Alternating between moss-draped oak hammocks and the wide open prairies that characterize this part of the state, the Florida Trail loop at Prairie Lakes provides one of Central Florida’s oldest and most scenic hiking destinations.
When the Florida Trail was first being built through Central Florida, attention fell on a brand new state park called Prairie Lakes State Preserve. Where better to showcase trail building skills than a landscape that had such outstanding scenic beauty? Prairie Lakes falls between two major lakes – Lake Jackson and Lake Marian – in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. Although it is no longer a state park, having been transferred to Florida Fish & Wildlife management more than fifteen years ago, it remains a compelling destination for hikers and birders, who are now joined by anglers and hunters.
Intentionally crafted as a backpacking destination, the trail system offers a Figure-8 loop on which the thru-trail, blazed orange, follows the west side of the South Loop and the east side of the North Loop. The opposite sides of the loops are blazed white.
The 5.4-mile North Loop showcases wide open prairie, particularly within the first two miles in either direction from the trailhead. As we discovered, the trailhead itself is one of the best places to catch a sunrise or a sunset, thanks to the panoramic view to the south. Along it, you’ll also find a boardwalk through a cypress dome, a ramble along a cypress-lined creek, and the Parker Hammock campsite, tucked neatly under the canopy of oaks not far from the trail junction with the South Loop.
The 6-mile South Loop begins on the south side of the footbridge over Parker Slough. It keeps largely to the oak and palm hammocks near the lakes, providing sweeping views of prairie from under the shade of the oaks. Side trails lead down to the lakes. At Lake Jackson, a walk between the campsites takes you down to the boat ramp area and view along the shore. At Lake Marian, there is an observation deck to perch on for the panorama. The loop comes together again at a bridge north of Road 18.
Be sure to check ahead regards hunting and wear bright orange when hiking during hunting seasons. A day use fee of $3 per person is payable at the iron ranger at the kiosk at the North Loop trailhead. Display the receipt on the dash of your car.
Three campsites – Parker Hammock, Lake Jackson, and Dry Pond – offer backpackers choices. Lake Jackson has a vault toilet, but is also accessible by vehicles and close to where you’ll hear airboats at night. The other two campsites are primitive, with picnic tables and a pitcher pump. Unless you’re thru-hiking the Florida Trail, it’s necessary to obtain a free permit for camping at Prairie Lakes. Call FWC at 352-732-1225.
Hiking the Prairie Lakes Loop southbound and figure-8 style from the Prairie Lakes trailhead.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > At the trailhead, look for the Florida National Scenic Trail side on the opposite side of the entrance road. Follow the mowed footpath into the pine-dotted prairie, paralleling Canoe Creek Rd off to the left. This is a broad, open landscape, so keep alert for sandhill cranes settling in to open patches between the palmettos, and for white-tailed deer, which are also frequently seen throughout this preserve.
0.7 > Rising up from the grasses, the trail ascends onto a boardwalk to cut across a cypress strand that you’ve paralelled for a short while. Inside this end of the Pole Cypress Ponds, a strand that stretches more than a mile to the east, you’ll find a set of benches atop the boardwalk, a spot for a brief break. At to the far end of the boardwalk, the trail enters an open pine flatwoods with a saw palmetto understory.
1.5 > As the trail winds through the picturesque pine flatwoods, you can see quite a distance in all directions, so you notice for some time that you’re heading towards a fire tower. The trail crosses under a power line with the fire tower to the west.
1.9 > Reaching the edge of the pine flatwoods, the trail crosses a sand road amid the pines. A few minutes later, you leave the openness of the pine forest for the deep shade of an oak hammock. This is the first of many such hammocks along this loop.
2.2 > Emerging from the oaks to the edge of the North Canal – a man-made waterway connecting Lake Jackson and Lake Marian – the trail turns to the right and passes a bench before it crosses Road 16, the primary access road within Prairie Lakes. The road goes over control gates for water flow along the canal. Cross the road, and you’ll see another bench overlooking the waterway.
2.3 > Before the turn for the footbridge over the North Canal, you reach the junction for the white blazed return trail for the North Loop. The junction for the South Loop is on the south side of the footbridge, offering the same choices: follow the white blazes or the orange blazes. Stick with the orange blazes for now. They lead to the right, paralleling the canal for a short distance before leading you to a bridge across a culvert. You then have to keep track of the blazes as the trail tacks from tree to tree through an oak and palm hammock.
2.7 > Eventually the oak hammock thins out and you’re simply walking under the shade of younger oaks, with a fern-lined waterway visible through the trees off to the right. This is an easy, mostly straightforward corridor through a younger forest
3.3 > Cross Boat Ramp Road, which leads to Lake Jackson. The trail swings right and parallels the road for a bit before diving into an oak hammock that’s lushly decorated with large bromeliads, especially giant air plant, which is uncommonly abundant at Prairie Lakes.
3.4 > The trail emerges at Campsite #3 at the Lake Jackson Campground, arguably the best of the bunch since it sits the farthest back from the boat ramp and parking area. A dirt road leads down to the vault toilet and parking. No water is provided at this camping area, so you must filter it from the lakeshore. Be cautious of alligators.
3.8 > A sign indicates the Dry Pond Campsite is nearby, off to your left. Look for the picnic table. The campsite is nicely shaded by the ancient oaks while looking out across the open prairie that adjoins the oak hammock and forms the heart of Prairie Lakes. There is a pitcher pump at Dry Pond, but like the pond itself, it’s usually dry. A few minutes south of the campsite, the trail enters the open prairie and passes beneath a single oak tree in a sea of tall orange grasses.
4.2 > As the trail re-enters a series of lush oak and palm hammocks, you find the footpath isn’t very well defined. Look for the blazes on the enormous oaks and on the tall cabbage palms. Spanish moss hangs in thick draperies and when it falls during a windstorm, creates fuzzy gray puddles on the forest floor.
5.1 > The trail crosses a narrow canal on a bridge, and comes up to a small bench set atop one of the berms created by digging the canal. The trail follows this berm under the dappled shadows of sunlight streaming through the Spanish moss on the oaks above.
5.4 > At the next bench, which also sits across from a bridge over the narrow canal, you reach the south end of the South Loop. To stay on the loop, follow the white blazes across the bridge to start the return trip on the east side of the South Loop.
5.5 > At a break in the oak hammock, the trail crosses Road 16. You are now following white blazes for the rest of your hike. The trail stays close to the South Canal, another man-made waterway between Lake Jackson and Lake Marian. Occasionally, the blazes will jog you around a tributary flowing into the canal.
6.0 > At a former fording spot for the cattle ranch, the trail crosses the South Canal on a narrow footbridge before climbing up and over the mound created by fill removed by the canal. On the other side, it can get a little wet underfoot as you approach the rim of the vast prairie that makes up the center of Prairie lakes. Panoramic views extend out to your left.
6.2 > Making a sharp turn away from the view of the big prairie, the trail begins to work its way through a series of oak hammocks that form the high ground between the wetlands along the rim of Lake Marian, and the prairie between the lakes.
6.5 > Occasional panoramas open up as the trail skirts between the oak hammocks, and at this spot, the panorama extends off to the left, with the big prairie creating a backdrop for a wetland in the foreground. Reaching the shade of the next oak hammock, the trail slips into a cooler habitat. Be mindful of where the blazes lead.
6.8 > Cross a plank bridge over an ephemeral waterway as the trail draws closer to the wetlands of Lake Marian. The blazes lead you deep into the next oak hammock, where a narrow corridor flanked by cabbage palms yields to wide open spaces beneath gnarled oaks.
7.4 > From the cover of this near-continual series of oak hammocks, the landscape opens up to the right to reveal a wet prairie. A few moments later, you reach a forest road on a berm and the back side of a sign. The road leads down to an observation deck on Lake Marian, well worth the short side trip.
7.6 > The moss-draped corridor leading to the boardwalk opens up to reveal a panorama once you ascend the ramp up to the observation deck. Nearly 5,800 acres of fresh water stretches out in front of you as Lake Marian sparkles under the open sky.
7.8 > Returning to the junction with the white-blazed South Loop, turn right. The trail leads you into another series of oak hammocks where the live oak limbs are fuzzy with resurrection fern. Occasionally you’ll see a bromeliad fallen onto the ground, but there are many more up in the tree limbs.
8.2 > As the oak hammock thins out somewhat, you see a waterway off to the left and a structure up ahead – the control gates on the North Canal. The trail reaches Road 16 again and crosses it. Look for the white blazes to make a sharp right turn to roughly parallel Road 16 inside the oak hammock. More giant air plants perch up in the limbs of the oaks.
8.3 > You complete the South Loop when you reach the trail junction on the south side of the North Canal. Now it’s time to finish up the North Loop. After you cross the footbridge, turn right. Look for the white blazes leading to the left, away from the canal and into the deep shade of the oak hammock.
8.4 > It can be a little tricky to follow the blazes through here, but you soon come up to a blue-tipped post with a picnic table beyond it. This is the edge of the Parker Hammock campsite. A pitcher pump sits not far from the picnic table. You may look in dismay at the torn-up landscape – hogs seem to like this area – but this is not where you camp. Head towards that sign in the distance that says “Parker Hammocks,” and into the oak hammocks beyond.
8.6 > Leaving the deep shade of Parker Hammocks, the trail emerges into a scrubby flatwoods, where patches of scrub intermingle with a pine forest with a scrubby understory. Saw palmetto crowds closely along the sides of the footpath.
8.8 > A sign indicates a blue-blazed side trail leading northeast. This is a half-mile connector through scrubby flatwoods and prairie to the Prairie Lakes Group Camp, a moderately developed facility along Road 19. It offers picnic benches, amphitheater-style seating, a large fire ring, and a vault toilet. It makes a good base camp for Scouting groups who want to put in miles on this loop.
9.3 > An opening between oak hammocks provides a view of prairie off to your right. A lone loblolly bay sits amid the grasses in this little cove. Beyond a deer stand, the trail tacks to the right, following and then entering a thicket of saw palmetto before emerging onto an old forest road. Keep left at the Y intersection.
9.5> The trail comes up to the corner of a fenceline and follows the fence briefly before jogging off to the right to the more pleasant environs of a line of trees along the edge of the prairie.
9.7 > Reaching the end of an old road, the trail joins the bluffs above Parker Slough, which flows sluggishly south towards Lake Jackson. It’s a beautiful and usually narrow waterway which winds beneath a canopy of cypress and oaks as you follow it upstream. Just north, you cross a bridge over the outflow of the Pole Cypress Ponds into Parker Slough.
10.0 > Extremely tall cypress knees rise from the bottom of the deeply eroded basin of Parker Slough up along its sandy sides. For a short stretch, the trail dives into a floodplain area along the slough, where you must be careful not to trip over short cypress knees in the footpath.
10.2 > At a Y with a forest road, stay left. The trail veers back over to the bluff above Parker Slough, with a picnic bench in a scenic clearing that looks like it might have served as a campsite in the past. Just beyond the trees north of the bench, the trail crosses Road 19. The blazes begin to veer away from the edge of the floodplain and out to the edge of the open pine-dotted prairie.
10.7 > Crossing a forest road, the trail finally breaks away from Parker Slough and out into the open palmetto prairie as it begins an eastward turn. In the late afternoon, sunlight makes the cypress dome in the distance glow.
11.2 > Drawing within sight of traffic on Canoe Creek Road, which can be glimpsed through the pine forest, the trail makes a sharp right and begins to parallel the highway, affording a sweeping view of the expanse of prairie to your right.
11.4 > Trail’s end is back where you began, at the primary trailhead for Prairie Lakes. You’ve completed both the North and South Loops as a figure-8 hike across one of Central Florida’s most fascinating landscapes.
<<< SOUTHBOUND NORTHBOUND >>>
This section sits far from population centers, so the nearest services are 8 miles south along Canoe Creek Rd at Lake Marian and at Kenansville. Minor resupply is available at the camp store at Lake Marian Paradise, with a better selection found at KCS Country Store in Kenansville. It’s open daily.
LODGING: Lake Marian Paradise has a collection of motel rooms and cabins as well as campsites along the lake.
DINING: KCS Country Store in Kenansville cooks up a fine barbecue on Wednesdays, and always has hot food (often with a Mexican twist) the rest of the week. Just down the street along US 441, Griffis Cafe is an old-time Southern restaurant with menu items you won’t commonly find any more, like quail and swamp cabbage.
From US 192 in St. Cloud, follow Canoe Creek Rd – which is east of Neptune Rd and west of Michigan Ave – due south for 25.4 miles. The entrance to Prairie Lakes is well marked. Turn right on Prairie Lakes Rd, and continue 0.1 mile to the primary trailhead on the right side of the road.