A Trail through a Natural Treasure

Orange County, FL | December 2013 | By National Recreation and Park Association

A Trail Through a Natural Treasure 410

The vestiges of an ancient archipelago stretch north-south along the Florida peninsula. Millions of years ago, when sea levels rose and inundated the peninsula, a chain of small, sandy islands remained above sea level—each developing its own unique, evergreen-forested habitat. Today, those high-and-dry Florida hilltops—known as “sand pine scrubs”—boast native species found nowhere else in the world. The few remaining undeveloped sand pine scrub ecosystems are now protected habitats and nature preserves.

One of those protected areas, within Dr. P. Phillips Community Park in Orange County, Florida, is bounded by a once-overgrown trail loop. A Great American Trails grant restored that .6-mile path through sand pine scrubs—and as a result offered the public a new awareness of a natural gem many had not known was there.

Alicia Baxter, program manager for Orange County Parks and Recreation, says the LongHorn Steakhouse Loop trail improvements helped thousands of local residents enjoy and appreciate the nearby environmental treasure, while also boosting the fitness impact of the trail. The trail, she explains, is located in an active park. Prior to the renovation, Baxter relates, the trail offered neither amenities nor interpretive signage—and, as a result, most visitors ignored the sand pine scrubs area.

The grant allowed Orange County to refurbish the unique trail with white sugar sand, increasing the cardiovascular demands of walking while also enhancing the aesthetics and natural feel of the trail. The funds also provided for amenities such as new benches, a lake overlook, and interpretive signs highlighting plants and animals native to the habitat.

The active portion of Dr. Philips Park hosts numerous youth and other sports leagues, and the site is adjacent to a school. As a result, the park has always drawn and united the surrounding community—a densely populated area southwest of Orlando. And since the renovation, Baxter says, visitors coming for ball games and practices have an inviting place to head to for walks, lake views, and trailside education in the natural history of the region.

“Even while we were still putting in the amenities,” Baxter comments, there were so, so many residents who came out and were just so thankful for the opportunity for the neighborhood.”

Since the Darden Restaurant Group is headquartered in Orange County and the park is sandwiched between two new LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants, the trail renovation and opening served as a community rallying point for local Darden employees.

Baxter says LongHorn cooperated with the parks and recreation department to plan the grand opening event, and they provided all the food. The success of the project has also spurred LongHorn’s restaurant management into exploring opportunities to volunteer in other Orange County parks.