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.