APOPKA—This is the hike with a perfect ending.
Along with the sunscreen, bug repellent and drinking water, make sure to pack a bathing suit, or at least a change of clothing, to take advantage of an invigorating plunge into the always-72 degree fresh-water spring at the end of the trail.
"I can't think of a better way to end a hike in Florida," said Jon Phipps, an avid hiker and member of the Central Florida Chapter of the Florida Trail Association. "The spring is right there. It's not only beautiful, but it always makes you feel better."
Just watch out for the occasional hungry gator.
A hike through Wekiwa Springs State Park, which hugs the Orange/Seminole border near Apopka, provides all the natural sights and sounds of an unspoiled Central Florida the way it once was.
A single hike covers open prairies, cypress swamps, scrubby flatwoods of pine and palmetto, and a wide range of wildlife that roam the more than 7,000 acres of mostly undisturbed habitat.
It may be close to a bustling, high-end lifestyle on Wekiva Springs Road, but going deep into the park is like a flashback to a much earlier time.
There are a variety of well-maintained trails, including the 13.5-mile signature loop for the ambitious hiker. There also is the 5.3-mile Volksmarch Trail, the 8-mile horse trail and a 9-mile biking trail.
All of them intersect at times, even share paths for stretches, allowing walkers to alter their routes, shorten or lengthen them, giving flexibility to those who can read the markers and a map.
There are beautiful banana spiders, as big as a fist, spinning intricate snares between trees spread as wide as football goalposts. Most run outside or parallel to the paths, maintaining the flying insect population without too often catching a hiker by mistake.
The butterflies are magnificent in the open spaces, ranging from orange to yellow and black, touching down on purple flowers, darting here and there to provide a rainbow-like collage on the landscape.
There are gopher turtles meandering at their own pace, oblivious to a hiker, focused only on their next destination.
The deer are there but often skittish, keeping a distance, peaking from behind a palmetto frond before disappearing back into the brush.
During the week, a lone hiker going north on the trail might not see anyone else through much of his trip, leaving him alone with nature.
There are towering pines and sprawling oaks. The footing ranges from soft sand to a bedding of pine needles and deep green foliage.
The termites are feasting on fallen trees, the remains of the last storm, or the previous lightning strike.
The controlled burns in the park are still evident but ensure that new growth has room to emerge, adding to the beauty.
The temperature throughout a hike can change noticeably, from the coolness in the lower swamps and heavy shade to baking sun in the open meadows reflecting off the sandy soil.
Beware of the ticks, which are not as bad in the cooler months, a good reason not to venture too far off the well-maintained trails.
The biggest loop passes through both the primitive camping on the north side of the park and the family friendly campsites on the south.
Whatever path is taken, though, the best finish usually ends at the spring, where happy but leg-weary hikers can find an oasis and a quick reminder that everyday life is not too far away.
5 TOP DAY HIKES IN CENTRAL FLORIDA.
These are chosen by a panel of experienced hikers but geared toward novice hikers in average physical condition. With that in mind, we sent Sentinel staff writer Tim Povtak out through the woods to check out each hike.
*Wednesday: Disney Wilderness Preserve ( Poinciana, Osceola County), 2.5 miles: Despite the name, this is not a tourist trap, just an easy hike. For more information, call 407-935-0002.
*Thursday: Little Big Econ State Forest (Oviedo/Chuluota/Geneva, Seminole County), 5-mile hike: Out-and-back trail follows a scenic river path. For more information, call 407-971-3500.
*Today: Wekiwa Springs State Park (Apopka, Orange County), 5.2-mile hike: Invigorating spring swim at the finish.For more information, call 407-884 4311.
*Saturday: Seminole Forest (Lake County), 4.5 miles: Most primitive of the five and best chance to see a black bear. For more information, call 352-360-6675.
*Sunday: Smyrna Dunes ( New Smyrna Beach, Volusia County), 2-mile hike: Easy to follow boardwalk and sea breeze to cool. For more information, call 386-424-2935.