This unique find in urban Lakeland is yet another place to visit in the greater Destination Tampa Bay area! This Nature Trail is part of the REAL Florida series we have been bringing to our readers all over the world…giving them yet another reason to visit Destination Tampa Bay! Make sure to view our Gallery of photos taken on this trip.
Saddle Creek Park is on the fringe of the industrial area east of downtown Lakeland. The park draws a lot of attention among the locals for its primary attraction—bass fishing! Like those at nearby Tenoroc Fish Management Area (FMA), the oddly shaped lakes are remnants of phosphate mine pits, filled with water and stocked with game fish like largemouth bass and speckled perch.
While we had never heard of the park or the trail before, it is well known among local anglers. There is a campground near the back of the park that apparently keeps busy all winter–but we found some summer campers that were taking in the heat in tents! As we continue to bring these unique REAL Florida places to visit to our readers, we went searching for the hiking trails. I do not believe that we would have found or even known the place existed had we not been searching for places to hike in the Polk county area with its many reclaimed phosphate mines that make for great birding and wildlife viewing. The Saddle Creek Park is situated far enough away from the bustle of the US 98 traffic that most folks don’t even realize its trails are there!
The trail was an easy 2.4-mile loop that was a pleasant hike through a canopy of oak, cypress palm and pine trees. Most of the trail was shaded, which helped a lot during our summer visit. There were several ponds and lakes throughout the trail which are obviously why all the anglers are so attracted to it. A Tenoroc permit is required to fish in these areas.
If you decide to go on this wild and primitive hike, make sure to bring bug spray. There are two trails that start at the back of the park. One links this park and Tenoroc FMA. The older trail, established by Boy Scout Troop 123 of Winter Haven, is the original Saddle Creek Park Nature Trail, and is free. It’s part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and an excellent place to see flocks of herons roosting early in the morning and late in the day.
Saddle Creek drains these low-lying floodplain forests southward into Lake Hancock, and this trail parallels its route, offering some scenic views down into the floodplain. We are told that since the sweetgum and maple trees sport orange, gold, and purple leaves in late fall and winter, it’s a great fall foliage walk.
The hike starts at a wooden kiosk and follows wooden markers along the berm between the lake and the floodplain, coming up to an observation tower that has aged past its former glory and is now closed. Pass the tower to continue along the trail, which splits into a loop through the forest. Staying on the clockwise side, you’ll see the charred stump of an ancient cypress rising from the floodplain, and if you walk down to it, you’ll be amazed at its size.
At the T intersection, turn right to make the loop back to the tower, or left to continue out to the end of the trail. Unfortunately, non-native invasive species have taken over this forest, from air potato and Brazilian pepper to rosary peas. We observed a lot of native fauna and flowers as well as some unique mushrooms, some never previously sighted. The scenery was wild yet beautiful. We even passed a small waterfall where the water flowed from one area to another.
Some work is needed to restore the uplands to their former glory. But to the left, the hike continues to follow the bluffs above the impoundments, offering views through the trees across the water, and the opportunity to do a little birdwatching. It ends on a peninsula out into one of the impoundments, and you must retrace your path to return to your car.
There are restrooms near the campground. Use mosquito protection for this hike: with all the water around you, mosquitoes are always present, especially at the prime times to see the birds and wildlife.
Follow US 92 east from Lakeland or west from Auburndale to find this large city park on the north side of the road. Turn north on Saddle Creek Park Road and follow it for 1 mile, passing a campground on the left. Bear right and follow the road to where it ends past the maintenance yard and restrooms at the trail kiosks.
Photos and content by Heather Miller for Destination Tampa Bay.
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