Little Big Econ – Walk In the Footsteps of Ponce de Leon

7 Dec

Horseback riders cross the Econlockhathcee River

The date is April 2, 1513. A prominent Spanish explorer, using his own money, sets out to find new islands of riches believed to be located somewhere northwest of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. He arrives at a destination and gives it the name La Florida after the Festival of Flowers during Easter, Pascua Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon comes ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne, spending five days on what he thinks is an island . He never ventures far from the coast or his ships, nor is he particularly welcomed by the Native Americans that inhabit the area.

Eventually he moves on, heading south along the coast. What were the thoughts running through the mind of this man as he left the beach to board his ship, the Santiago, on a clear spring night with billions of stars shining down on a black ocean? He had already seen many strange things in his lifetime, visited countless foreign lands, and skirmished with those that inhabited them. Most of all, what makes him return 8 years later to settle the land? His plans go terribly wrong. He is mortally wounded in an attack by the natives. He flees to Cuba where he dies. Were his final thoughts as he lay dying of this mysterious world of endless foliage? He envisioned a new beginning and instead met a violent end. We’ll never know his last thoughts, but we know he changed the world. The European conquest of the North American continent had begun.

Legend says he was in search of the Fountain of Youth, but that search rarely took him away from the coast. Often they were met by resistance so it was probably safer not to press inland. But what if he had? What if Ponce de Leon explored Florida enough to learn about the heart of the land. The natives knew it well. They loved it enough to fight for it and die for it. The Calusa and Mayaimi tribes understood what made the heart of Florida pump the rivers and streams south to the Everglades which in turn fed the rich waters of Florida Bay. The Seminoles were the last to protect it, but eventually they too gave in to conquest after engaging the Spanish and the Americans in three wars. 1845 saw it all end when Florida became part of the United States. Thick Cabbage Palms

Ponce de Leon really never knew La Florida. I often wonder what it would have been like to see the land through his eyes had he accomplished his last mission, settled the land and written about it. I found a place where I felt like I was doing just that. Little Big Econ State Forest is located in Seminole County just north of Orlando. You can access the forest in the small town of Oviedo off County Road 426 or along Snowhill Road. It’s a two-hour drive from Tampa, but only fifteen or twenty minutes from downtown Orlando. It helps to have a Sun Pass or bring plenty of change. If you’re not familiar with Orlando, the toll roads are the quickest way to get around and that is how the GPS will take you unless you set it to avoid tolls. This is a place where you truly feel like your stepping back in time so however you get here will soon be irrelevant.

The Florida National Scenic Trail and The Flagler Trail intersect here where the old-growth is memorizing.  The Econlockhatchee River bisects the forest and the trails stay close to the river. Small creeks spider out in different directions from the main river so the forest service helps Trailwalkers by strategically placing wooden foot bridges along the main trails. My son and I did a 4.7 mile loop called the Kolokee Trail Loop which runs from the parking area off Barr St and CR 426 along the river to The Flagler Trail, then into the pine and oak hammocks before looping back down to the river.

Amazing Sprawling Oak TreeThe size of and shapes of the trees made the biggest impression on me during this three-hour hike. I literally felt like a Spanish explorer making his way along the narrow path. From sprawling oak trees covered in mosses and ferns to cabbage palm tree patches that rival three-story buildings you can feel the hundred year old spirits guiding you with each step. Pine trees do their best impression of California Redwoods that any tree growing in our sandy soil can do.

The Florida Trail and the Flagler Trail meet at a bridge that crosses the Econlockhatchee which was formerly part of the Flagler Railroad System. The old trestles are still there. Standing over the gentle flowing current I imagined those that inhabited the banks fishing the plentiful waters while the children swam and played. Fish the size of my forearm swam right below my feet so I knew this was always a place of bounty. Up the trail a few hundred yards an alligator rested in a small pond. Turtles enjoyed unusual afternoon warmth for late fall. I even came across a small box tortoise scooting along the trail. This is a place that can never be changed because it never has been changed. I felt that this is a piece of Florida that must be very close to its heart. It had already become a part of my heart.Bridge where the railroad once crossed the Econlockhatchee River, now part of the Florida Trail

It began to rain during the  stretch back to the trail head. We walked in the rain for a good half an hour. Normally when you spend that amount of time in the rain you end up drenched. The trees were so thick in places with canopies of palms that we ended up more on the damp side than what I would consider wet. I could tell Little Big Econ is no stranger to rain. It’s only twenty to thirty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. There was zero chance of rain when we left Tampa, but a stiff northeast wind in early December had another forecast in mind for that part of the state. Other than some muddy shoes we ended our hike no worse for wear.

There is no traditional camping in the Little Big Econ State Forest, but there are miles of hiking trails, horseback riding trails and biking trails. You can canoe or fish as long as you have a state fishing license. It’s not the largest forest, but size does not equate to substance, and this forest has what you’re looking for if your into nature the way nature was meant to be seen; undisturbed and isolated. Walking in the Little Big Econ is truly like walking in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon.

Rest area where the Florida Trail and Flagler Trail intersect Alligator resting in a pond Ferns and mosses make an ecosystem of their own on the trunks of the huge oak trees

The Econlockhatchee River Footbridge along The Florida Trail Old Growth

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