The Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (TLWMA) is the largest remaining expanse of dry prairie in the United States. It’s located approximately 70 miles south of the Kissimmee-Disney World area of Central Florida. Named for the lakes contained within the preserve; Kissimmee, Jackson, and Marian, TLWMA preserves 62,000 acres of pine flatwoods, the Kissimmee Prairie, and numerous other natural communities.
There are many reasons that the WCBI keeps coming back to hike this area. An important one is that by taking side trails that connect to the Florida Trail, it can be done as a loop so that retracing steps can be avoided. We chose to do it as a figure 8 (see the Trip Log map).
There are frequent crossings of creeks and ditches and fortunately most of them are on bridges so you usually can keep your boots dry. The ditches were created by cattle ranchers to get the water off the land and to the lakes as quickly as possible. Because the lakes would rise during Florida’s June through September wet season, levees were built around them to contain the rising water and keep it from spreading across the prairie. One of the most visible of these levees is located at the Lake Marian observation dock. The trail also crosses a modern water control structure.
Because extreme heat, humidity, violent thunderstorms, and clouds of mosquitos don’t particularly appeal to us, or any other sane human beings for that matter, we hike TLWMA only from late October through early April. Unfortunately, hunting seasons for various game animals occurs during part of this period. It’s important to check the myfwc.com website to understand the hunting schedule, rules, and whether it’s a good idea to backpack in the area during hunting season. Primitive camping is allowed at designated sites except during established hunting seasons. To find out exactly what this means and to obtain the required no-cost camping permit, call (352) 732-1225 (Florida Wildlife Commission Regional Office).
Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web Site
Native peoples supported themselves in the area through hunting and fishing
for thousands of years and left bone and shell middens as evidence of their
diet. Much later, the Seminoles tended cattle that were the descendants of
cows brought by early Spanish explorers.
The "Florida Cracker" name probably originated from the resonating loud crack of the cow hunter's whip, a way to communicate in rural areas where cattle roamed free. This area was part of the last large, open range ranching in the U.S., which persisted until 1949 when the Florida Legislature passed the Fence Law, requiring all cattle to be fenced. The Florida cow was a small, bony, long-horned descendant of Spanish cattle, able to survive heat, drought, insects and poor forage. Rugged, independent, semi-nomadic Florida cow hunters rounded up and herded cattle with the help of well-trained dogs, usually a mix of hound and bulldog. In the later part of the 19th century, cowmen moved their herds across the range from Kissimmee to Tampa.
Each year from February to the end of March, cattlemen burned the prairie to kill back pine saplings, oak and palmetto and to encourage grass for grazing. Early in the 20th century, lumbering and naval stores industries followed the railroad south. Turpentine was extracted from most of the large stands of pine, then the larger saw timber was cut, and finally the pulpwood was removed.
Formerly known as Three Lakes Ranch, this tract was purchased by the State in 1974 under the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program to protect and manage wet prairies and marshes and to minimize natural flooding damage.
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
Several natural communities typical of central Florida provide habitat for wildlife and fish at TLWMA. A substantial portion of the area is part of the central peninsular Florida dry prairie ecosystem. The landscape is a mosaic of dry and wet prairie, ephemeral depression ponds and marshes, mesic (moist) flatwoods, hammocks, and cypress ponds and sloughs. Patches of scrub, scrubby flatwoods and sandhills are found at slightly higher elevations.
Prescribed fire is a critical tool for managing the dry and wet prairies, scrub, scrubby flatwoods and the mesic flatwoods of TLWMA. Plants and animals within these natural communities are adapted to and sustained by fire. For example, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, a federal and state listed endangered subspecies that is dependent of the prairie habitat, rarely nests in areas that have not been recently burned. Wiregrass, a common dry prairie ground cover, won't flower and seed unless it burns during spring or summer. Historically, fires were most frequent in the spring and early summer at the onset of the lightning season. The managers of TLWMA conduct prescribed burns between January and August. The area is divided into small burn units that are burned at different frequencies, although all are burned at least once every three years.
The lakes, expansive prairie, pine flatwoods, and other diverse habitats, create ample opportunities for wildlife viewing. White-tailed deer, gray squirrel, Sherman’s fox squirrel, gopher tortoise, armadillo, raccoon and feral hog are common. Butterflies are abundant, especially in the fall. The area is a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail and is particularly good for birders - many common and rare species are found here. Bald eagles, Crested Caracaras, Sandhill Cranes, Red-Shouldered Hawks, wild turkeys, Northern Bobwhites and Eastern Meadowlarks are often heard or spotted. The federally endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker, and Florida Grasshopper Sparrow are also present. The oaks and pines are excellent for songbirds, particularly during migration. TLWMA is part of the highest concentration of Bald Eagle nests in the contiguous United States. More than 150 active nesting territories are found around the inland lakes of Osceola and Polk counties.
Maps and Information
The maps provided in the Trip Log were developed by Doc Livingston and are kinda-sorta accurate and are only intended to help you get the general lay-of-the-land. The most useful map is published by The Florida Trail Association. They have divided the Florida Trail into numerous sections and produced detailed maps for each of them. The TLWMA is contained on map 33, Three Lakes, SR 60 Levee to East/West Jct and U.S. 441. These maps can be obtained at floridatrail.org. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publishes a recreation guide entitled “Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area: Prairie Lakes Unit Recreation Guide.” This publication contains a good trail map and a lot of useful information about the area.