Fall Florida Lake Louisa State Park Cathy Salustri

Road trip: Celebrate Florida Fall in Lake County at Lake Louisa State Park

This month’s Road Trip celebrates fall in Central Florida.

Some people will tell you Florida doesn’t have seasons. Others will tell you we do — then make a joke about mosquito season, storm season, pollen season… But I promise you, once you know where and how to look, it’s clear Florida has distinct seasons.

Fall in Florida comes later than it does in the rest of the country, and I’m OK with that — my friend’s daughter went away to college in Nebraska and sent pictures home of her first snowman this October. That same weekend, my husband and I spent the afternoon in the pool. Nevertheless, the idea of an unyielding summer does start to feel oppressive by the end of October, and I embrace the first cold front of our all-too-short fall season with open arms. 

Up north, folks talk about the first robin of spring, and while that’s a fallacy (in states that have ‘em, robins live year-round), outside my window, our bird feeder starts to see visitors from up north alongside our usual suspects. The mosquitoes die down; the nights feel like nights and not September’s searing absence of light amidst a sticky rash of heat; and the tangerines are ripe.

This is the month for oranges — no, not the liquid gold that shaped our pre-tourism economy (those come after the new year). Tangelos and tangerines and the first small, sweet oranges hang heavy on branches and, if you know where to look, you can still find some growing wild. 

Every year in November I participate in National Novel Writing Month, the premise of which is that one writes a first draft of a novel — that’s 50,000 words —between November 1 and 30. A few years back, a local group started heading to Lake Louisa State Park for a weekend of internet- and television-free writing. I joined them, and each year since I’ve made my way back to Lake Louisa or another wooded area north of Tampa Bay. The time to write distraction-free is a blessing, but the time to wander in the woods, doubly so. 

Lake Louisa State Park’s camping cabins are much like hotel rooms in the woods: Each cabin has a fireplace, full kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a screened porch overlooking not Lake Louisa, but Dixie Lake. On one of those writing weekends, in an attempt to shake some words free, I walked part of the perimeter around the lake. It was partway through the not-so-well-beaten path that I discovered the remnants of a cirtus grove, complete with bumpy, lemon-scented sour oranges. 

The citrus likely goes back to the Hammond family. John and Louise Driggers Hammond first worked this land after the United States nullified the one treaty it tried to sign with the Seminole tribe, the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. Under that treaty, the land around what we now call Lake Louisa belonged to the Seminole. Of course — and this should shock no one — the U.S. government didn’t honor that treaty and the Seminole never took possession of the land.

Within the century, the Hammond family had moved to Lake County and opened up a sawmill. They used local pine forests — and the area had plenty — for timber for lumber, house shingles and barrel slats, called staves. Then they hauled them to Hammond’s Landing, on a lake that would later be known as Lake Louisa, where a system of lakes allowed them to ship goods across central Florida.

After the Hammonds came the Bronsons, who used the land for citrus and cattle ranching. Irlo Bronson capitalized on his family’s land and practices, starting the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. He also sold almost 9,000 acres of the family’s land to Walt Disney — for $1000, although later acreage not owned by the Bronsons sold for more than $15,000 per acre.

He died in 1973, the same year the state bought the land now used for Lake Louisa State Park. 

Since then, countless locals have journeyed to the park’s lake for fishing and lakeshore R&R, but the real treasures are hidden in the overgrowth. I’ve never spent any meaningful time around Lake Louisa, but, by the cabins, it’s a short walk down to Dixie Lake’s edge. There’s a not-too-well-beaten path you can follow, and, if you do, a few wild orange trees remain. Among the pines and other trees, these citrus trees yield and all-but-forgotten crop: Seville, or sour, oranges. Stumbling upon them was a serendipitious delight — November is the perfect time for some citrus, and I wasted no time shuttling as many as I could carry back to my cabin. Sour oranges are not eating oranges; they’re best prepped in a sour orange pie or squeezed, alongside a touch of Tupelo honey and a healthy dose of tequila, into a sour orange margarita. 

Like so many things in Florida, their discovery is a treasure — small-scale, to be sure, but a treasure nonetheless. The crisp air of inland central Florida in November, the warm burn of the sour orange margarita as it slides down your throat after dark on the cabin’s screened front porch, the rich bite of pie as a group of friends gathers around the it’s-not-really-cold-enough-but-what-the-hell fire after dark.

This is Florida and yes, we do have seasons.

You just need to know where to look.

Welcome to citrus season. 

Lake Louisa State Park, 7305 U.S. Hwy 27, Clermont | 8 a.m.-sundown, daily | $5/car | 352-394-3969 | floridastateparks.org

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing.