in my mind for years. A short trail through the mangroves lies near the town I grew up in. I take my dog through those trodden paths whenever I’m home.
The light splinters through the trees in shards throughout the entire trip until I reach a boardwalk that bursts out of the trees and slams into the sunlight straight on. I used to lose myself in those moments of light and shadow. With finals creeping closer and the stress from midterms having finally subsided, an escape is on everyone’s mind right about now.
For me, that escape comes in the form of hiking trips. Whenever classes, family, or work become too overwhelming I find a few trees or some water and practice taking deep breaths. It’s a great way to stay active, of course, but it’s also a good way to benefit your mental health.
Over the last few community days and weekends, I’ve been exploring everything Volusia County has to offer in the sense of nature trails and preserves. I’ve found some thrilling areas, some gorgeous views, and some annoyingly barren paths. If you’re up for a little adventure for your next day off, add one of these exciting spots to your agenda.
St. Francis Trailhead, Ocala National Forest
With around eight miles of trails to discover, St. Francis lies right off of the St. Johns River about 15 minutes from campus. The trailhead is hidden behind a dirt road that will rattle your bones if your vehicle doesn’t have shocks.
This is the first trail I found when I moved into Stetson a year and a half ago. The oak trees and shaded trail reminded me of home. Here in Central Florida, the climate tends to be drier with a lot of scrub pines and saw palmettos, and it’s harder than I imagined finding covered trails with trees tall enough to create a canopy over you.
St. Francis has an easy-to-follow trail system, with two loops depending on how much time you want to spend. It’s recommended to set aside around seven or eight hours to explore the entire 7.9-mile loop, which takes you to the river and offers quite a few brilliant views. For those of us who don’t have that kind of time, there’s a 3-mile loop called the Yellow Trail, which serves as the beginning of the longer route.
Oak trees grow in abundance in the Ocala National Forest, so St. Francis is littered with them. If you’re looking for even more adventure, you’ll even find a spot where an oak has fallen across the trail and you have to climb over it to continue on. The trail is a rather easy one, with a worn path through the forest and quite a few sets of boardwalks. But be careful if it has rained—not only will part of the trail flood, but those boardwalks get extremely slippery.
The history of the St. Francis trail is a bit interesting as well. According to the United States Forest Service, St. Francis used to be a port off of the river in between St. Johns Port and Sanford where steamboats would stop to sell wares to the community before continuing either way. Once railroads began taking over, the port faded away. But now, hikers can take a walk through the past and enjoy the sights of nature that have grown since then.
Myaca Trail, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
Located right down the road from DeLeon Springs, the Lake Woodruff Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful place to spend the day only 15 minutes from campus. The refuge offers up to six miles of trails with benches and pavilions to relax and enjoy the scenery.
A couple of friends explored this trail with me, and we took a nice calming break right beside Lake Woodruff. The lake’s view is astounding and gives it a bit of an edge over St. Francis. The trail is mostly covered, with the path outlining the lake being the largest uncovered area.
You’ll also get to enjoy the wildlife. We spied a few turtles on the walk and some birds hanging around the lake. If you’re lucky enough, you may even run into a few alligators.
“I had never felt such inner peace… with the whole school year being so busy, it was nice to just live and relax,” said Kaylan Hernandez, ‘23, a music student who jumped at the chance to get lost in the woods with me.
According to Florida Hikes, the trails are “subject to flooding if the St. Johns River is high.” Bug spray is highly recommended and sunscreen as well, if you burn as easily as I do.
Rusty Lyonia Trail, Lyonia Preserve
Lyonia is a Great Florida Birding Trail, meaning it’s ideal for birdwatchers and a lot of local birds can be spotted in or around the area. If you’re quiet enough, you’ll probably spot a few blue scrub jays, and it is also home to quite a few gopher tortoise burrows. Lyonia Preserve is a little over 20 minutes from campus.
This trail is best enjoyed in the fall or winter months since it’s hard to find a shady spot, and the Florida heat is only somewhat bearable with no trees in the way. As a scrub habitat, Lyonia has a very interesting ecosystem. With short oaks and sand everywhere, it feels like you’re at the beach instead of 20 miles inland. Because of the short vegetation, most people can see right over all of the plants in the preserve.
Three trails wind around each other throughout the preserve, amounting to about 4.4-miles in total, according to Volusia County’s website page about Lyonia.
Heart Island, Lake George Wildlife Area
If you’re lucky, you may run into horses on this trail, but unfortunately, I didn’t have that pleasure when I visited. Heart Island is a part of the larger Lake George Wildlife Management Area, which offers horse trails, camping, and hunting.
This particular web of trails amounts to almost five miles of soft sand and scrubs. There are three separate loops to choose from, varying in length from just over a mile to almost two miles. The terrain is easy enough, but the sand will remind you of trekking on a beach.
“Having never been on a hike before, I found that [Heart Island] had this serenity to it that made me come back to this idea of being a part of nature and the beauty in that,” Peter Lorenzo 23’ mused after enjoying this trail with me.
The longleaf pines framing the trail don’t give much shade, but my friend, Kaylan, enjoyed collecting the pine cones leftover.
Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail, Black Bear Wilderness
Roots, steep declines, and drop-offs make certain that this trail is a difficult one. The entire loop is 7.1-miles, half of which is overlooking the St. Johns River. If you’re not up to the challenge, you can also settle for the round trip to the river overlook and back, which is only two miles. The trail is around half an hour from campus, right across the St. Johns.
The variety of wildlife at this preserve is incredible, and trail traffic usually deters most animals from hanging out near the pathways. While I was at Black Bear, however, I saw at least six alligators just a few feet away from the path and an array of birds and turtles hanging around the mangroves.
“It was very peaceful… you could hear the wind,” Roxana Triana, ‘23, commented, having gone on the trail with me and tripped over every root she came across. Her favorite moment is right before the river outlook, where a boardwalk overlooks the marshes and dandelion fluff flies through the air.
Osprey Trail, Spring Hammock Preserve
This trail is a bit of a drive, but if you don’t mind 45 minutes, it’s well worth it. Situated right on the edge of a part of the Florida Trail, it opens up into two miles of covered hiking. While this is a fairly easy hike with a clear path, it does have some incline which turns it into a little less of a leisurely stroll.
The path is surrounded by wetlands with narrow footpaths leading through the lush oaks and pines. A small creek follows the trail with a few bridges cutting over it at times. There is also a hidden portion of the trail that I stumbled upon that leads right underneath a railroad.
I even came across a large oak that had fallen across a wider part of the creek, which was a highlight of the trail. I don’t have the best track record when it comes to crossing bodies of water on logs, but I couldn’t resist trying it out. I didn’t get my feet wet, so I considered it a success.
Spring to Spring Trail, Lake Monroe Conservation Area
There are at least nine different entrances to the Spring to Spring Trail of Volusia County. If you’re looking for a loop trail, this long stretch of boardwalks and sidewalks isn’t for you; with around 15 miles of trails for biking or walking, it has some great scenery, even if you only hike a portion of it. Volusia County has planned a total of 26 miles of trails connecting four of the springs with one paved trail.
I entered the trail near the southernmost entrance at Lake Monroe. This entrance is about 25 minutes from campus. From there, a boardwalk threads through a cypress grove, making for a beautiful view. Eventually, it opens into a stretch of uncovered trail where I discovered an unnamed blue blaze trail that veers off into the swampy mangroves.
Blazes are markers for hikers to follow, so they don’t accidentally go off the trail. The most common colors are red or blue, but they aren’t limited to just those.
There are several picnic tables and benches for anyone who wants to relax in the scenic spaces along the trail.
Lake Beresford Park, DeLand
A little over 10 minutes from campus, Lake Beresford is the closest hike on this list. It’s also connected to the Spring to Spring Trail, which wraps around the park’s outer perimeter. A few miles of trails outline the lake, which visitors can hike over or bike if they choose to. The views of the water from the trail are spectacular, though parts of the walkway are a little overgrown.
If you take the Spring to Spring Trail for about a quarter of a mile, you’ll run into a red blaze trail that weaves through the forest as well. This trail is also intertwined with a blue blaze trail that totals around five miles between the two of them. The entire trail is covered, with just enough breaks in the branches to give off a beautiful glow when the sun is up.
Be warned: Orb spiders are all over the place here. They won’t hurt you unless you mess with them, but some of their webs are threateningly close to the trail.
All of these trails are wonderful spots to explore and take your mind off of any stress that you may be facing. Black Bear takes the gold for me compared to the rest of the hikes I discovered. The tricky slopes and uneven terrain of the seven-mile loop were very enticing and spoke to my love for harder trails that bring out the excitement. It made me think back to hiking in actual mountains. This being Florida, which is mainly flatlands, you don’t often find trails with that much elevation gain.
Whether you like a challenge or would rather a calm stroll through the forest, there’s a walk in the woods out there waiting for you.