Sprawling across northwestern Orange County in central Florida glitters Lake Apopka, the fourth-largest lake in the state. Once it was a tourist attraction in its own right, its shore dotted with 21 fishing camps in the 1940s. Over time, the land surrounding the lake was converted to farmland, with the lake receiving more than its share of pollution, mostly in the form of fertilizer and pesticide runoff. In 1981 it was designated an EPA Superfund cleanup site, and in 1996 the Florida government began purchasing the land around the lake, closing the farms, beginning cleanup and restoration of the area to its natural state. Today, the water quality of the lake is much improved, and the wildlife impacted by the pollution has bounced back.
As part of the restoration project, mixed-use trails were built throughout the area, including the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive: an 11-mile one-way dirt track through wetlands and along the north short of the lake, providing an amazing opportunity to view scenery, flora and fauna of natural central Florida.
Let’s check it out!
From the entrance off of Lust Drive in Apopka, the first 2 miles of the drive is a straight shot through marshy wetlands, with stretches of shallow water along both sides. This is prime territory for spotting birds: waders like herons, egrets, and ibis; dabblers and fishers like moorhens and anhinga; and birds of prey like osprey and hawks.
Around the 2-mile mark we arrive at the historic pumphouse. There’s not much information to be found about it, but it looks to date from the mid-20th century, so I presume it pumped irrigation water between the lake and surrounding farmland. It’s dormant now, but makes for some interesting photographic opportunities.
Next to the pumphouse is a pond that always seems to be packed with alligators, a great spot to see them. Sometimes a little too close for comfort, so watch your step!
The wetlands are also a great place to watch for dragonflies, and various wetland plants in bloom depending on the time of year.
Leaving the pumphouse, we can opt for a spur back into the wetlands, or one that runs just along the lake shore. Taking that path around sunset can lead to some spectacular views.
Be warned: Your vehicle WILL get dusty on this trek! Totally worth it.
Directions: The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive entrance is located at 2850 Lust Road in Apopka, Florida. The 11-mile drive can take anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on traffic and how often you stop to admire the views and wildlife. The trail exits onto Duda Road, further north in Mount Dora. The drive is free, and open from sunrise to sunset Friday through Sunday, and most major holidays. Facilities are limited, but several portable restrooms and picnic shelters are available along the route. You can find more information, a trail map, and an audio tour for the drive at https://www.sjrwmd.com/lands/recreation/lake-apopka/