Want To See Gators? Head For The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Orlando , Expert View Column , Nature
An alligator head emerging from lake water behind some reeds
By AttractionTickets.com’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
Hop in your hire car and experience all of Florida's natural beauty and the creatures that call it's waters home!

It’s a familiar query from Orlando visitors: “Where can we see alligators?” After all, this particular creature is symbolic of Florida - even if you don’t want to encounter one first-hand! But we have a seemingly endless fascination with gators, and you don’t actually have to go far to see them in the wild. Even better - the secret we’re about to reveal offers a chance to soak up a big slice of local nature, gators included, absolutely free.

Welcome to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.

 

View from the banks of Lake Apopka with grassy banks in the foreground and a grey stormy sky in the background

 

This spectacular conservation area just half an hour north of Walt Disney World Resort has become a firm locals’ favourite in recent years for its natural style and breathtaking views, and now we’re going to tell you how to enjoy this hidden gem, too.

Just to start with, the Wildlife Drive is part of the Lake Apopka North Shore wetlands restoration project, with more than 8,000 hectares of marshes and former farms. It was created in 2015 when the St John’s Water Management District designated an 18-kilometre driving trail for public use through the natural landscape - and alligators are guaranteed!

As much as we love our world-class theme parks, we think visitors should definitely take the time to get off the beaten track and discover some of the more organic attractions of the area – because there’s a LOT out there, and the Wildlife Drive is a brilliant example. And not only is it somewhere you can enjoy from the comfort and convenience of your hire car, but there is also absolutely no charge to visit, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and federal holidays. True, you won’t find Lake Apopka on many tourist maps, but it is only 43km away from Disney and 53km from the Kissimmee villas area. It is the fourth largest lake in the state, and the largest in the greater Orlando area, covering fully 125 square kilometres.

 

View of Lak Apopka Wildlife Drive through the windshield of a car

 

This spectacular conservation area just half an hour north of Walt Disney World Resort has become a firm locals’ favourite in recent years for its natural style and breathtaking views, and now we’re going to tell you how to enjoy this hidden gem, too.

Just to start with, the Wildlife Drive is part of the Lake Apopka North Shore wetlands restoration project, with more than 8,000 hectares of marshes and former farms. It was created in 2015 when the St John’s Water Management District designated an 18-kilometre driving trail for public use through the natural landscape - and alligators are guaranteed!

As much as we love our world-class theme parks, we think visitors should definitely take the time to get off the beaten track and discover some of the more organic attractions of the area – because there’s a LOT out there, and the Wildlife Drive is a brilliant example. And not only is it somewhere you can enjoy from the comfort and convenience of your hire car, but there is also absolutely no charge to visit, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and federal holidays. True, you won’t find Lake Apopka on many tourist maps, but it is only 43km away from Disney and 53km from the Kissimmee villas area. It is the fourth largest lake in the state, and the largest in the greater Orlando area, covering fully 125 square kilometres.

 

4 adults walking along a sandy road towards a hut and the water of Lake Apopka

 

Easy to find on Lust Road just off the (toll) expressway of Highway 429, the lake is a fine example of Florida conservation work. Its former history as the state’s most polluted lake has long been cast off for its new reputation as a wildlife refuge and mega-popular weekend haunt of birdwatchers. Pollution peaked in the 1980s, turning one of the best bass-fishing lakes in the country into something of a wasteland, but that was followed by a major restoration project that continues today, planting new areas of native aquatic plants and removing harmful phosphorus and other contaminants from the water and soil.

This active programme of environmental renovation has brought the fish and other wildlife – especially the birds – flooding back to the area, thereby creating the big spin-off of the Wildlife Drive.

 

A heron standing in reeds surrounded by the water of Lake Apopka

 

In conjunction with the nearby city of Winter Garden becoming one of the must-see examples of vibrant small-town America, Lake Apopka is now a bona fide local attraction that is well worth putting on your holiday agenda for a half-day of relaxed, rural fun.

The main drive consists of a well-maintained gravel road through the marshes and wetlands that skirt the main lake. It is crisscrossed by a series of man-made dikes, ditches and canals, and has one major stopping point at the historic pumping station that helps to control the water levels and offers a fabulous lake overview.

 

A view out over Lake Apopka from the banks

 

More importantly, it is home to a profusion of native wildlife, from the ever-present alligators (and you will see plenty of them from the safety of your car!) to more than 360 bird species that nest and feed here and are especially numerous in winter. You’ll see egrets, herons, ospreys, anhinga, swallow-tailed kites and a huge variety of water fowl, and it is quite common to see them feasting on fresh-caught fish (or even snakes) beside the road. It is an absolute cornucopia of exciting, natural Florida and, if you take your own drinks and snacks, you can easily make it a two or three-hour excursion with lunch or dinner afterwards back at delightful Winter Garden.

 

A heron on the roadside eating a snake from the grass banks
An alligator emerging from the water among reeds in Lake Apopka

 

Once you are on the main trail, you will discover several points at which there is a choice of routes (a simple right or left option), but it doesn’t matter which way you go. The basic views are very similar and the distance is roughly the same. The only real difference is if you take the left turn immediately after the pumping station, which allows you to skirt the main lake for a mile or so, with a great view of its full extent.

Just be aware of its rather unusual opening hours, which are from 7am to 3pm (last exit at 5pm), and you’ll need to allow at least 90 minutes to do the full one-way drive, as the speed limit is only 10mph (16kmph). And yes, it IS free to all-comers, although you can make a donation at the start if you wish.

 

The official entrance is at 2850 Lust Road, Apopka, Florida 32703, and can be found off exit 29 of Highway 429, via Ocoee-Apopka Road, Harmon Road and South Binion Road. Look up more at https://www.sjrwmd.com/lands/recreation/lake-apopka/.

There are 11 different stopping points, with information stations that tell you about the landscape and wildlife, and you can also plug into a handy narrated audio tour for the Drive that details the sights and wildlife.

We think it is one of Orlando’s best-kept secrets - albeit the cat is now firmly out of the bag after you’ve read this!

 

What nature experiences have you discovered in Orlando? Tell us all about them on the friendly ATD forums, our Community Facebook page, on Twitter or Instagram.

Orlando , Expert View Column , Nature

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