By Elisha Pappacoda
While most people picture theme parks when they think of Central Florida, just a 35-minute drive away from Orlando, visitors will discover a scenic destination unlike any other—beautiful Lake County, Florida.
Bordered by Ocala National Forest to the north and the hills of Clermont to the south, Lake County lives up to its name with more than 1,000 pristine lakes and rivers. Easily accessible via I-75 to the west and I-4 to the east, this area’s unique geography is comprised of rolling hills, stunning vistas and undisturbed preserves ideal for wildlife watching.
There is no better opportunity to discover the “real Florida” than during the 5th Annual Wings & Wildflowers Festival, October 14-16, in Leesburg. This three-day festival will showcase Lake County as a premier birding destination highlighting the area’s reserves, forests and parklands.
Offering field trips to birding hotspots and wildflower sanctuaries, and bringing some the nation’s top nature experts to the area, Lake County is hosting the event at the 64-acre Venetian Gardens (201 E. Dixie Ave., Leesburg), an ideal bird watching location on the western shore of Lake Harris.
An exciting new festival field trip will bring visitors to the Wildlife Watch Post at the Palatlakaha Environmental and Agricultural Reserve (PEAR) Park–Nature Center and Conservation Area (4800 University Ave., Leesburg). This 320-square-foot steel bird watching and wildlife viewing blind is a popular destination for birders, native plant enthusiasts and nature photographers.
Travelers can join a guided hike for breathtaking views at the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook and Trailhead (20700 County Road 455, Ferndale), located 132 feet above sea level. With the recent completion of an extension of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, visitors can make the 18-mile trek from Green Mountain across a network of wetlands with the potential to view some of the 370 species recorded along the lake’s northern shore. In fact, birders travel from all over the world for opportunities to see spectacular birds including swallow-tailed kites, herons, egrets, sparrows and warblers.
Also in nearby South Lake, nature buffs may spot protected species such as the Florida scrub-jay and gopher tortoises living on the unspoiled lands of the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail (11490 Monte Vista Road, Clermont), which offers a variety of habitats ranging from sandhill/scrub to wetlands.