Once deep in the Florida country in August, it’s a battle of conditioning versus nature. Armed with just a bottle of water and a cell phone, six-mile runs seem longer if there is no real scenery or adventure to enjoy, and such was the case with the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Leesburg, Florida, this past week.
No slight on the Emeralda Marsh – millions of years of evolution were not intended for the entertainment of a runner on a Friday afternoon – but it was quite the effort to get through the trails on this property maintaining sanity and direction. Path after tree-lined path looked the same and with a heat index of 105 degrees, humidity at 90 percent and bugs circling, just waiting for the bug repellent (Off) to be sweated off, it became even more of a mental, as well as physical, test of endurance.
There are numerous entrances to the Emeralda Marsh but only three are marked, regardless of what maps of the area may show. The “Interpretive Drive” entrance on the southern end of Emeralda Island Road is one, another one is a mile or so further north on the same road as well as the boat launch on C.R. 452, which, unless on a boat, goes no further than the parking lot. With some preparation, one can find the alternative entrances (look for the metal gates) but be weary of maps provided online or in the park. They are very general and do not always correlate to markers or directions as indicated.
Get the picture? This is not an area to experiment with direction and assume that a circuitous path will end up back at the trail head. There are no facilities, maps, water, people or anything once out on these trails on most days, and the areas with parking lots are not near the most scenic spots, which are along the Yale-Griffin Canal.
All that said, the paths – a combination of hard-packed sand, worn grass or crushed sea shells and fill – make for a good running surface. With nearly ten miles of trail there is no shortage of distance if one knows the way around, and in the cooler months this is a setting for spectacular scenery. In summer, the oncoming storms contain their own evil beauty, just make sure there is shelter to be found nearby as it’s likely a long run back to the car.
The Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area encompasses more than 7,000 acres and includes a 4.3-mile Wildlife Drive through the wetland marsh and filtration system, which was created in 1994 to improve the water quality in Lake Griffin. The Wildlife Drive is open to four-wheel drive vehicles on weekends during the spring. A map of the area can be downloaded from the Lake County Web site, and more information is available from the St. Johns River Water Management District.
This has been a summer in search of new places to run, particularly off-road and way off the beaten path within an hour drive of the greater Orlando area. In that respect it has been a successful summer. Virtually unspoiled central Florida marsh is a sight to behold in many ways. There is a stunning presence of exotic birds, mammals and reptiles, depending on the time of year, and a wide variety of classic Florida creatures on foot, depending on the time of day. Go early or go late, watch out for the approaching storms, and go for a run along the Yale-Griffin Canal to see the best of the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.