Known as the “spine” of Florida and stretching 100 miles from Orlando down to Lake Okeechobee, the Lake Wales Ridge is home to endangered animals and exceptional plants that exist in few other places in the world. It also happens to run right through Creek Ranch, and so allows us and our guests an interesting peek – from our own backyard – of one of the country’s most unique ecosystems.
Once a collection of high elevation sand dunes within the Atlantic Ocean, the Lake Wales Ridge was slowly revealed as 2 million years of receding water uncovered what is today the state of Florida. The resulting lakes constitute the Florida Chain of Lakes – of which our own Lake Hatch is a part – and have helped make Florida as celebrated for freshwater bass fishing and boating as it is. As is evident even on Creek Ranch, where land near the lake is lush but a significant part of the landscape too is arid, the Ridge features an singular ecological habitat defined by dry Florida scrub.
Only between four and ten miles wide at any given point, the Ridge is the highest part of the state. Isolated as it was for so long, plant and animal species evolved here that exist nowhere else. The Florida Scrub Jay, for example, which has been in Florida for two million years as a distinct species and which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, makes its home in the scrub lupine and scrub mint of Lake Wales Ridge. The gopher tortoise, sand skink, burrowing owl, Osceola turkey and eastern indigo snake also make their homes in the low brush of the scrub.
In the face of land development, the growth of the citrus industry and the expansion of Florida tourism, the preservation of this unique area has become of utmost importance. A number of state, federal and private projects have been undertaken to preserve and restore the ecosystem. The Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, for example, maintains protected lands that are not open to the public.
As important as the Ridge’s protection is a lot of emphasis is also placed on its enjoyment. A series of state and federal land tracts have been apportioned as hiking trails so that environmentally conscious visitors may experience the distinctive habitat. Although it is prohibited during hunting season, a wonderful way to enjoy the Ridge is by horseback. Our favorite way to explore, take photos, and spot Florida Scrub Jay’s, though, is, of course, by starting from our own porch with some hiking boots and a private guide. Board the swamp buggy for an unforgettable trip to a land that, in many ways, time has forgotten.