One of a few remaining places in Orange County where visitors can step into Nature.
I discovered Horizon West Regional Park late in 2021, after moving to southwest Orange County. I’m grateful to have a hiking destination so close to home... so grateful, in fact, that I do volunteer trail clearing and vine-clearing work there in my spare time.
Horizon West Regional Park, at 215 acres, is one of Orange County’s largest “natural spaces”. Eventually, some of those 215 acres will have typical urban park facilities, such as restrooms, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. The construction of those facilities has been delayed several times, but Orange County will soon award contracts for doing initial construction work. Site prep may begin before the end of 2023.
In the meantime, a temporary 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.
A Google Map of the park’s mowed trails is displayed here. Until I became familiar with the layout of the park, I found it handy to use it as a navigation guide on my cell phone.
The narrower paths not mowed by Orange County can easily be navigated with the pink blaze tape markers, tied to stakes, on regular intervals along the trail.
Other marker ribbon colors (usually attached to stakes) are as follows:
🔴 Red fabric ribbons mark gopher tortoise mound locations.
🟠 Orange fabric ribbons mark places where orange butterfly milkweed grows during the summer; they’re located at the orange shaded areas / dots on the map.
🟣 Purple fabric ribbons mark the locations of American beautyberry shrubs; they’re located near the purple shaded areas / dots on the map.
🔵 Blue fabric ribbons mark the locations of sand pine seedlings, and other native plants and trees.
The map’s top layer indicates the location of future park facilities, such as the two parking lots, the playground, and the restrooms. With any luck, the initial round of projects (“Phase 1A”) will be completed by the end of 2024. The park’s master plan divided future development plans into five phases. However, only the first phase has been funded. The scope and timing of future phases are unclear at this point.
Soon after creating the trail map, I began sharing the web link on local Facebook groups, in the hope that Horizon West Regional Park would become known to fellow hikers and nature lovers. I’m happy to report that there are now many more park visitors exploring the trails. My favorite trail network is the the one in the northwest section, where the forest is a mix of sand pines and several species of oak trees.
Lake Hartley has two elongated “arms” which lie west of the main lake. A 2-mile loop trail follows the shoreline of the south pond, Lake Hartley, and its “arms”.
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.
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 near the park over the past several years. Visitors occasionally see coyotes or small American 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 east of 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. That may change in a few years, after the construction of new retention ponds within the park.
The ponds have their fair share of amphibians such as frogs, of course, as well as turtles and a population of undersized fish. Some visitors have reported close encounters with coral snakes, which is another very good reason to wear hiking boots on the trail. 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. Numerous wild turkeys live in the open country northeast of the park. At dawn, a few of them venture into the northeast corner of the park.
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 them near the northwest pond, munching on the grass along the trail.
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.