Way off the beaten path of the greater Orlando area, about ten miles from I-4, is the Lake Norris Conservation Area (LNCA) on Lake Norris Road in Eustis. The public park is essentially a horse trail that passes by Lake Norris amidst a 2,352-acre natural preserve in the middle of nowhere. There are no restrooms, paved paths, mileage markers, lights or buildings. Instead, there are lots of cows, trees, open fields and gorgeous lakes.
The LNCA is owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District, which oversees it in cooperation with the Lake County Water Authority. It was purchased from private and commercial entities in three separate transactions from 1996 through 2002 and the most recent purchase, a former sand mine in the far western section, is currently undergoing reclamation to restore the land to its natural state.
It features the Blackwater Creek, which flows under Lake Norris Road on its way to Lake Norris. The creek is home to a host of wildlife including river otters, alligators, turtles and snakes and the entire area is a virtual safari of rare birds, coyote, deer and bear. It is not for the faint of heart as far as hikers are concerned as there is only one way in and one way out, with miles and miles of terrain that can easily lead a careless visitor into a circular abyss.
The entrance way is a grass-covered drive a couple hundred yards long leading to a singular kiosk with a map and sign-in sheet to welcome visitors. A private driveway leads into the preserve, which has a private home and farm off to one side, but other than that its travel via horse or foot. No unauthorized motor vehicles are allowed and the area is cordoned off by cattle fencing with gates for visitors to pass through with friendly reminders to close them once through to keep the big black cows from escaping.
A scout camp is situated next to the entrance to Lake Norris, visible only by a few stored canoes and a rain shelter for the campsite. The entrance to the lake is stunning, with hundreds of centuries-old cypress trees and knees poking out of the pristine waters. A few remnants of a long-eroded dock remain as the only sign of human intrusion.
According to locals, Lake Norris is filled with some of the best freshwater fishing in Central Florida, as well as hundreds of sturdy gators to protect them. In many dozens of visits this reporter has yet to see a boat on the water or any sign of a recent camp out, let alone any litter, bait canisters, beer bottles or vandalism.
A hike to the far west of the park is an arduous one on foot as the terrain is soft white sand for much of the trek, the only respite being long stretches of grass that cows and horses have yet to grind into sand. The atmosphere is as quiet as can be, interrupted only by the sounds of birds and animals scampering across the leaves and the occasional moo.
As stated earlier, this is a potentially treacherous venture considering the presence of snakes, coyotes and bear as well as sweltering heat during much of the year. If an injury were to occur, it’s a long walk back to the entrance and cell phone coverage is intermittent. There is no fast way back to base other than in a four-wheel drive vehicle or on a horse. Mountain biking would be nearly impossible for a long stretch as the sand is too soft and deep, the result of years of hoofed creatures making their way through and the hot sun burning away anything green.
For the strong runner, this can be an exciting and challenging course. With plenty of hops and skips, it is possible to complete many miles through the park, giving for the occasional stop to clear the sand out of the shoes. A mile run through here takes the effort of two on pavement. It is ideal for a spirited hike with appropriate footwear, with an endless amount of scenery to sooth the senses. For those knowledgeable of nature and wildlife, even better, as evidence of all sorts of animals, evolution and botanical history are present throughout.
Patricia Burgos, Environmental Program Manager for the LCWA, notes that the area is ideal for canoeists. The launch area is in Blackwater Creek a few yards away from the kiosk at the entrance to the LNCA.
“That is one area that I highly recommend,” she said. “It’s a great way to see river otter, osprey and other exotic wildlife and it’s an ideal location for the first-time paddler.”
Just let someone know where and when a visit to the park will be made, sign in, bring plenty of water and keep the eyes and ears open at all times. And thank the Lake County Water Authority and the St. Johns River Water Management District.
LNCA Trail Map
See also: BobDeakin.com