Lake County, Florida
Longtime Florida nature travelers who feel they have ďdoneĒ Ocala National Forest may want to look south of the borderóthe forest border, that is. Lake County offers a quiet respite with beautiful natural areas that people might overlook because of the prominence of the nearby national forest.
The charming towns of Mount Dora, Leesburg and Tavares form a triangle around large lakes, while Umatilla and Fruitland Park show a more rural side to the region that isnít far from Orlandoís hustle and bustle. So whatís there to do outdoors? Start at the 25,000-acre Seminole State Forest (352-360-6675). The forestís pine flatwoods, sand pine scrub, and hardwoods are dotted with small springs and crossed by trails. Hikers can access 21 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail here. Offroad cyclists can travel 25 miles of named forest roads and bike trails. Paddlers can put in at Blackwater Creek right off the forestís Sand Road, then float down to the Wekiva River. Visit the forest after March 27 if you want to avoid hunt dates. Park your vehicle at the entrance and hike or bike down the forest roads, or call ahead for a permit to receive a code that opens the gate, and drive through. The day-use fee is $1 per person. Take I-4 to Exit #101C and go west on State Road 46 to the entrance.
Head northwest to Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area (352-821-2066), a National Natural Landmark. Right now in spring is the only time to take the 4.3-mile wildlife drive that runs along the top of a levee through the marsh; look for it at the southernmost entrance on Emeralda Island Road, where youíll find a kiosk. The wildlife drive is open weekends from February to May from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are also trails open to hikers, off-road cyclists and equestrians, and there are boat ramps that offer access to Lake Yale and Lake Griffin. To get there, take SR 44 west from the town of Eustis. At Lisbon Road, turn right (north), then head left at the fork in the road (Emeralda Island Road). Trailheads and boat ramps are located along the road. While youíre near Lake Yale, check out the little-known 1,137-acre Sawgrass Island Preserve (352-343-3777) near Umatilla. North of Lake Yale, Sawgrass Island is a county preserve where you might spot gopher tortoises and raptors. Connecting nature trails take you through pines, hammocks and sawgrass marsh. Take SR 19 to Umatilla and head west on Route 450. Turn left (south) on Thomas Boat Landing Road. The entrance is off Sawgrass Island Road on the left.
Sawgrass Islandís sister, Flat Island Preserve, lies south of Leesburg. Flat Island sticks out into the Okahumpka Marsh. Take the 4-mile Daubenmire Trail, or call ahead about canoeing here. Take SR 44 to Leesburg and go south on US 27. Then take route 25A to Owens Road, where the entrance is at the end. Shutterbugs may want to arrange a private tour with Natural Focus (352-383-9443; www.naturalfocus.org), located in Eustis, which can guide you through the regionís natural areas. To camp here, call ahead and request a primitive camping permit for Seminole State Forest, Sawgrass Island Preserve or Flat Island Preserve. For lodging, try Darst Victorian Manor (352-383-4050) in Mount Dora or Guesthouse Inn and Suites (888-787-1210; www.guesthouseintl.com) in Leesburg.
Plan to spend some time in Mount Doraís picturesque shopping district, and large Renningerís Antique and Farmers Market (877-385-0104; www.renningers.com), which is south of downtown on US 441.
If you want an in-depth look at this part of Florida, order 30 Eco-Trips in Florida and turn to chapter 19, Central Lakes and Springs, and also chapter 13, Ocala National Forest.