Black Bear Wilderness Area (12-31-17)
Black Bear Wilderness Area is a 1,400-acre protected piece of land located in Seminole County about a half hour drive north of Orlando. Contained within its boundaries is a beautiful landscape of wetland forest quite unexpected in this region of subdivisions and golf courses. Setting alongside the St. John's River, Black Bear is circled by a 7-mile trail which, thanks to the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, is fantastically maintained and provides relatively easy access into this wild area. Traversing narrow palm-lined levees, which keep the trail high and dry most of the year, and crossing numerous bridges over creeks and swamplands this wonderful footpath keeps you wowed by your surroundings its entire length. Wildlife also abounds here. Though I didn't see any on this visit I've heard bears are not an uncommon sight along with countless birds, snakes, and alligators (all of which I did see). Black Bear is touted as one of the premier hiking destinations in this region of Florida and, I'm here to tell you, it fully lives up to this reputation.
The first question you're likely to ask is...a wilderness area? In central Florida? Yeah, I must admit I was skeptical too. While by the strictest definition of 'wilderness' Black Bear probably doesn't qualify the forests which are contained within its boundaries are most certainly 'wild'. You won't expect that as you arrive, however. The small trailhead parking area is located along a sleepy residential road on the northwest side of the city of Sanford. Within a few feet of setting out, however, the true nature of the trail begins to reveal itself. Tall palms, pines and a variety of other evergreen plants immediately surround you as the trail begins by following a lengthy boardwalk. It's like entering a jungle. Within a quarter mile the boardwalk reaches a split and the loop portion of the hike begins. Straight ahead one could reach the banks of the St. John's River, about a mile off, and this is what the majority of visitors do. I'd take a left, however, and dive into the leafy backcountry of the Wilderness Area. As the path follows the southern boundary of the area it follows both narrow levees and a wide, flat, gravel-lined primitive roadway. It continues like this before turning north towards the St. John at around the 2.5-mile mark. As the trail nears the river it becomes even more narrow and I frequently found myself weaving between tightly spaced palm trees and traversing the rather steep edges of the narrow levees I was travelling atop of. Just before the halfway point the trail turns back east as it follows the St. Johns River. The path rarely comes right up against the banks of the St. John's but rather keeps a slight distance running between a riverside canal and marshy swamplands. The path continues its jungle-like feel and bridges crossing small creeks and wetlands became more frequent. About halfway along the river-front stretch I also passed a large backcountry camping area situated under a grand stand of tall palm trees.
A mile or so from returning to the parking area the trail once again turns back inland and passes through a large open marsh. I was treated to my one and only alligator sighting of the hike here! From the marsh the path continues on the straight and narrow as it eventually re-enters the familiar floodplain forest from earlier and once again reaches the long boardwalk back to the trailhead. Overall its a beautiful hike. If I had one regret it would be the unexpectedly high hiker traffic. This is probably to be expected though being located as it is so near a large urban area. I didn't find the trail to terribly rugged, despite warnings on signs and websites to the contrary. Of course I'm used to mountain hiking so it would be hard for the swamps of Florida to rate as 'rugged' on my personal scale. All that said I'd highly recommend this hike. It's unrelentingly beautiful and, as its name implies, wild. After a five year hiatus from Florida the Black Bear Wilderness Area treated me to a wonderful welcome back hike.
So, without further adieu, I present the Black Bear Wilderness Area of central Florida. This is a good one and, as you'll see, quite unlike most other hikes I've partaken in. As always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 28.832681, -81.353914
Mileage Hiked: 7.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 20' Max. Elevation: 50'
Total Vertical Gain: 60' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 8'