Although the Scenic Highway is the collection of actual roads, the concept of “scenic highway” actually includes the corridor of surrounding lands and communities. The corridor contains the important natural, ecological, historical, and cultural resources. One of our first significant tasks was the creation of the Corridor Master Plan. This plan looked at the current conditions within the corridor with the goal of preserving the historic characteristics of the area. The plan also addresses transportation issues, multi-use trail design, open spaces and land development. While this plan was being put together, a significant portion of the byway was being prepared for housing development. The development names include: Plaza Collina, Bella Collina, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Hills of Minneola, and Black East. These developments represented thousands of new homes and millions of square feet of commercial real estate.
These huge developments reflected the housing bubble. The vacant streets and hills that now remain are a consequence of the “Great Recession”. The good news is that environmental resources and recreational opportunities are still abundant. The GMSB is now like a necklace that connects some “pearls” of parks and preserves, like Newton Park in Winter Garden, the Oakland Nature Preserve, Truskett Park in Montverde, and the Ferndale Preserve.
The Friends of GMSB have been working towards connecting a wondrous new pearl to our byway chain.
For the last 15-20 years, folks have been working on and dreaming, mostly dreaming about a “mythical” Lake Apopka Loop Trail. The Loop Trail would allow users to walk, hike, bike, rollerblade all around the Lake! You may know that any trail system is built in segments, disconnected at first but completed by filling in the numerous gaps. One of the longest segments became possible when St Johns River Water Management District, in 2007 declared their intent to open parts of the Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area (NSRA) to public access. The NSRA, world renown by birders, has been open only upon special invitation.
Many Organizations & Agencies Have Made the Overlook & Trail Possible
Several organizations jumped at this wonderful opportunity to encourage and guide the opening of this area. The North Shore Trail, an 18-mile multi-use trail spanning the 20,000-acre NSRA was put on paper…with significant gaps on either end. The trail itself is already out there. The trail will follow the old farm roads traversing the tops of the dikes. The road base is crushed lime rock. None of these roads are accessible by public land anywhere along the eastern side. Access is generally available in several locations along the northwest.
Early on, the District opened an area known as Clay Island along the western side of the NSRA. This area was accessed from Astatula, generally off of Ranch Road. Nearly 6 miles of trails surrounded a series of marshes that actively filtered Lake Apopka water. Several observation towers overlook the marshes and the lake. The District opened another trail head off of CR 448A, just south of their Field Station. This trailhead is known as the North Shore Trailhead and opens up a bit more than 5 miles of trails.
These same organizations began working with Orange County to the east and Lake County to the west to fill the gaps with connections and trailheads. In 2008, Orange County agreed to spend Park Impact fees to build a connection from the eastern terminus to Magnolia Park. That trail was completed in 2012. Phase I opened the trail to the Historic Pumphouse, 4.5 miles away from Magnolia Park. Since then, the District was continuing the restoration efforts and shoring up the dikes and roads. An additional 10 miles of trails officially opened February 20, 2014.
While this was ongoing, the GMSB organization secured several rounds of funding from Florida DOT for planning, preliminary designs and costs for a scenic overlook and trailhead that would allow byway travelers direct access to the restoration area. Lake County stepped up with a $171,000 as match so that we could compete for a federal grant. We have secured additional donations of $2100 from Friends of Ferndale, Friends of Lake Apopka, Oakland Nature Preserve, Green Mountain Scenic Byway, and other supporters.
Lake County has also agreed to take management responsibility over building and maintaining the area.
Trailhead and Overlook Features
The Trailhead and Scenic Overlook will include:
- A parking area, covered pavilion with picnic tables and a charcoal grill, restrooms
- Approximately 130 foot elevated boardwalk leading to
- A 20 x 20 foot overlook extending out over the trees for a possible view of downtown Orlando.
- A switchback trail from the parking area out to the railroad bed connecting to the Restoration Area.
The facility will be located approximately 2 miles north of 561A on CR 455, on the top of the hill south of the existing roundabout. We expect this area to become:
- A rest stop for bicyclists and motorcycle weekend cruisers.
- A day-trip and picnic area, for Central Florida families.
- A walking, bicycling, scenic overlook opportunity for families and seniors.
- An educational opportunity for schools and civic groups.
- The Primary western access point to the North Shore Restoration Area Trail for adventure hikers and bicyclers, and
- The Primary access point to Clay Island and North Shore Restoration Area
for bird watchers.