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My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you. Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”
I discovered Horizon West Regional Park late in 2021, after moving to southwest Orange County. I thought it a stroke of luck to find a hiking destination 15 minutes from home — I hadn’t had that luxury since I lived at the foot of the Montana Rockies!
I had previously taken many hiking trips to the Hills of Minneola in Lake County, but I wanted to find a public green space closer to my home in west Orange County. The Hills of Minneola’s nature preserve has no ponds, designated trails, or even parking space, as of 2022. A large freeway construction project is also in progress near Minneola. Years from now, when Lake County develops the preserve for public use, I may check it out again.
Horizon West Regional Park, at 215 acres, is much larger than the nature preserve at the Hills of Minneola. Eventually, much of that acreage will be converted to sports fields, playgrounds, etc. But, according to the park website, those projects are still in the conceptual stage until more funding becomes available. The 2019 master plan concept can be viewed by visiting this website.
In the meantime, a graveled parking area has been created along Hamlin Groves Parkway, and the county occasionally mows the several miles of trails which extend south from the parking area to Lake Hartley and several smaller ponds. The trails have also been cleared of fallen trees. Despite that, I’ve found it necessary to wear hiking shoes on these trails. Large streches of the trails are eroded and have loose deep sand. In other places, stubborn vines criss-cross the grassy trails, and can trip unwary hikers.
I have no complaints about the trail conditions, though. For one thing, there’s no mud to contend with. And I generally burn more calories when hiking uphill in loose sand.
Whoever operates the brush mower in the park has been kind enough to mow short “spurs” from the Lake Hartley loop trail to the south pond, enabling photographers like me to get close to the shoreline for a better view of the excellent sunrise and sunset views. The park has several ponds, but the southernmost pond offers the best views for sky photos—better views than Lake Hartley, whose horizon line is cluttered with roofs of apartments and single-family homes.
As it happens, Lake Hartley isn’t part of the park, and there’s no access to its shoreline. The entire perimeter of the lake is fenced. Fortunately, Lake Hartley is connected to smaller “arm” lakes to the west by a canal—and the loop trail follows the shoreline of these arms, which are not fenced since they’re within the park boundaries.
There’s a fair amount of biodiversity in the park’s plant species, though many of the species are non-native to Florida, and a few are considered invasive—including some of the vines that climb the native oak and pine trees, and compete with the tree foliage for sunlight.
The animal life is less diverse—though I must mention that I once passed a young American alligator on the trail in May 2022. As it grows, it may continue to hang around the twin ponds, which are nearby. Park visitors should remember that this is Florida, and that it’s good practice not to approach any wild animals. Those who use common sense while walking through a park will be fine.
The ponds have their fair share of amphibians such as frogs, of course, as well as a small population of fish. As of yet, I haven’t spotted any water snakes lurking around the ponds. I have spotted rat snakes (which avoid humans), as well as gopher tortoises. I’ve seen several types of birds along the trail: Hawks, Florida scrub jays, Northern cardinals, red-headed woodpeckers, and mourning doves. As the park is developed further, over the next couple of decades, I expect the songbird population to increase.
In this park, there isn’t as much “uphill” as one finds in the Hills of Minneola. The lowest elevation (about 100 feet) trails are close to the ponds and Lake Hartley. The highest elevation on the trail network is 132 feet. Not very hilly, but hilly enough to get some “cardio” when I maintain a brisk pace on the uphill slopes.
A Google Map of the park’s mowed trails can be viewed on one’s computer or phone at this link. Until I became familiar with the layout of the park, I found it handy to open this link on my cell phone, and use the phone to check my position in Google Maps.
There is plenty of acreage to explore beyond the mowed trails, but I suggest resisting the temptation to bushwhack outside the cleared and/or marked trails. One reason is the prickly pear cactus that flourishes in many dry patches off the trail. Bushwhackers won’t need to look for prickly pear cactus; it’s more likely to find them!
The other off-trail hazards are vines. There are many spaces overgrown by muscadine grape vines. Greenbriers, which have thorny stems, usually grow among the wild grape vines. The trail mower does a fair job of keeping vines off the mowed trails, but the vast majority of the really gnarly vines are off the cleared trails. The dense clumps of vines are painful to bushwhack through, if you can do it at all!