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Mobile link: If you go, open the Lakeland ParkFinder on your smartphone to navigate Se7en Wetlands via GPS.

Exhibitors: Scroll down for a list of sponsors at Saturday’s 10 a.m. grand opening.

Nature lovers in Polk County have been waiting for the opening of a new hiking and wildlife-viewing area south of Lakeland.

The Seven Wetlands Park has its grand opening Saturday at 10 a.m., but we’ll let you in on a little secret. The two gates are already open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and visitors have started hiking the trails and checking out the birds and alligators.

One entrance is through Polk County’s Loyce Harpe Park. Parking there is relatively close to the gate that’s called the Gopher Tortoise entrance. That’s where Saturday’s grand opening ceremony takes place.

If you go Saturday, expect giveaways, guided tours and exhibits from conservation organizations. (View a list below.)

Photos by David Dickey Jr.

To reach the other entrance, visitors hike a mile and a half through the county’s Lakeland Highlands Scrub environmental preserve. That entrance is close to a shaded pavilion and a boardwalk.

So far, 8 1/2 miles of trails are open. Eventually, the park will host 22 miles of trails. Most of the trails run along berms that separate seven separate ponds on the 1,640-acre reclaimed phosphate mine. As water flows through the ponds from north to south, it drops 75 feet and is filtered and cleaned naturally by vegetation. Most of the outflow at the end of the final wetland goes to Tampa Electric to cool generators at its South Polk power plant.

The city of Lakeland’s Julie Vogel recently took LkldNow on a tour of the site. We passed gators near the southern end of the trail and could see homes in Eaglebrooke from the northern part of the trail. She talked about what visitors can expect:

“So the main uses right now are hiking, bird watching passive activities. We envision that school groups might want to come and learn more about the water quality aspects of Seven Wetlands — the urban water cycle component to it.”

“If you come here, chances are you will see an alligator and it probably will be a big alligator. We have many different alligators that live all throughout the 1,600-acre wetlands and definitely within Wetlands 1 and 2, which are the trails that are open to the public right now.”

“We have many different bird species because we have multiple habitats. We have upland species and fresh-water species. The most obvious birds that folks will find  are probably our larger birds. Right now we have woodstorks. Always great blue herons, tri-colored herons, snowy egrets, ospreys galore. And if you’re a birder, you’ll probably find many different hidden species in the bush. You can hear them — anybody can hear them — but it takes a keen eye to find those birds.”

“We do not allow bicyclists or pets so please leave those at home and come and enjoy the views. We do not allow fishing.”

“Our wastewater that comes in is already treated. If you do make it to the influent, the only odor that you’ll probably smell is a little bit of chlorine, so you can tell that it’s clean water coming in.”

“Most people if you were a new visitor you would have no idea that this is a constructed treatment wetlands. You would think that this is a natural, pristine Florida environment.”

Partners/Exhibitors for Se7en Wetlands Grand Opening

• Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

• Audubon Society

• City of Lakeland Nursery Department

• City of Lakeland Parks Department

• City of Lakeland Water Utilities Department

• Florida Department of Environmental Protection

• Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

• Heartland Chapter of the Florida Trail Association

• Mosaic Company

• Polk County Environmental Lands

• Polk County Lakes Education Action Drive (LE /AD)

• Polk County Mosquito Control

• S & ME Architects

• Shutterbugs Photography Club

• WaterVentures Florida’s Learning Lab

• Woodland Wonders

View a city of Lakeland preview video:

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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