They were definitely trying to hide it. We had already been driving 45 minutes or so into the development wilds that is east Orange County these days and apparently had zoomed past Clapp-Simms-Duda Road, the very small byway that allegedly was to take us to our hiking destination, the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area. S finally located the turn off on Google maps. Yes, we were a couple of miles beyond.
This state of affairs necessitated a u-turn in front of one of the ubiquitous chain restaurants (Olive Garden, Long Horn, Lime Mexican, you name it, it’s out there on Narcoosee Road). The Ford Explorer begrudgingly obliged, and finally, driving extremely slowly, we found a sharp, unmarked right turn that took us onto Clapp-Simms-Duda, just past a McDonalds.
The entrance to the conservation area speaks the story of Florida. One side of the road featured huge armies of earth moving equipment, preparing to clear land for another one of the big housing developments, some of which bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Soviet era apartment complexes we saw in Russian in 2014. But turn your head to the other side of the road, and it was lined with live oak hammocks, palm trees, and Florida prairie. The armies, though, seemingly advancing inexorably into the last of the wild space.
The trail itself starts across an open field, crosses into some palmetto prairies, and then continues for a few miles of very pleasant shaded walking. J, S, and I are now in serious (well, quasi-serious) training for the Marathon March on April 29, so we were undertaking this adventure with great determination. But despite our attempts to keep our pace up, the long leaf pines and peculiarly shaped oaks were a distraction. Most interesting was a trail spur leading to Lake Hart. True to the guidebook’s description, the trail simply turned into a bed of water that drained into the lake. Most trails stop at lakes, but this one appeared to go right into it.
Ultimately you end up in another open meadow, where there’s a different entrance into the park. An interesting, ancient oak tree dominated the area – we decided it should serve as the namesake split oak since apparently we had missed the real thing.
But after the meadow the real training began. The trail was rutted and wide – we saw two different official Orange County vehicles that were apparently the source of the deep crevices – but the main difficulty was that the trails themselves consisted of inches deep white glistening sand. It was unseasonably warm, and the sun’s reflection added a whole different dimension to the effort of sinking down three inches only to have to pull up again.
As we got toward mile 6, the trail mercifully provided a little bit more shade, encouraging us to recall its very pleasant beginning. We reached the meadow where we’d started. Insect life was everywhere – humming, chirping, buzzing – a veritable cacophony.
Getting back on the road, it was a mere half mile to the encroaching development. The insect symphony was quickly subsumed by the drone of cars and roar of the bulldozers.