Sunflower Island (Lake Jesup Wildflowers at the Marl Bed Flats): Photo Tips & Guide

Sunflower Island (Lake Jesup Wildflowers at the Marl Bed Flats): Photo Tips & Guide

Oct 11, 2019 UPDATE:  For the first time in a couple years, the fields didn’t flood and we have a Sunflower Bloom!   I was out there today and the flowers are at peak bloom.  It might not be the most profuse bloom we have ever had, but it is still impressive.  My guess is that the flowers will start to fade from here on out so if you have time in your schedule, this weekend would be your best bet!


For years I had been envious of the wildflower fields out west.  Ponce de Leon may have named my state “Florida” after being inspired by our wildflowers, but I had seen precious few of them in my three decades here.  That is, until the day I stood behind my camera and saw this scene in my viewfinder:

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom
“Sunflower Island”  The oak and palm hammock in the background looks almost like an island floating in a sea of sunflowers in this six frame panorama.

I was simply amazed.  It was absolutely incredible…beautiful yellow wildflowers as far as I could see.  What really rocked my world is that I had lived less than 15 miles away from this vista for nearly thirty years and had no idea it existed!  I probably still wouldn’t if not for Ed Rosack.  Ed is al local photographer who has a great blog called Central Florida Photo Ops .  Ed, if I ever meet you, I owe you a beer!

Although photos are great, sometimes a video tells the story even better. Take a look at this 90 second ‘film’ that might give you a greater appreciation of the Sunflower fields:

I’ve been back to this place every year since.  Rarely do I see another soul.  Usually a bald eagle or two will circle me probably wondering what the heck I am doing in the middle of nowhere.  It is blissfully quiet, which is amazing considering how frantic and busy Central Florida can be.  I think I would have a great time here even if I didn’t have my camera.

Okay, so are you interested in getting in on the fun here?

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom
Spider’s web reflecting in dawn light at Lake Jesup

First of all, this incredible display only lasts for a couple of weeks from late September into early October.  As a general rule, the flowers peak around Oct. 1st but obviously every year is a bit different.

Second, keep in mind that this isn’t Disney.  You can’t just pull up, jump out of your car and snap some shots.  You will need to hike for about 20 minutes out to the fields, it will likely be hot, the fields are muddy and you will help feed the local mosquito population.  Also keep in mind that is is a wild area on the shores of the lake reputed to have the most dense alligator population in Florida (421 gators per mile of shoreline is the eye-opening stat I’ve read).  If that doesn’t scare you, then read on….Wildflowers at Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats

How do you find the spot?

  1.  First of all, once you are in the Orlando area, you want to get on SR 417 (AKA: The Greeneway Tollway/Expressway).  The flats are on the shore of Lake Jesup, which you can see from the 417.  Some folks actually take photos from the shoulder of the road…but that looks dangerous to me and  State Troopers take a dim view of parking on the side of an expressway.  Besides,  you can take MUCH better photographs from the location I reveal below
  2. Here is a link to a Google Map that you can print that will help you find the place.
  3. If you don’t like maps, here is a description:  Drive north on the 417 and exit (east) on E Lake Mary Blvd (the first exit north of Lake Jesup) and head east.  Then take a right (south) on South Sanford Ave.  Take a left (east) on Pine Way (this will be just before you drive under the 417 again). Take a right (south) on S.Mellonville Ave. This will dead-end into Oakway…turn left (east). Oakway is a narrow two lane road with no shoulders so you may have to (carefully) pull off to the side if a vehicle is coming the other way
    Parking Lot
  4. Oakway Lane dead-ends at a small parking area that is open during daylight hours (see photo to the right).  If the gate is closed, there is room for a couple of cars to park outside the gate on the shoulder of the road.
  5.  The trail starts at the gate (see below) located in the back south-eastern corner of the lot located next to the parking area. As you walk to the gate, you will likely see your first sunflowers in the fenced field to your right.
    Gate at the trailhead.
  6. Follow the trail on the other side of the gate (actually an old overgrown dirt road).
  7.  You will see trail markers with both red and yellow diamonds. red yellow diamond
  8. In less than five minutes, the trail will split.  Either trail will get you to the fields (see map below).Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Wildflower Trail Map
    1. Red Trail.   This is the shortest route to the fields. It is less than a half mile walk and should take you about 20 minutes
      • At the first split in the trail, continue straight (don’t turn right).  The trail markers will now have both red and yellow diamonds.
        The hike thru the hammock is short but impressive.
      • After another five minutes the trail will split again…take the left trail.  The trail markers will now be marked with red diamonds and the path will lead thru a nice old oak hammock with wonderful spanish moss.
      • In another ten minues or so the trail will end as you emerge from the trees with the open flats directly ahead (you can’t miss it).
      • The best sunflower fields are usually to the right (southwest) as you exit the oak hammock.
      • You will be tempted to walk straight out into the flowers.  Don’t…unless it has been a really dry fall you will get bogged down in the marshy fields.
        • nstead stay on the drier ground near the  the oak trees and keep walking to the right (west) on the edge of the field until you find a good view.  Then walk straight out into the field, get your shot, then walk back to the oaks and continue your hike to the right.
           A shot of my son, Ryan...who is 6'1".   I told you these sunflowers are TALL!
          I told you these sunflowers are TALL!

          My best compositions are usually found when I walk well out into the fields, then turn around and shoot back toward the trees.  If you are there in the morning or early afternoon, this also puts the sun at your back or to the side. 

          • There are some areas in the flats that are a bit more elevated than others.  If you see a palm tree out there, you know it is on higher ground (although it still might be under water).  There aren’t real trails thru the actual sunflower fields but usually you can find some paths that horses, cattle and other photographers have made. Be aware that the sunflowers can be over 6′ tall.
          • If it has been a rainy Fall, the fields might be under a lot more than an inch or two of water.  If so, you won’t be able to see much at this location and you should try the Yellow Trail instead.
            Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom
            Your choice of photo options is nearly as endless as the sunflowers.
    2. Yellow Trail.  This area is at a slightly higher elevation and it has a wonderfully photogenic line of palm trees that run in a straight line to the Southeast once you emerge from the oak hammock.  If the fields are wet, walking along this line of palms could be your best/only option to actually get out into the sunflower fields.
      1. This hike is a bit longer, but still shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach it from the parking area.
      2. At the first split in the trail described above, take the trail to the right (it will be marked with yellow diamonds). Yellow Diamond This trail will take you thru an oak hammock and will soon curve to the left (south).  Continue straight down on the trail (actually an old dirt road). As you reach the end of the tree canopy, you will notice that the trail/road is actually elevated and there is a narrow, nearly filled/overgrown canal to your right.   
      3. At the edge of the flats, the trail/road will take a sharp right.  As you stand here looking out to the flats you will see a long, perfectly straight row of palm trees leading off south-east into the flats.  Walk along that line of trees (no need to follow it to the end).  As you do so, you should see a nice field of sunflowers to your left (south-east).  This area is particularly nice in the afternoon with the sun to your back
Photo tips and guide. Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers
One of approximately 34 billion wild sunflowers at the peak of the bloom. Most folks around here call them Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) but another common name is Narrow Leaf Sunflowers

What should you bring with you?

  1. These fields are marshy…bring waterproof boots and a spare pair of dry socks (just in case)  
    1. If it has been a rainy Fall, it will be more than ‘marshy’, the fields will be underwater (it was so wet in 2014, 2017 & 2018 that the fields flooded and killed the blooms.) 
    2. Also keep in mind that although I’ve only rarely seen snakes here, you’d probably rather be wearing boots than flip-flops if you were to surprise a moccasin.  
    3. Cattle often wander through this area and folks ride horses here as well.  The cows and horses do leave their ‘calling cards’, so step carefully.
  2. Some years the mosquitos can be intense, bring your industrial strength bug spray.  
  3. Temperatures in September/October can often hit 90º and there isn’t much shade in the flats, so bring a hat, lots of water and use your sunscreen.
  4. Wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt and quick drying fabric (not cotton).  Many of the plants in the field are as tall as you are and they will scratch up any unprotected skin.  Plus, the plants are often covered in dew in the morning…and you will get wet.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Bring a tall tripod.  Many of these flowers are over 6′ in height so it helps to elevate your camera over them.  Use a cable release/remote shutter.
  2. A typical shot here often features a wide depth of field when capturing a field of flowers that stretches from the horizon to a few feet in front of you.  In that case, use a small aperture (f/16 or higher) to get the maximum depth of field.   A tripod will be critical since the exposure time might be long. Mornings are great since there is little wind.
  3. Bring a selection of lenses.
    • Obviously you want your wide-angle lens…the landscape begs for them.  The wider the better.
    • If you have a macro lens you can stay busy here all day.  In addition to the flowers there are insects of every kind and first thing in the morning, sometimes you will find dew covered spider webs that make wonderful compositions.
    • There are often eagles circling in the sky over you…a long zoom can help you come home with some nice portraits.  In addition to eagles, I’ve seen hawks, wood storks, and  a plethora of other species…if you happen to be a birder, you will be photographing a lot more than sunflowers.
  4. Sunrises and  sunsets can be magical.
    Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom
    Who says that there aren’t any landscape photography locations in Florida?
  5. Try a Panorama.  The fields can appear endless and this impression can be dramatically captured in a pano. 
    Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom
    Endless Beauty
  6. Don’t forget your polarizer….it will make the blue skies absolutely breathtaking.  The exception to this rule would be if you are making a pano..a polarizer will often result in ‘blotchy’ skies if you are stiching together multiple shots.
  7. The flowers look great in direct sunlight.  Fortunately, in Central Florida we don’t have many overcast days.  Ideally, visit on a day with partially cloudy skies:  Nice big white clouds in a deep blue sky hanging over yellow field of flowers makes for wonderful images.
  8. If it is windy, you will need a quick shutter speed (1/250 or so) to ‘freeze’ the flowers in your image.

Other sunflower locations :

Lake Jesup Area:

Although I consider the Marl Bed Flats to be the primo location, there are 3 other flats with sunflowers surrounding Lake Jesup that you can explore.

    1. Caldwell Fields is very close to the Marl Bed Flats (basically just on the other side of the 417).  You can get there from a trailhead located in Lake Jesup Park (see map below).  This can be a wonderful spot since part of the trail is atop a berm…which allows you expansive views because of the height.  Unfortunately, the trail you take to the berm is at a very low elevation and I’ve rarely seen it dry enough to hike during the sunflower bloom.Lake Jesup Park Calwell's Field full res
    2. The North Cameron Tract is often dryer than the Marl Bed Flats but the flowers are not usually as profuse.  Check out this link to see a map.
    3. The East Lake Jesup Tract (also on this link) is on the southern side of the Lake and I’ve never had much luck there…but I honestly haven’t spent much time exploring it either.

Cocoa (Tosohatchee):

Another location in Central Florida that usually has sunflower displays is the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area which is about a hour southwest of Lake Jessup (about 30 minutes west of Cocoa.)  Although not as photogenic (in my opinion) as the Lake Jessup fields, it might be worth checking out if you live nearby.  The best spots are in the flats near the St. John’s River on Powerline Road.  This link will take you to a helpful map.

Ft. Myers/Naples (Pepper Ranch):

For those of you in west and south Florida, I’ve seen photographs of fields of sunflowers at Pepper Ranch in the Ft. Myers/Naples area.  I haven’t visited myself, but if you live in that area you should check it out.  Here is a link with directions and details.

I personally consider the sunflowers at Lake Jesup to be one of the best landscape photography locations in the state.  If you happen to be within driving distance during early October, you really should see this extravaganza yourself!




PS:  I usually post updates with details about the bloom every year.  Check my blogs during late September and October to see what is happening this year. 

I’ve also published a couple other articles about the fields you might find interesting,  check here and here.

Tips for the Lake Jesup Marl Bed Flats Sunflower Bloom


Central Florida's best landscape op location Lake Jessup Wildflowers
Sunflowers aren’t the only thing that might catch your eye at Lake Jesup’s Marl Bed Flats!






Related Images:

This Post Has 40 Comments

  1. Any update On the flowers for 2020?

    1. Not looking good. Fields are flooded due to the heavy rainfall over the past month. There is a chance it may dry-out and we will get a decent bloom but the forecast is for more rain. I’m not feeling optimistic about this year.

  2. How are flood plains looking this year? Are the flowers starting to appear?

    1. Hi Brian, As of Oct 11 we have a full bloom. Fields are a bit wet and the density of flowers is good (but not as intense as in some prior years). I’m guessing that the peak will be over this weekend and will start declining. Time to get out there if you can!

      1. Thank you. It’s been a couple of years since we had a good bloom so I’m excited to see if this year we get lucky.

      2. Its 9/27/19 have you been by lately to see if the flowers are coming in. I was thinking f taking a ride this weekend to find out.

        1. Hi,
          Unfortunately, I haven’t been out there is a while and I’m out of the country and won’t get a chance to for another couple of weeks. If you get a chance to take a ride out there this weekend, let me know what you find, Thanks!

          1. I went out last weekend and they were nearly at peak so I suspect they are at peak this weekend. The area is plenty dry so accessing the flowers was no problem. They are tall this year, so be prepared for some giant plants.

          2. Thanks for the update Brian! I’ll put out an update on my website today. I’m planning to check it out myself tomorrow!

    2. Thank you for this website. Used it today to hike with my family. Have been sharing photos and now sharing your site for others! 🥰

  3. Are there still sunflowers right now during this month??

    1. Hi Julissa, Sorry, the sunflowers only bloom at the end of Sept/early Oct. The fields flooded during that timeframe the last two years and we got no blooms at all…hopefully we will be luckier this year!

  4. I’ve seen that last years was kind of bad but typically what would be a good time of year to go?

    1. Hi Chelsea, Usually the flowers start blooming in late September or early October. Once the blooms pop, they take about 1-2 weeks to peak. From start to finish, the bloom is usually 7 or 8 weeks in total. Good luck! Jeff

  5. I went yesterday 10/15/17 and the path to the field was completely flooded. I had never gone before so I don’t know if it would be passable in rain boots or not.

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Yes, I’m afraid this year is a bust. The flowers haven’t bloomed…probably because the fields are still underwater. Doesn’t look like the water will bloom before the wildflower “season” is over…which would normally be right around now. Well, let’s hope 2018 is better!

    2. Hows it looking now? Did the fields dry up? Are they still in bloom?

      1. Hi Tara,
        Sadly, no, I’m going to have to write-off 2020. The fields are still flooded. Jeff

  6. Hey I was just wondering if you think the hurricane is going to affect us being able to see these beautiful flowers this year. Or maybe it’s too early to tell?

    1. Hi John,
      Unfortunately, my guess is that the fields will be totally flooded this year. The water levels in Lake Jesup are the highest I’ve ever seen them so I am not optimistic about the flowers. I’ll make a run out there next week and check. PS: Sorry for the delay in responding…Irma knocked out my power for six days and just got electricity again 20 minutes ago

      1. Hey Jeff, I made a trip to the fields the other day, i can confirm that the fields are completely flooded this year sadly.

        1. Hi Gavin,
          Yup, I drove out there yesterday and saw the same thing. Looks like 2017 will be a bust. I’ll put out a quick blog to let everyone know. Thanks for the update!

  7. Hi, loved the blog so much! I decided to take my girlfriend to the sunflower fields you explained, however, when we arrived, it was quite a disappointment. I know this is 4 years after the time you visited, but there was probably one sunflower there in comparison to the billions that were in yout photos above. I am curious, was i looking in the wrong place? I walked the trails and stopped at the end as soon as they opened up into a field, but the fields were mainly dead brush; kind of a depressing view actually. I went to the yellow trail to see if that was maybe better, however, that ended up in a wall of grown over brush. It was very dry almost no water and not muddy in the slightest bit. Do you think if I had walked further there may have been some sunflowers? Or am I too late and they have all died by this time? Thanks again for the blog, very beautiful photos wish i could see them for myself in real life!

    1. Hi Gavin,
      Sorry, that you missed the sunflowers. Unfortunately they only bloom for a few weeks each year. Usually that happens during late September to early October. Put it on your calendar for next year and check my blog since I will post updates when the fields start blooming in 2017!

  8. These photos are gorgeous! I’m looking for a place like this to take my maternity photos. Obviously hiking through those conditions isn’t the best option for me. Do you know of any other pretty landscape locations in central Florida that are more accessible by car? Thank you in advance!

    1. First of all, Congratulations! Yes, the wildflower fields would have been a nice backdrop but you are right that a hike right now might not be a great idea. Unfortunately, Central Florida is very limited when it comes to landscape locations…which is why I have to travel so much. I’d suggest one of the many parks as a backdrop. One in particular that you might want to consider is Henry P Leu Gardens in Orlando. Best of luck!


  9. I’m planning on going to see the sunflowers tomorrow. I hope that they are blooming and that it doesn’t rain!

    1. Hi Jackie,
      I just got back from Alaska and haven’t had a chance to see how the sunflowers are doing. Let me know if they are looking good!

      1. I wasn’t able to drag myself out of bed quite as early as I wanted so unfortunately I was a little too late for good sunrise shots. Also it was very flooded…good thing I had read your blog and wore my rain boots! I didn’t get very far before I was standing in 4 or 5 inches of water and decided not to go any further. I think I got some good shots, though. I posted a few on Flickr if you’d like to see them. I’d love to hear any feedback that you have! I definitely need to get a tripod at some point!

        1. Hi Jackie,
          I just checked out your shots on Flickr. Looks like the sunflowers are blooming! As far as feedback…well, there isn’t much you can do if the fields are so flooded that you can’t reach them…maybe we need to use a boat this year! I might give the water a day or two to recede and see if I can reach the fields but this year might be a washout…

    2. Hey Jeff, me and a friend tried going there today and it ended up not working out. There was a river on the trail? We tried going through the woods but it was too scary for us seeing on how we are just teenage girls. Is there a better time to go or is it always like that? We got a little view of lots of yellow in the distance though!

      1. Hi Jackie,
        Unfortunately, with all the rain this year, the sunflowers are really difficult to hike to. Normally, the trail is dry and you don’t have any wet ground until you actually get out to the flats, but this year the entire area is flooded. I’m thinking this year might be a bust and we will have to wait until 2015!

      2. Kebenae – I had the same experience. It was just too flooded to get very close to the sunflowers. I did take some pictures of the ones near the parking area, but there’s a fence around them. Hopefully next year will be better!

  10. Thank you for all the helpful information. We want to travel inland to see this marvel!

    1. Hi Karen,
      It is worth your time for the drive…nothing else like it in this part of the country! Let me know if you get out to see it and if so, email a couple of your best photos to me!

  11. Hi Jeff,

    Nice writeup! And thanks for the complements on my blog. If we do meet, I take you up on that beer.


    1. Hi Ed,
      I’m dead serious about that beer! Your blog has been a wonderful resource and inspiration for me and a beer would be but a small repayment.

  12. Love the blog! Thanks for Sharing~ Truly beautiful site!

    1. It is only appropriate that you were the first to leave a comment…after all, you are the inspiration for the website in the first place!

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