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Horizon West Regional Park
Orange County, Florida

One of a few remaining public spaces in Orange County where visitors can step into Nature.

Sunrise at the northwest pond in Horizon West Regional Park, Orange County, Florida - photo by Jerry Blank

Sunrise at the northwest pond — Click / tap image to view full size

 

NOTE: The temporary parking lot at Horizon West Regional Park is now closed. There is no parking allowed on Hamlin Groves Trail, so vehicles will be unable to enter the park until paving and sidewalks are finished, late in 2024. To jump down to the map of facilities under construction, click / tap here.

To read the informational article I contributed to the 2024 issue of Living in Horizon West magazine, please click / tap here.


 

I discovered Horizon West Regional Park late in 2021, after moving to southwest Orange County. I’m grateful to have a hiking destination so close to home... so grateful, in fact, that I do volunteer trail maintenance there in my spare time.

Horizon West Regional Park, at 215 acres, is one of Orange County’s largest “natural spaces”. By 2025, some of those 215 acres will have typical urban park facilities, such as restrooms, a playground, and picnic shelters. The construction of those facilities has been delayed several times, but excavation and site prep is finally underway.

A Google Map titled “Horizon West Regional Park Trails” is displayed below. Until I became familiar with the layout of the park, I found it handy to use it as a navigation guide on my mobile phone.

When viewing this map on a mobile device, tap the “fullscreen” icon to use as a navigation guide in the park.

To switch to “satellite” view on a mobile device, tap the “Layers” icon .

If the “Layers” icon isn’t visible, you may need to tap your “back” icon.

There are about 7 miles of un-paved trails. Although the park opened in 2010, the county’s park website still lacks a trail map. Visitors have appreciated having the map on this page as a navigation resource. The narrower pathways in the north half of the park are marked with pink blaze tape tied to stakes, at regular intervals along the trail.

Other marker ribbon colors (usually attached to stakes) are as follows:

🔴 Red fabric ribbons mark the locations of gopher tortoise burrows.

🟠 Orange fabric ribbons mark flowering lantana shrubs, as well as places where orange butterfly milkweed grows during the summer. In the field, the ribbons can be seen in the orange shaded areas / dots on the map.

🟣 Purple fabric ribbons mark the locations of American beautyberry shrubs; they’re located near the purple shaded areas / dots on the map.

🔵 Blue fabric ribbons mark the locations of sand pine seedlings, other trees, and prickly pear cactus.

The trail map has a layer which indicates the location of future park facilities, such as the two parking lots, the playground, and the restrooms. With any luck, the initial round of projects (“Phase 1A”) will be completed later this year, and Phase 1B will follow in 2026 or 2027. The park’s master plan divided future development plans into several phases, but only Phase 1A and Phase 1B have been funded. The scope and timing of Phase 2 and later phases are uncertain at this point.

#70030 - Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) cactus blossom, in central Florida - photo by Jerry Blank

Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) cactus blossom — Click / tap image to view full size

Soon after creating the trail map, I began sharing the web link on local Facebook groups, in the hope that Horizon West Regional Park would become known to fellow hikers and nature lovers. I’m happy to report that visits by hikers, cyclists, families, and dog walkers increased steadily through until the park closed for construction.

Additionally, over the past couple of years, the park has been used as a meeting place for church Easter egg hunters, Halloween partiers, a troupe of live-action role-players (LARPers), a large meetup of one-wheel board riders, and other events that probably occurred “under the radar”. Family photographers and amateur videographers have used the scenic areas for their shoots. Horizon West’s residents have certainly exhibited their creative side in the absence of any park facilities! I expect them to enjoy the park even more after those facilities are built.

More recently, I have added a second map, “Horizon West Regional Park - Projects Under Construction”, to serve as a guide for those with a keener interest in the facilities which will soon be built, making Horizon West Regional Park less “primitive” and more family-friendly. That map is displayed below.

When viewing this map on a mobile device, tap the “fullscreen” icon to use as a navigation guide in the park.

To switch to “satellite” view on a mobile device, tap the “Layers” icon .

If the “Layers” icon isn’t visible, you may need to tap your “back” icon.

This map displays Phase 1A features being built this year as colored symbols. The Phase 1B facilities, which are still in the pre-bidding stage, are displayed in gray.

Some of the pre-existing un-paved trails, which aren’t shown on the construction map, may be officially adopted after the park re-opens after construction. If they are, it may take time for the process to unfold. Whenever a new park facility is opened, Orange County Parks and Recreation must update their website, allocate manpower and resources, and take care of other details behind the scenes.

However, hikers and cyclists network needn’t be concerned that the un-paved trails will be lost. Some trail sections have already been “erased” in the process of preparing the site for excavation, but the majority of the network will remain in place. If Orange County lacks the resources to maintain the pre-existing “natural” trails, volunteers can pick up the slack.

Trail clearing and landscape restoration:

Although the park has been a natural space for many years, the space hasn’t been maintained. In Florida, proper maintenance involves controlling the undergrowth with controlled burns or mechanical pruning. As I walk the trails, I clip out the wild grape vines and briers which criss-cross the pathways and trip unwary hikers. This helps re-establish native grasses, which have struggled from competition with invasive vines in the past decade. My friend Bill, who’s been hiking the park for years, flattens the molehills that appear spontaneously on the trail, and spreads out the soil to help the grass regain access to sunlight.

Natural features of Horizon West Regional Park:

There are many natural wetland areas in Horizon West Regional Park. The main body of water is Lake Hartley, at the southern boundary of the park. That lake has two elongated “arms” which lie west of the main lake. A 2-mile loop trail follows the shoreline of the south pond, Lake Hartley, and its “arms” (basically small finger lakes).

A post-sunset glow in the sky is reflected in the south pond at Horizon West Regional Park - photo by Jerry Blank

A post-sunset glow in the sky is reflected in the south pond at Horizon West Regional Park.

The park has several ponds north of Lake Hartley. The circular “south pond” just east of the center arm of Lake Hartley offers the best views for sky photos—better views than the lake, whose horizon line is cluttered with roofs of buildings to the south. Another plus for the south pond is that its water level follows the lake. The ponds farther north, closer to the park entrance, aren’t deep enough to support a fish population.

There’s a fair amount of biodiversity in the park’s plant species, though many of the species are non-native to Florida, and a few are considered invasive—including some of the vines that climb the native oak and pine trees, and compete with the tree foliage for sunlight.

The animal life is surprisingly diverse, despite the road-building, fencing, and construction that’s been happening in Horizon West. Visitors hiking near the south trails occasionally see American alligators in the early morning and evening hours.

Late spring / early summer is Horizon West Regional Park’s most colorful season.

As of yet, waterfowl isn’t plentiful at the ponds and the lake. Egrets and anhingas are common. Bufflehead ducks visit the north pond seasonally. Sandhill cranes, a common sight in neighborhoods east of the park, are conspicuously absent within the park, though they’re a common sight east of Tiny Road. The best explanation I have is the lack of open grassy space along the perimeters of the park’s ponds. Artificial ponds, on the other hand, lack natural hiding places for predators like gators to lie in wait for their prey.

In the park’s brushy natural wetlands, the balance is tilted in favor of predators. That may change in a couple of years, after the construction of 7 retention ponds in the park.

The south pond and Lake Hartley are deep enough to support a permanent fish population. In a few years, a fishing pier will be built on the shore of Lake Hartley, not far from a picnic shelter which will soon be built. Some visitors have reported seeing with coral snakes, which is a very good reason to wear hiking boots on the trail. As of yet, I haven’t spotted any water snakes lurking around the ponds. I have spotted rat snakes and black snakes (which avoid humans), as well as gopher tortoises.

I’ve seen several types of birds along the trail: Great horned owls, Florida red-tailed hawks, Northern cardinals, red-headed woodpeckers, and mourning doves.

There’s a few squirrels in the oak trees, and a small population of Eastern cottontail rabbits, which you’re less likely to see and more likely to hear rustling in briar patches — though I’ve managed to spot them near the northwest pond, munching on the grass along the trail.

As Horizon West Regional Park’s development gradually progresses, the number of visitors will increase, putting pressure on reptiles such as gopher tortoises and alligators. Smaller critters, such as squirrels, rabbits, and songbirds, will become more numerous as a result. Eventually, more waterfowl will begin to hang out there as well.

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