Water-Related News

Lakeland’s Circle B hiking trail still shows Hurricane Irma impact

LAKELAND – The visual effects of Hurricane Irma are mostly gone from Polk County, nearly 3½ years after the storm pummeled the area

But the aftermath of the hurricane can still be seen along one of the county’s most popular hiking trails. The Alligator Alley trail at Circle B Bar Reserve skirts the shore of Lake Hancock, and steep drop-offs along the trail’s edge reflect erosion that began with the hurricane in September 2017 and has continued since then.

Managers of the 1,267-acre property say stabilizing the shoreline and reducing the impact of erosion from lake water is an ongoing challenge.

“We restored it, post-Hurricane Irma damage that occurred, where we lost large portions of the trail,” said Tabitha Biehl, land and water natural areas manager for Polk County. “Our goal is to establish a living shoreline, and so it’s a long-term management, maintenance thing that we’ve committed to continually doing as we try to establish that living shoreline.”

Circle B Bar Reserve is former cattle ranch containing wetlands that have been returned to something resembling their natural state. The property abounds with wildlife, including large populations of wading birds, and it draws visitors from throughout Florida.

The 1-mile Alligator Alley trail runs along the northwest shore of 4,600-acre Lake Hancock at the eastern boundary of the reserve. The trail provides views of the lake for a stretch of about half a mile before bending to the west.

Hurricane Irma tore out many trees and plants along more than 750 feet of the lake’s edge, Biehl said.

“There were large trees, sugarberry trees, which had large root masses that really helped stabilize that shoreline, and during Hurricane Irma those uprooted,” she said. “And so not only did we lose the trees but whole rootballs, which removed huge sections of the trail and exposed the earth and caused massive erosion.”

Part of Alligator Alley remained closed for more than a year after the hurricane as Polk County Parks and Natural Resources oversaw the removal of downed trees and other clearing of the trail. After that, the county department hired a contractor to stabilize the shoreline by dumping loads of dirt to replace eroded sections.