ABOVE: A vista from Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive (Mount Dora Buzz photo)
Pristinely beautiful, one of the best kept secrets of Central Florida lies just 15 minutes south of downtown Mount Dora.
Anyone who loves nature, wildlife and photography, will find this the perfect escape from the hustle of urban life. After driving through the gates, visitors are transported to an unspoiled version of Florida that’s elusive in day-to-day life. The 11-mile single lane meanders through vast wetlands and marshes which provide endless viewing of natural habitats with abundant wildlife. Alligators are ubiquitous and bird-watching is regarded as among the best in Florida with 369 species recorded. As visitors drive the leisurely 10-mile-per-hour speed limit, they may also spot raccoons, bears, armadillos and coyotes.
Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, part of St. Johns Water Management District, is located in the Lake Apopka North Shore. This area is the result of the restoration of former muck farms which transformed the area into an environmental sanctuary and recreational gem. Interestingly, the sprawling 20,000 acres that make up the Lake Apopka North Shore were once the northern part of Lake Apopka before the wetlands were separated from the lake in 1941 by a large levee. This reduced Lake Apopka from over 50,000 acres to approximately 30,000.
The slow, sometimes bumpy, scenic drive can take from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the number of cars and how many stops visitors make along the route. Bicyclists can ride in both directions on the 1.5-mile Lake Apopka Loop Trail segment which has four trailheads with restrooms at the Green Mountain, North Shore/McDonald Canal boat ramp and Magnolia Park trailheads and port-a-lets at the historic pump house. Drinking water isn’t provided along the trail, so visitors need to bring their own.
Outside of the Wildlife Drive, the North Shore property also includes trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. The marked 6-mile-loop white trail on Clay Island features four observation towers, including one overlooking the west shoreline of Lake Apopka. The Red Trail offers 2.6 miles for visitors on foot, bike or horseback.
The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive entrance gate is located at 2850 Lust Road in Apopka. Motorized vehicles are only allowed to enter between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. All vehicles must exit the drive by 5 p.m. Trailers are not permitted. The trail exits at Jones Avenue, and there are no exits midway.
There’s no shortage for day trips for adventure seekers in Central Florida. One of the easiest and most fun activities is a day of scalloping in Citrus County. The underwater quest for tasty Bay Scallops is a virtual underwater scavenger hunt aided by a mask, fins and a snorkel.
The first thing to do is head to Homosassa during Citrus County’s scallop season, which runs July 1 through September 2. The small town is nestled on the banks of the Homosassa River, a pristine nine-mile waterway that leads to the Gulf of Mexico. The prolific outflow from the 45-foot deep Homosassa Spring is what creates the scenic river’s flow.
Scallop hunters can either hire one of the local scalloping charter boats or trailer their own boat and launch it from one of the local ramps. The beautiful boat ride alone is worth the trip. Once in the Gulf, the real fun begins. Donning snorkeling gear, scallopers hunt for the hinged mollusks as they rest camouflaged in seagrass beds under five or six feet of water. Once startled, the scallops dart away and the chase is on. If successful, scallop hunters can yield a hefty bag of fresh shellfish by the end of their outing. However, finding and catching the little critters can be tricky, so here’s a quick video. If the scallops are too elusive, stop by Shelley’s Fish Market to take some home.
What to know before you go
GEAR: Mesh bag, scalloping net, snorkel, mask and fins and gloves (optional)
LICENSE: Recreational harvesters need a Florida saltwater fishing license to harvest bay scallops unless they are 1. exempt from needing a license or 2. have a no-cost shoreline fishing license and are wading from shore to collect scallops (i.e. feet do not leave bottom to swim, snorkel, or SCUBA, and harvesters do not use a vessel to reach or return from the harvest location)
LIMITS: Like all other fisheries in the State, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulates the harvesting of scallops. The daily limit is two gallons of whole bay scallops in shell, or one pint of bay scallop meat per person; maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in shell, or half a gallon bay scallop meat per vessel.
BOATING: Scallopers that take their own boat should be mindful of the changing tides in the shallow waters. Scallopers can also opt to hire one of the local scalloping boats with a guide who knows the local waters.
SHELL DISPOSAL:Scallopers are asked not to discard scallop shells in the Homosassa River or Crystal River. The discarded shells can damage the seagrass habitat, as well as create sharp hazards for swimmers.
Arguably Florida's most gentle and graceful creatures, manatees continue to be reported in Lake County waterways in increasing numbers. In order to create awareness about their presence and aid in protecting the slow-moving giants, Mount Dora Buzz sought answers about local manatees from Nicole Bartlett, research assistant at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.
BUZZ: How many manatees are estimated to be in Lake County waterways? BARTLETT: Prior to 2015, no manatees had ever been reported in the Chain of Lakes. Based on our photo identification research efforts since 2016, we have been able to identify over a dozen uniquely marked animals, with estimates of at least another dozen using the waterways upriver from Moss Bluff during the summertime. We know some individuals that use Silver River during the winter will travel upriver into Lake Griffin but how often and how many is still unknown at this time.
BUZZ: Is this an increase from previous years? We are getting more reports of manatees sighted in Lake County than previous years, but that doesn't necessarily mean there are more manatees present. We, and our county and state agency partners, have been doing a lot of outreach to try to get people to report sightings so we can have a clearer understanding of when manatees are using the lake system. But manatees are included in the fossil record within the Ocklawaha River system from Silver River to the St. Johns River. They have been here a very long time.
BUZZ: How many of these manatees are tagged and tracked? We have two manatees tagged for the Ocklawaha project. Neither one is in the lower river system at the moment. It's one of the risks of tagging wild animals: they don't always stay in an area and definitely do not do what you expect.
BUZZ: Do the manatees find their way back to open waters from Lake County? If so, where do they typically go? Absolutely! Most of the manatees who use Lake County during the summer will lock back through into the Ocklawaha. Some will use Silver River for the winter, some will continue into the St. Johns River, and use various springs during the winter. We have a few animals we have identified, with the help of USGS, who travel as far south as Ft. Lauderdale during the winter. Currently, one animal who used the upper Ocklawaha is at Hilton Head Island.
BUZZ: How many sightings have been in Lake Dora and/or the Dora Canal? I have found four in our database. There are probably more, but if they don’t get reported to us or FWC, we don’t usually hear about them. There are a couple more sightings in the AB canal, and moving further into Lake Carlton.
BUZZ: One was spotted in the water between Lake Dora and Lake Beauclaire. Is this an animal you may be familiar with? Without photos, I can't say for sure. We did have a tagged animal, Trevluc, who explored the area a few years ago, but he was sadly killed by a boat strike in Lake Griffin last year. I've seen two recent reports of manatees in that area, one in the AB canal. We had at least one manatee reported in Lake Apopka during the winter. Winter sightings are very important, because the water temperature gets too cold for manatees so they must have access to springs to survive.
BUZZ: Is there a particular reason the manatees head inland? What do they eat in the local lakes? Manatees like to explore. They will peek their heads into every nook and cranny, into places you would swear they couldn't fit, in some cases. And they like to eat. It's entirely possible that animals are entering the lake system in search of more food sources, especially given reduction of submerged vegetation in the St. Johns River after the most recent hurricanes and of course due to what's happening on the east coast. The lakes are a manatee buffet, and like us, they seem to have preferences. One submerged vegetation species, coontail, might be considered the chocolate of the manatee world. I've seen some really go after the pennywort. I once saw two manatees plow through head after head of water lettuce like a pie-eating contest. If it's green, they'll at least sample it.
BUZZ: Should boaters in Lake County do anything different in the lakes and waterways due to the potential presence of manatees? Manatees spend most of their time in the shallows along shorelines eating and sleeping. Slowing down in these areas, and just keeping an eye out for them would really benefit the manatees. When entering/exiting and within the canals that interchange the lake systems, remember manatees are also using these bodies of water to move between systems. Stay in the middle, travel at a moderate, safe speed and slow down near shoreline edges, especially where there is surface vegetation.
BUZZ: Are there any laws that protect manatees? Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap or capture a manatee, and it is also illegal to harass, annoy, or molest manatees. Harassment is defined as an intentional or negligent act that significantly disrupts normal behavioral patterns, which are not limited to breeding, feeding or sheltering. In other words, there are laws which prohibit feeding and watering along with interactions which disturb manatees while they are breeding and resting.
Anyone that spots a manatee in a Lake County waterway is encouraged to report the day and location of the sighting to email@example.com.
Just in time for climbing temperatures, the area’s public pools and splash pads have opened for the season. Here’s what you need to know before slathering up the sunscreen in Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares.
MOUNT DORA’S LINCOLN AVENUE POOL Pool guests can enjoy open swim sessions, take lessons or just swim laps. Admission to the pool is $2.00 and children under age 2 are admitted for free. Children under 12 years of age must be accompanied by an adult in the pool. The adult must be actively participating with the child in the water.
On June 7, the American Red Cross will start group swim lessons. The 30-minute swim lessons are Monday through Thursday for two weeks. The cost for each two week session is $40 for Mount Dora residents and $45 for non-residents. Additional information about the pool, open swim and the new aquatic programs can be found at www.CityofMountDoraRecreation.com
Hours of Operation: Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
ABOVE: Eustis Aquatic Center (City of Eustis photo)
EUSTIS AQUATIC CENTER Guests can play, float, sunbathe, read, swim laps or just lounge at the City’s complex at Ferran Park. Admission into the Eustis Aquatic Center also includes access to its splash pad. Daily admission is $3 per guest for ages 12 and older and $2 for kids under 12. Guests can opt to purchase a punch pass for $40 for twenty visits.
Hours of Operation: Monday - Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday: 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. the City’s summer camp is in attendance at the center, so guests should expect the pool to be crowded and/or near capacity on those days.
TAVARES SPLASH PAD Located at Wooton Park on the downtown Lakefront, the Tavares seaplane-themed splash pad doesn't have a nearby pool, but will be open seven days a week beginning on June 7 for kids to cool off. Admission is $2 for anyone entering the splash pad’s fenced areas. Season passes are available at The Prop Shop at the seaplane base. . Hours of Operation: June 7 through August 6: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. seven days/week
After being destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the impressive Tavares Seaplane Base and Marina rebuild project on Lake Dora is essentially complete. Only the final details remain, so the fuel dock, transient dock, and seaplane ramp are now open to the public. The Seaplane Base and Marina has 80 slips available for monthly rental (20 commercial and 60 non-commercial). The expansive marina will officially be open to receive tenants on June 1st. There is a short-term ‘transient’ public dock for visitors which is free for day use for boats and seaplanes. It’s located east of the marina and west of the Pavilion on the Lake. Overnight use is subject to fees and there is no long-term docking at the transient dock. The marina offers ethanol-free 93 octane marine fuel and 100 octane, low-lead aviation fuel for sale at market prices. Fuel sales for boats and seaplanes are available 7 days a week from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The City has begun planning a “grand opening and ribbon-cutting” to celebrate the completion of the waterfront project funded by an insurance settlement, The event will take place during Monster Splash, Seaplane Fly-In, and Rocktoberfest concert on October 16, 2021. Further information on boat slip rentals can be obtained by calling the Tavares Seaplane Base/Marina at 352-742-6267. Follow Mount Dora Buzz on Instagram. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, visit the area's websiteand download the area's free mobile app.
ABOVE: Canaveral National Seashore (Photo by (Photo attribution rainbow - By Joneboi at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org
Anyone in Lake County longing for the sand and surf has likely hit the shores of New Smyrna Beach. A quick drive past the popular drive-on beach transports beachgoers to a completely different beach experience with less-travelled, pristine coastline. Read more
Residents’ enthusiasm for a potential bike and walking trail connecting downtown Mount Dora to neighboring downtown Tavares never seems to wane. Last year, the project was studied for its feasibility and local governments collaborated to apply for a Federal grant to fund the project, dubbed the Tav-Dora Trail. The regional paved trail was not awarded the grant this year, so Mount Dora Buzz once again sought the valuable insight of impassioned local trail expert, Tavares City Manager John Drury, for more details and the next steps in the ongoing process.
MOUNT DORA BUZZ: Did last year's feasibility study conclude if "Rails to Trails" (a trail that replaces train) or "Rails and Trails" (a trail built alongside train tracks) or some other alignment was preferable? DRURY: Rails to Trails.
MOUNT DORA BUZZ:What factors made "Rails to Trails" more feasible? DRURY: The railroad (Regional Rail) would not accept a Rails and Trails program due to liability. MOUNT DORA BUZZ: What entity would own the Tav-Dora trail and who would maintain it? DRURY: This is a Lake County project and they are applying for the Federal grant to acquire the ROW (Right of Way), design it and construct it. Tavares, Mount Dora and Lake County are in discussions about developing an interlocal government agreement to address maintenance. This is being worked on. MOUNT DORA BUZZ: How much grant money is being sought and how much would each entity (Lake County, Tavares & Mount Dora) have to put up in addition? DRURY: A $25 million Federal Grant is being applied for again. Lake County, Mount Dora and Tavares are identifying projects that are programmed for the corridor that will contribute to the overall success of the trail. These projects will be identified as Grant Matches to the project. Each entity will have at least one project to contribute toward this trail project. Examples would be Broadband, a traffic circle at the Golden Triangle “intersection” that the County is looking at, underground utilities that may need to be co-located in the trail ROW. These project totals would be in the millions and where no match is required would make the application more competitive.
MOUNT DORA BUZZ: When can you re-apply for the grant? Does the grant have a specific name? DRURY: We expect to be applying for the grant in the next 60 days. We are awaiting the “Notice Of Funding Opportunity” (NOFO) to be issued in the next 60 days.
MOUNT DORA BUZZ: How much work and money has been done on this trail project? DRURY: Lake County developed a trails master plan that has the project in it. (not sure how much was spent on the master plan). The State of Florida did an alternative analysis (about $240,000 was spent on this study). Lake County is currently doing a PD&E (Project Development and Environment) study ($500,000). MOUNT DORA BUZZ: Any other funding proposed? DRURY: State Senator Baxley is proposing a $2 million State appropriation to assist in the design in this upcoming legislative session MOUNT DORA BUZZ: What still has to be done on the project? DRURY:
Complete the PD&E (Project Development and Environment) study
Acquire the Right of Way
Open it up
MOUNT DORA BUZZ: What will a bike trail do economically for Tavares and Mount Dora? DRURY: (Answered in 2020)A 2011 Orange County study found that the West Orange Trail, connecting Apopka, downtown Winter Garden and Clermont, had 1.7 million annual trail visitors that spend an average of $20 per trail visit at local businesses. Trail visitors’ total annual spending was $32.6 million. A Pinellas Trail study cited 1 million annual trail users. The numbers would be less for the Tav-Dora Trail due to the lower regional population, but it would still be significant.
MOUNT DORA BUZZ: What is the earliest residents could expect to see the Tav-Dora Trail completed? What is the more likely timeframe? DRURY: Fastest would be five years. Most likely would be 8 years. (Originally answered in 2020 Buzz article)
ABOVE: Swimming area at Kelly Park. (photo provided by Orange County)
Just in time for warmer weather, scenic Kelly Park at Rock Springs re-opened in March after months of closure due to the pandemic. The popular wooded venue features a crystal-clear, 68-degree natural swimming area and a gentle flowing spring that’s perfect for a relaxing tube ride.
The 325-acre park, located 15 minutes from Mount Dora, is now operating at half capacity and fills up early with the 140 vehicles currently allowed. The next 25 vehicles in line receive a pass to return for a post 1 p.m. admittance. The park's picnic pavilions are available to reserve and rent for groups with less than 50 people.
TIPS BEFORE GOING...
Tubing on Rock Springs Visitors to Kelly Park can tube down its free-flowing natural spring. Guests can bring their own tubes or pool floats or opt to rent a tube from vendors outside the park. The waterfront closes one hour prior to park closing.
Park Admission: $3 per vehicle for 1-2 people; $5 per vehicle for 3-8 people; and $1 for additional person/walk-ins/motorcycles/bikes. No pets and no alcohol.
Kayak/Canoe/Paddle Board Launch The launch is located at Kelly Park's Camp Joy and the fee is $3 for 1-2 people; $5 for 3-8 people; and $1 for additional per person. Launching hours are between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. Guests must return no later than 5 p.m. Rentals are not available at Kelly Park or Camp Joy, but paddlers can rent kayaks, canoes and paddle boards at Wekiva Springs State Park or Kings Landing as alternate destinations.
Hours & location: The Kelly Park is located at 400 E. Kelley Park Road in north Apopka near Mount Dora and Zellwood. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m and the waterfront closes one hour prior to park closing. On busy days and holidays, cars sometimes line up at 6 a.m. to ensure entry while capacity is limited during COVID-19 restrictions. During the summer, inclement weather can affect park operations and the swim area will be closed if a storm produces lightning.
ABOVE: A gator cruises the water at sunset at Trout Lake Nature Center (photo supplied by TLNC)
Heading into the great outdoors has never been more popular. Surrounded by its many trails and peaceful lakefront boardwalk, Trout Lake Nature Center (TLNC) has been adding activities for nature lovers eager to be outside. The 230-acre property in Eustis also features a swinging bridge, museum, a picnic area, educational displays and the expansive canopy of a majestic grandfather oak. Here are some of the activities the popular nature center is hosting to lure nature lovers to explore the outdoors: SUNSETS AT THE LAKE TLNC has extended hours on Thursdays to encourage visitors to come out to enjoy the stunning sunsets at the lake. Guests are asked to depart by dusk. NATURE WALKS Visitors can opt to hike the walking trails on their own or join the Wednesday Morning Nature Walks on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at 9 a.m. BIRDING On the first Saturday of every month there is a Birding and Nature Walk starting at 8 a.m. NATURALIST PRESENTATIONS his month’s Friday Night Naturalist presentation on February 19 is "Gardening For Your Health" by Elizabeth Salazar. The outdoor presentation starts at 6 p.m., weather permitting. $5 donation PACK WALK Visitors can enjoy some quality time with their well-behaved leashed dogs on Saturday, February 20, with a guided walk on the trails. The walk starts at 10 a.m. and there is a $5 donation. NATURE SPROUTS PROGRAM This is a free, fun and active program created for two- to five-year-old children and their favorite adult. It’s held on the fourth Wednesday of each month from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. for a positive nature experience to little ones. Kids respond with wide-eyed awe, as they are introduced to the creatures that make their home at TLNC. (Currently this program has been suspended due to COVID-19) FIELD LEARNING EXPERIENCES TLNC offers activities February 27 1-3 p.m. Activities for school age children and up on February 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. $10 donation. TLNC’s Education Building recently installed a new photography exhibit, “Florida’s Enchanted Waters,” featuring a collection of images of Florida’s springs, swamps and seas as well as the wildlife found at the park. The exhibit by Linda Wilinski will be up until March 1, 2021.
Trout Lake Nature Center is located at 520 E. County Road 44 in Eustis. General admission at the nature center complex is donation-based and funds programs, new exhibits and staff costs. TLNC’s regular hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (extended hours on Thursdays to 5:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.) TLNC is closed for maintenance on Mondays. Phone 352-357-7536 or go to www.troutlakenaturecenter.com/events for more information. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, this month, click here. Discover the area's online event calendar here. Also download the area's free mobile app.
ABOVE: Honeymoon Island State Park (Florida State Parks photo)
One of the best kept secrets from Central Floridians is the unspoiled treasure a mere 130 miles west of Mount Dora just off the coast from historic Dunedin. A scenic causeway connects the mainland to Honeymoon Island State Park. with four miles of some of the most unspoiled white sandy beaches in the state.
So pack your beach chairs and sunscreen and head out for an island escape just a few miles from Tarpon Springs. There is even a Pet Beach at the park in case you want to take Fido along. Just be sure to follow the leash requirement.
Besides just chilling with your feet in the sand and your eyes on the surf, here are some other things to enjoy while visiting Honeymoon Island:
EXERCISE: Peace and solitude can be enjoyed by walking or running the two-and-a-half-mile sand spit by parking at the northernmost parking lot, then hitting the beach and heading north. The sand spit has grown during the past forty years from a few sandbars to over two miles of the most pristine beach found anywhere in Florida.
The Osprey Trail, a three-mile trail through one of the last remaining virgin slash pine forests, and four miles of beach are also perfect for runners and walkers.
For anyone wanting some exercise on the water, kayaks are available for rent at the island’s concession or visitors can bring their own to explore Pelican Cove which lies between the sand spit and nature trail.
For pedal-powered fun, beach cruisers and multi-passenger surreys are available for rental and can be ridden on the paved trails throughout the island.
BOAT RIDE: Visitors can also take the 20-minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island Docks across St. Joseph Sound to Caladesi Island. Boat is the only way to get to the pristine island which received the #6 rating for Best Beach in the U.S. in 2020 by Dr. Beach. The ferry departs Honeymoon Island Monday through Friday starting at 10 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday starting at 9 a.m. every half hour or as weather permits.
SHELLING: The island provides exceptional shelling and visitors can eat up a chunk of their day wandering the beaches as they collect the natural treasures.
FISHING: Anglers can put their lines in the water and try to hook spotted sea trout, mackerel, snook and many other species of saltwater game fish.
WILDLIFE: Animal lovers will love the many species of native birds that can be spotted, including osprey, great horned owls, oystercatchers, snowy plovers, least terns, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons and snowy egrets.
On land, visitors can spot lumbering gopher tortoises, armadillos and raccoons along the nature trail and picnic areas.
SHOPPING & DINING: Take a pit stop after the beach to the tree-lined streets of charming historic Dunedin. Main Street is sprinkled with quaint shops and diverse eateries. Mount Dora Buzz recommends Casa Tina for their great vibe, perfect margaritas and incredibly fresh and authentic Mexican food. The Mole Poblano Enchiladas are arguably the very best in Florida.
ISLAND HISTORY: In the early 1940s newsreels, ads and magazines touted the island's undiscovered beaches for newlyweds and honeymoon-type huts with thatched roofs were built for vacationing. As a result, the name was appropriately changed from Hog Island to Honeymoon Island. After the huts fell into disrepair during World War II, they were razed and the 385-acre island was converted into a pristine State park.
The Honeymoon Island State Park is located at #1 Causeway Boulevard in Dunedin and is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. The cost to enter is $8 per car.