From rolling sand dunes to deep woods, expansive bodies of water to wide-open skies, there is nothing better to so than enjoy the great outdoors in Polk County.
Lake Wales Ridge
More than 150 miles long, the Lake Wales Ridge runs over five counties through the middle of the state. The history of the ridge starts well before the dinosaurs when Florida wasn’t much more than a sandy spit. Today, the remnants of those islands comprise the Lake Wales Ridge. The waters may have receded, but many of the original life forms remained and are found nowhere else on Earth.
While the ridge contains many habitats, it is most famous for its scrub habitat, and the bird only found in the Sunshine State, the Florida scrub-jay, and the state’s only endemic mammal, the Florida mouse. But you’ll also find the gopher tortoise, the gigantic land turtle which digs deep burrows in the sand up to 10 feet deep and 30 feet long, or the sand skink, whose “S” shaped track is formed as it “swims” just beneath the surface of the sand. It is the only known sand-swimming skink in North America and only found in seven Florida counties.
But the ridge isn’t just home to unusual fauna, but flora as well. Many of the plants here are so specific to this part of Florida that they are federally protected, especially since 85 percent of the plant communities on the ridge have been lost to some human land use. Most of the natural habitats include oak hammocks, pine flat woods, and increasingly rare cutthroat grass.
Perhaps the best-known high point on the ridge is in Lake Wales. Towering a whole 295 feet about sea level – okay, that’s pretty high for Florida – Iron Mountain is home to one of Central Florida’s most popular residents, Bok Tower Gardens. Towering more than 200 feet above Iron Mountain, Bok Tower was a tourist attraction the day it opened in 1929. The world-famous art deco and neo-Gothic legend house a carillon, an instrument comprised of a series of bells played by a keyboard. Gone is what was once a desolate sandhill, replaced by Bok Tower’s creator, Edward Bok. In its place is a 250-acre lush tropical landscape that is both a contemplative garden as well as a bird sanctuary. But the Pine Ridge Nature Trail remains, and it isn’t unusual to find many of the aboriginal ridge residents residing there.
Thus, a trip to Bok Tower mixes both the new and ancient together. An even newer addition to the grounds, Hammock Hollow, has turned 2.7 acres of that area into a childhood delight.
With nearly 20 different elements wrapped into the experience, from water features to a stage and space to perform, there is plenty for both the young and the young-at-heart to stay busy. Not long after walking through the child-sized Gateway arch, stone mosaics of different animals greet the young adventurers on their way to the irresistible Indigo Pass. A giant, inky-black snake sculpture, perfect for climbing, surrounds a sand play area. Just steps away, a ledge complete with nooks and crannies leads to the River Walk, where cooling sprays of water from fountains, jets, misters, and foggers help refresh the explorers.
Creative outlets are also incorporated, including the Sabal Stage, complete with different costumes available for play and performances, as well as an art station, tuned instruments including a giant xylophone, and even a fairy house. It’s a fun and imaginative way to enjoy the great outdoors in Polk County.
A taste of nature in the middle of the city
Located in the heart of the city, Lake Hollingsworth is the living center of Lakeland. As long as the sun is out, people flock to Hollingsworth to walk, run or bike the roughly three-mile-long pedestrian path around the lake, dubbed the 20th most popular running route in the United States by Under Armour in 2017.
Sure, the 350-acre Lake Hollingsworth is home to the annual Orange Cup Regatta powerboat race one weekend a year. But when the boats on the lake aren’t racing at well over 100 mph, the lake is an oasis thriving with a variety of aquatic birds, the occasional otter family, and plenty of water lilies. This is also the high rent district of the city, with multi-million dollar homes ringing the lake.
Wildlife is abundant in the lake, including plenty of aquatic birds and plant life. Playful families of otters can be seen, but only in the quiet of an early morning. Rabbits skitter through the nearby bushes.
But half the scenery is on the other side of the road. Stately homes – this is one of the higher rent districts in the city, ring the lake. And don’t miss the campus of Florida Southern College, designed by fabled American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is not only the largest example of his work but the southernmost example as well. A beautiful way to enjoy the great outdoors in Polk County.
Life on the Wild Side
Not far away, Circle B Bar Reserve can be found on the northwest side of Lake Hancock. However, there are some restrictions. Leave your pets at home, don’t bring any balloons or play music and you should probably bring closed-toe shoes.
But a visit to Circle B ensures you’ll find a lot more than alligators. Snakes, wild hogs, and otters are just a few of the ground level creatures. Eagles and herons fly overhead.
If the state’s most popular reptile is on your must-see list, the world-renowned Circle B Bar Reserve, often listed as one of the top nature reserves in the United States, is the place. Comprised of nearly 1,300 acres, Circle B may be the top spot in the nation to observe alligators in the wild. While there are numerous trails, the most popular trail in the park is, without a doubt, Alligator Alley Trail.
Running along with alligator-inhabited Lake Hancock, you can watch the star attractions at a safe distance from shore or from a number of piers. Ranging in size from mere inches to nearly as long as your average hatchback car, the alligators are at home in the oak hammock, freshwater marsh, hardwood swamp, and the lakeshore of the reserve.
With all the alligators around, it’s the perfect place to bring a camera or smartphone – but don’t miss out on everything else around you. Circle B Bar Reserve, with a series of well-maintained marked trails of different lengths, provides countless opportunities for photographers or painters looking to capture the beauty of nature. The tremendous bird population includes a variety of wading birds, waterfowl, ospreys, and bald eagles.
No matter your fitness level – or how hot it is – there is a trail that will be just the right length for you. The extensive trail system includes the Shady Oak Trail (2 Kilometers), Lost Bridge Trail (0.8 Kilometer); Alligator Alley (1.6 Kilometers); Marsh Rabbit Run (1.1 Kilometers); Heron Hideout (0.8 Kilometers), Eagle Roost (1.1 Kilometers), Wading Bird Way 1.1 Kilometers, Windmill Whisper (.64 Kilometers) and the Otter Trail (.32 Kilometers). Many of the trails interconnect to provide for longer hiking or biking opportunities.
So take a few days and enjoy the great outdoors in Polk County. For more Central Florida vacation ideas, visit www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.