A mosaic of marshlands, floodplain forests, shimmering lakes, and grasslands, the Weekiwachee Preserve is an outdoor oasis for nature lovers. Spread over the southwest corner of Hernando County along Florida’s Adventure Coast, the 11,206-acre ecological treasure also serves as a fantastic destination for hiking, biking, paddling, and birdwatching. Bounded by the Weekiwachee and Mud rivers to the north, the preserve also blends into an extensive network of coastal conservation lands extending northward to the Crystal River, providing a vast haven for wildlife.
The Weekiwachee Preserve is also a remarkable ecological success story. Today, the preserve is a sanctuary for wildlife, but not so long ago, the area was home to a lime rock mine that was slated to become a residential community and shopping mall. But in 1995, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) acquired the area and began revamping the landscape. The group transformed mine pits to provide habitat for wading birds and removed invasive plants, which allowed native flora to flourish. Cabbage palms and slash pines gradually took root on the once denuded land, while floodplain forests of saw palmettos, live oaks, and sweetgum also began to thrive.
While the preserve is renowned for birdlife—it’s even recognized as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society—the protected area harbors other endemic wildlife too. The preserve provides vital habitat for Florida black bears and sustains an array of woodland and wetland creatures, including white-tailed deer, bald eagles, and burrowing gopher tortoises. In addition to offering critical space for wildlife, the coastal preserve also provides a number of ecological services, including shielding adjacent communities from the wrath of tropical storms, filtering surface water, and absorbing flood waters.
Ready to explore this remarkable natural oasis on Florida’s Adventure Coast? Here, an insider’s guide to the Weekiwachee Preserve.
The classic circuit leads hikers, bikers, and runners on a nearly 6-mile loop around the preserve’s crystalline lakes and prairie grasslands. Heading away from the chain of lakes, the woodland trails delve into the northern portion of the preserve, meandering through forests studded with sand pines, red maples, and live oaks. The aptly named Bear Claw Road is actually a spur trail that offers hikers and runners an 8.3-mile out-and-back option, as well as the chance to spot signs of the preserve’s reclusive Florida black bears.
The cattail-fringed lakes overlaying the southwestern half of the preserve are ideal for recreational paddlers; they’re open to canoes, kayaks, and boats with electric trolling motors. On the water, strategically placed rock islands lure species like great herons and white ibis to the lakes, although paddlers should also keep an eye out for mottled ducks, blackbirds, and Florida sandhill cranes. As you explore the lakes you might also see snapping turtles, river otters, and Florida green water snakes. Visiting anglers can pursue the resident largemouth bass, and there are also sunfish lurking in the preserve’s waterways.
For birders, the Weekiwachee Preserve is one of the Adventure Coast’s highlights. The protected area is rich in birdlife throughout the year, sustaining both year-round residents and seasonal migrants during the spring and fall migration. The diversity of habitats also means the protected area attracts an incredible variety of avifauna, from songbirds to wading birds. Engaging birds of prey like short-tailed hawks and osprey troll the protected area, and visually-stunning species like scissor-tailed flycatchers have been encountered in the preserve’s expansive grasslands.
During the spring and fall migration, the preserve’s woodlands and open meadows teem with seasonal migrants, drawing an especially rich diversity of roving sparrows. In the winter, migrating waterfowl species seek shelter in the preserve, and wading birds like snowy egrets, tricolored herons, and white ibis congregate around the preserve’s lakes and marshes. The protected area is also one of 510 spots along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a network of wildlife destinations throughout the Sunshine State.
In addition to drawing a wide variety of birds, the preserve also hosts a rich diversity of butterflies. Vividly colored phaon crescent and painted lady butterflies provide stunning subjects for photographers. Eagle-eyed visitors can also spot well-camouflaged barred yellow and Horace’s duskywing butterflies among the nearly 80 different species encountered in the preserve.
• There are two public entrances to the Weekiwachee Preserve. On the western edge of the preserve, the access point located on Shoal Line Road is open daily and has a small parking lot. The main entrance is located on Osowaw Boulevard at the southern end of the protected area and is only open to vehicle traffic on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Visitors entering on foot or bicycle may access the preserve any day of the week between sunrise and sunset.
• For hikers, bikers, and runners tackling the trails ringing the preserve’s chain of lakes, shade can be scarce. If heat is a concern, plan visits for cooler portions of the day, bring adequate sun protection, and pack extra water. In a pinch, visitors traveling the preserve’s main lake circuit can reduce their trip distance by using the Shortcut Trail to cross the causeway between the lakes.
• There is no formal ramp for paddlers, but there is a boat launch and parking area on the eastern side of the preserve’s lakes, and it’s accessible from the Osowaw Boulevard entrance. However, on Saturdays when the preserve’s main entrance is not open to vehicular traffic, paddlers must portage boats all the way to the water.
• A printable map of the preserve is available from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with Florida’s Adventure Coast and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Patrick Kinney