Growing up in the Hudson Valley region of New York State, I spent many a pleasurable weekend afternoon exploring the bucolic countryside and pushing my little four-cylinder car to the max on winding, twisting, and challenging drives in search of the majestic views offered by the area’s many mountain ranges. Despite living in Florida for 20 plus years now, I find that I still miss those drives.
But what has helped a bit was the discovery of the ancient sand islands of the Brooksville Ridge (in the Brooksville-Dade City vicinity, northeast of Tampa) and the Lake Wales Ridge (in Central Florida).
Visitors to the sunshine state (and some residents, too) may be surprised to learn that the Florida landscape is not as flat as a pancake. Although the state’s average elevation is a mere 100 feet above sea level, if you venture inland, you will find gently rolling terrain and spots where the elevation will afford you an actual view.
Sugarloaf Mountain (at a whopping 312 feet!) is on the northern end of the 150 mile-long Lake Wales Ridge and is its highest point. Iron Mountain, located 60 miles south near Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, boasts an elevation of 295 feet. And bragging rights for the highest elevation in Florida (345 feet above sea level) belong to Britton Hill in the northwest Panhandle corner of the state.
For today’s road trip, we will be visiting Sugarloaf Mountain in Clermont and highlighted points along the way. Each of the following destinations are an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours or you can take a full day and explore them all.
Everything is located less than an hour away from downtown Orlando, and the area’s major tourist destinations. So, if you’re looking for something different and inexpensive to do in Central Florida, why not take a leisurely drive and discover some treasures nestled in the Florida “mountains?”
Sugarloaf Mountain Road Trip – Part #1: Winter Garden (A slice of Central Florida’s citrus history)
The charming, historic downtown district of Winter Garden, Florida, is a great way to begin your Sugarloaf Mountain road trip. It also marks the beginning of one of Florida’s scenic highways— the Green Mountain scenic byway.
Thanks to street-scaping efforts by the city of Winter Garden and the restoration of the Garden Theatre, this several-block section of brick-lined streets features fountains, swinging benches, and attractive landscaping. Plant Street has been revitalized and is a popular destination for residents as well as outdoor enthusiasts enjoying the West Orange Trail (a section runs parallel to Plant Street).
Special events are held here throughout the year (find them here)and on Saturdays there is a Farmers Market from 9 a.m.to 2 p.m. at the Downtown Pavilion on the corner of West Plant Street and South Lakeview Avenue.
If you plan ahead and bring swimsuits for the kiddies, they will be sure to have a blast jumping through the interactive splashpad water park which opened last year. Just the thing on a hot Florida day!
I, also, recommend parking the car and taking a stroll to check out the boutique and specialty shops along Plant Street and its side streets. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the great restaurants and cafés lining both sides of the road, including my favorite local Thai restaurant – Thai Blossom Restaurant (AAA Two Diamond rated restaurant at 99 West Plant Street).
Or stop in for a cup of coffee or tea, along with panini at Axum Coffee, and help make the world a better place – one hundred percent of the café’s profits are given away to charitable efforts around the world.
Learn about Winter Garden’s agricultural and citrus industry history by visiting the Heritage Museum located at One North Main Street. The museum is housed in the 1918 Atlantic Coast Line Depot and features a 1943 Chesapeake and Ohio caboose that will be irresistible for children (and some adults too) to climb aboard.
Inside the museum, you will find photographs and memorabilia from Winter Garden’s past, including Native American artifacts, along with a unique collection of citrus packing labels and an informative kiosk on the ongoing Lake Apopka restoration efforts.
Just a couple of blocks away is the Central Florida Railroad Museum at 101 S. Boyd Street. Housed in the Tavares and Gulf Railroad depot, this 1913 station became a railroad museum in 1983 and features photographs of Central Florida’s railway history and a large collection of dining car china and silverware.
You can browse extensive private collections of local, state and national memorabilia, and check out a 1938 Fairmont motor car as well as the former Clinchfield Railroad caboose. And the children will be sure to want to stop and play with the Thomas the Train wooden train set.
There is no admission to visit the Heritage Museum or the Central Florida Railroad Museum, although donations are appreciated. Both museums are open every day, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., except major holidays.
If you have a sweet tooth like me, no trip to Winter Garden is complete without a treat from one of the tempting choices on Plant Street. You can stop in for a refreshing treat at Scoops Old Fashioned Ice Cream Store (at the historic Edgewater Hotel) or JoJo’s Smoothies and Frozen Yogurt shop.
The display cases across the street at Sweet Traditions Bakery and Café are filled with yummy pastries, cakes and cookies. Or, for the kid in all of us, visit Ms. Bee’s Gourmet Popcorn and Candy where you can select from over 70 flavors of popcorn and walls lined with candy delights.
Personally, I can’t visit Ms. Bee’s without leaving with a chunk of their homemade Peanut Butter Explosion fudge. It is a melt-in-your-mouth, sheer bliss experience!
Part 2 of a Day Trip in Central Florida will be posted soon!