Ancient Beaches

LAKELAND HIGHLANDS’ FLORIDA SCRUBLAND

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHILIP PIETRI

Believe it or not, Lakeland was once a beautiful, desolate beach.

Thousands of years ago, Florida was mostly submerged in water, with the exception of various sandy island ridges that peeked up over the surface of the ocean, some of which stretched right down the middle of what we now know as Peninsular Florida. One of those ridges shot right through the heart of Lakeland. At one point in history, large portions of Lakeland actually consisted of sugary white sand whipped around by a salty ocean breeze.

You may also find it surprising that today you can still see traces of these ancient beaches throughout Florida. If you’d like to see it for yourself, such a local gem happens to be just a short drive from downtown.

LAKELAND HIGHLANDS SCRUB: OUR LITTLE SLICE OF FLORIDA SCRUB

Lakeland Highlands Scrub is located at the southernmost end of Lakeland Highlands Road. A 551-acre conservation area managed and protected by Polk County Environmental Lands, it’s one of the last remnants of the Lakeland Ridge where you can explore the unique ecosystem known as Florida Scrub.

Entering the park and making your way south on the Tortoise Trail over the boardwalk, you’ll notice something incredible — thick, bright, sugary sand. Yes, there you will find you are standing on one of Florida’s oldest beaches. The scrub environment is quite an arid one. The oaks scattered about the area are much smaller than the typical oak tree you climbed as a child. These are dwarf live oaks — their size due to being underfed by the low-nutrient, sandy soils that retain very little water, which stunt their growth. However, they give just enough height for the sentinel Florida scrub jays (a bird species endemic to Florida Scrub ecosystems — see sidebar) to keep watch for any other birds trespassing on their territory and to scope out any danger from predators.

While the sandy environment indicates this was once a beach, it might feel more reminiscent of a desert. Desert plant life can be categorized as xeromorphic, meaning that the plants have adapted to survive in an area with little water.

Florida Scrub hosts a variety of xerophytes. As you walk the trails at Lakeland Highlands Scrub, keep your eyes peeled for something you’d only expect to find in the desert — cacti! The Eastern prickly pear cactus thrives in this environment. Florida Scrub’s ecosystem hosts a high level of endemism, including an estimated 40 species of plants, four vertebrates, and 46 species of arthropods, which means repeat visits to Lakeland Highlands Scrub are necessary to truly immerse yourself in all that this deserted treasure trove holds.

MORE THAN SCRUB

Lakeland Highlands Scrub isn’t exclusively a place to observe Florida Scrub habitat. With a picnic area at the trailhead, it’s also an ideal place for a peaceful outdoor lunch. For your convenience, there is a pavilion for shade with a picnic table and grill. There’s also a porta-pottie restroom facility on location.

The two trails you can hike will take you through various natural environments. The Tortoise Trail leads you through scrub and flat woods. There’s also a short boardwalk over marshy wetlands. The multi-use trail can be biked, hiked, or enjoyed by horseback. According to the Polk Environmental Lands website, the Tortoise Trail is 2.2 miles long. Do be advised there is little shade on this trail, so come prepared for a day in the sunshine. If you’re looking for a shorter trek with the protection of heavy canopy, try the nearby and aptly titled Shady Oak Trail, which is just under a mile in length.

As Lakelanders, it’s important that we engage in local, nature-based recreation and become better attuned to the environmental wonders that exist outside our bustling community. Frequenting these areas helps us gain appreciation for them, which will motivate us to continue preservation and conservation efforts.

Lakeland Highlands Scrub
6998 Lakeland Highlands Road
Lakeland, FL 33813

For more information about Lakeland Highlands Scrub, please contact:
Polk County Parks & Natural Resources
Environmental Lands Program
4177 Ben Durrance Road
Bartow, FL 33830
863.534.7377

FLORIDA SCRUB JAY (sidebar)

(photograph by James Shadle – Wild Florida Photography)

APHELOCOMA COERULESCENS 

Move over, mockingbird. The Florida scrub jay is the only species of
bird endemic to the Sunshine State. As its name suggests, you can find
these blue beauties only in Florida Scrub habitat. The Florida scrub
jay is a curious, intelligent bird known to boldly approach humans,
especially if something shiny catches their eyes. While this sounds
fairytale-like, it’s important to remember to have as little interaction
with these birds as possible. Due to the rapid decline in Florida Scrub
habitat, the scrub jay is officially on the Endangered Species List.
Interaction with humans could affect the birds’ reproduction and
feeding habits.

HOW TO IDENTIFY THE FLORIDA SCRUB JAY:

BLACK BEAK
BLUE HEAD AND NAPE
GRAY FOREHEAD
BLUE WINGS AND TAIL
GRAY UNDERPARTS
BLACK LEGS AND FEET

 

WHAT TO BRING ON YOUR VISIT (sidebar)
WATER
Florida heat can push your body to dehydration quicker than you might think, especially during the exertion of a long walk with little shade. You’ll not want to risk ending your experience with a trip to the hospital. Bring water and be sure to drink often throughout your visit.
APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR

Remember, a good portion of the trails consists of very fine sand. Wearing sturdy shoes will allow you to trek with ease across these shifting, uneven surfaces; a mid- to high-top hiking boot is ideal. If you do come with low-tops, be warned: your shoes will likely fill up with sand making your walk a gritty and uncomfortable experience.

INSECT REPELLANT
As you might expect, being out in natural Florida means contending with the local insect community. As we near the rainy season you will likely be accompanied with a heavier presence of mosquitoes and flies. You shouldn’t need anything too strong. Coleman Botanicals Insect Repellant is a good option; it’s Deet-free, plant-based, non-greasy, and has a very gentle aroma.
CAMERA OR BINOCULARS
There will be plenty of wildlife to see, especially around dawn and dusk. Binoculars will help you get a closer look, and a camera will allow you to capture the moment.
FIELD GUIDE
There are a variety of Florida field guides to choose from at your local book retailer. I highly recommend the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida. It’s compact and has a wonderful layout with lots of photographs that make it easy and enjoyable to identify the surrounding flora and fauna.