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“Jerry’s Journeys” Blog — 2023

During my travels, I’ve been fortunate to see and experience much that is worth sharing.

My hope is that these images touch your hearts, much as the USA’s natural beauty has touched mine.

May the adventurous among you benefit from the travel information I share on these pages!

January 1, 2023
Horizon West Regional Park, Orange County, Florida
A post-sunset glow in the sky is reflected in the south pond at Horizon West Regional Park - photo by Jerry Blank

A post-sunset glow in the sky is reflected in the south pond at Horizon West Regional Park.

I discovered Horizon West Regional Park late in 2021, after moving to southwest Orange County. I’ve been grateful ever since to have a hiking destination 5 minutes from home — I hadn’t had that luxury since I lived at the foot of the Montana Rockies nearly 15 years ago!

I’d 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.

Horizon West Regional Park Trail Map

Horizon West Regional Park trail map — Click / tap image to open interactive map

Horizon West Regional Park, at 215 acres, is much larger than the green space at the Hills of Minneola. Eventually, some of those 215 acres will have typical urban park facilities, such as restrooms, playgrounds, and a dog park. The construction of those facilities has been delayed several times, however; the most recent target for groundbreaking is the third quarter of 2023.

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 at the park. Large streches of the trails are eroded and have loose deep sand. The mowed grassy trails are easier to navigate, but they’re not as manicured as the lawns in urban parks!

I have no complaints about the trails, though. They’re in better condition than hiking areas outside of town.

The park has several ponds north of Lake Hartley, but the southernmost pond offers the best views for sky photos—better views than the lake, whose horizon line is cluttered with roofs of buildings to the south.

#70030 - Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) cactus blossom, Hills of Minneola, Lake Wales Ridge, Florida - photo by Jerry Blank

Prickly pear (Opuntia austrina) cactus blossom — Click / tap image to view full size

Lake Hartley is connected by a canal to two “arm” lakes. A loop trail follows the shoreline of the south pond, Lake Hartley, and the smaller “arms”. Not all the south lakes have public access, however—Lake Hartley and the large west arm are fenced off. Fortunately, the south pond and the narrow arm of Lake Hartley do have shoreline access, and are deeper than the smaller north ponds.

Sunrise at the northwest pond in Horizon West Regional Park, Orange County, Florida - photo by Jerry Blank

Sunrise at the northwest pond, early in July.

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 surprisingly diverse, despite the road-building, fencing, and other construction that’s occurred over the past several years. One visitor mentioned spotting a deer, and others occasionally see coyotes or small American alligators. I don’t expect to see a deer myself, but I’ve seen coyotes and alligators in the early morning and evening hours.

As of yet, waterfowl isn’t plentiful at the ponds and the lake. Egrets and anhingas are common, but I have yet to see a duck or crane there. The best explanation I have is the lack of open grassy space along the perimeters of the ponds. During the day, cranes are a common sight in the artificial retention ponds in the residential areas surrounding Horizon West Regional Park. Artificial ponds lack natural hiding places for predators like gators to lie in wait for their prey. In the park’s brushy terrain, however, the balance is tilted in favor of predators.

The ponds have their fair share of amphibians such as frogs, of course, as well as turtles and a small population of fish. As of yet, I haven’t spotted any water snakes lurking around the ponds. I have spotted rat snakes and black snakes (which avoid humans), as well as gopher tortoises. I’ve seen several types of birds along the trail: Great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Florida scrub jays, Northern cardinals, red-headed woodpeckers, and mourning doves.

There’s a small population of Eastern cottontail rabbits, which you’re less likely to see and more likely to hear rustling in briar patches—though I’ve managed to spot a few south of the northwest pond, munching on the grass along the trail.

A juvenile gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) in its native habitat, Horizon West Regional Park in Orange County, Florida - photo by Jerry Blank

Left: A juvenile gopher tortoise.
Right: The tortoise’s burrow.

As Horizon West Regional Park’s development gradually progresses, the number of visitors will increase, putting pressure on reptiles such as gopher tortoises and alligators, as well as skittish predators like coyotes. Smaller critters, such as squirrels, rabbits, and songbirds will become more numerous as a result. Eventually, more waterfowl will begin to hang out there as well.

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.

Besides the currently established trails, the map also indicates the known location of future park facilities, such as the paved central parking lot, the playground, and the restrooms. As mentioned above, those facilities are scheduled to be completed before the end of 2024—though in the post-Covid era, completion dates for such projects should be considered more of a target than a promise.

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!