Most all of Florida has a huge underground layer of lime rock, which formed from the collection of seashells and coral in ancient times when it was underwater. Additionally, over time, the lime rock dissolved and collapsed in areas creating vast numbers of lakes in Florida’s interior.
In another ancient era, Florida lay partially underwater, and the Ocean’s shoreline crashed into the state’s interior, depositing vast amounts of sand. Lowry and Magnolia Lakes lie in one of those areas, which is known as Trail Ridge. That ancient historical era has provided many of the lakes in this area sandy bottoms that buffer the collection of lake water from the dark organic material that lies between the lime rock and the lake bottoms, bestowing upon those lakes beautiful and clear water.
The Unique Nature of Lowry and Magnolia Lakes
That ancient history explains a lot, but it does not explain why Lowry and Magnolia Lakes are unique water resources in North Central Florida. Fast forward to 1957, and Magnolia Lake State Park was established as a “separate but equal” facility to balance the provision of Gold Head Branch State Park, which operated as a 600-acre white only facility only 10 miles from Magnolia Lake. The civil rights legislation, passed in 1964, integrated Gold Head Branch State Park and consequently returned Magnolia State Park to the Florida National Guard. Due to public demand, access to the two lakes was continued.
However, public access to Lowry and Magnolia Lakes was short-lived due to 9-11. When terrorists destroyed the twin towers in 2001, Federal and state governments tightened security nationwide, and access to both lakes was terminated. However, public complaints about the loss of access to both lakes fell on hearing ears, and in 2006 limited access to both lakes was restored. At this publication, both lakes are available on Sunday morning and Monday afternoon, as well as during hunting season. Additionally, the Florida National Guard choose to impose no-wake zones in both lakes. While those restrictions might be a burden to some bass fishermen, it can be an asset to those interested in paddling, photography, and wildlife observation.
Another attractive feature about Lowry and Magnolia Lakes is the fact that they are part of the 56,000 acres of the 73,000 acres of Camp Blanding that are regulated under a joint partnership between the Florida National Guard and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. So the wildlife and natural resources around Lowry and Magnolia Lakes are not only regulated by the Florida National Guard, but also by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Where else in the State of Florida could a lake of 250 acres (Magnolia) and 1200 acres (Lowry) remain void of any private residential or commercial construction? Where have any other lakes grow maiden cane, lily pads, and underwater plant life unobstructed? Where have any other waterbodies escaped residential and commercial development? Have any other water bodies provided cover and protection to wildlife for more than a half-century? Now do those restrictions and protections complicate open access? Of course, they do, but it is those complications that make Lowry and Magnolia Lakes unique and attractive recreational water resources in north-central Florida.
Both lakes have paved access directly to each boat launch. There is little ungraded distance between the paved road and either of the two boat launches. Both boat launches are of recently constructed cement.
As noted earlier, most of the lakes that lie along Trail Ridge are sandy-bottomed and very clear. Indeed, water clarity provides little assurance that pollution is not present. However, the military and wildlife management restrictions seem to be favorable to the water and wilderness conditions as well as the land around them.
Some of the areas in the eastern part of Camp Blanding have been mined extensively for desirable minerals used in paints and other products. Previously, topsoil was not replaced over the mined land, leaving barren soil. It appeared to be a wasteland that would sustain no vegetation. However, within the last 30 or so years, government regulations have required that they remove and replace the topsoil, which has dramatically improved the condition of the mined areas.
Additionally, the camp has a designated bombing range, and much of the location has been exposed to explosives. Also, much of Camp Blanding is open to hunting during the specified hunting season. Still, to the merit of the Florida Fish and Game Commission, the wildlife, fish, and forest resources of the area seems to be in excellent condition.
The main concern related to the management of the Camp Blanding Wildlife Management Program is its impact upon the surrounding lakes in the Keystone area. The small Alligator Creek connects Lowry, Magnolia, Geneva, and Brooklyn Lakes. Unfortunately, the water levels in Brooklyn and Geneva have vacillated significantly in recent years, and many people attribute that variation to Alligator Creek flow obstruction. Many people associate the obstacle to the presence of corporate pipelines that cross the creek.
Notwithstanding the noted controversy above, it is the lack of public access and regulations to both Lowry and Magnolia Lakes that make them so highly recommended as a desirable natural recreational.
Both lakes had good fishing reputations when access was convenient, and those reputations have done nothing but improve since the 9-11 restrictions. Lowry, being the larger of the two, also gets the most traffic. Magnolia has a steeper depth decline and reportedly reaches depths of more than 40 feet. Bathymetric maps indicate that Lowry’s deepest locations are generally under 30 feet.
Because of the more shallow nature, Lowry’s shoreline maiden cane growth reaches out into the lake further; consequently is produces a more abundant shoreline bass catch. Magnolia is known for the crappie and shell cracker bite, especially during the bedding season. The bass harvest in both lakes does not have a reputation for producing large fish. That is probably due to the restricted access and lack of accumulated knowledge of the lakes. Locating the productive areas in the deeper parts of the lakes, and accessing those spots at good sun and moon times is necessary to harvest larger fish. Never-the-less, fishing the shoreline structure in the morning and evening typically yields a good bass bite. Likewise, both lakes provide good crappie, bluegill and shell cracker catches during summer’s new and full moons.
Distractions and the clutter of civilization Are minimal in the entire Camp Blanding area. There is absolutely no residential or commercial construction around the perimeter of either lake, which creates numerous photographic opportunities. Even signs of previous residential development are rare. The only signs of any prior building are the sparse remains of portable cement pillars previously used for housing foundations, before the Florida National Guard property purchase.
During the summer, when the sound of gunshots does not echo over the lake, wildlife exposure is better. Unfortunately, the open hours restrict the exposure to daylight both after dawn and before dusk, which precludes some wildlife exposure.
Both Lowry and Magnolia Lakes have a creek mouth entrance and exit, which also attracts numerous reptile and bird representatives. Banded water snakes, gators, and wading birds are especially numerous.
The network of unpaved roads between Magnolia and Lowry Lakes always displays an extensive collection of wildlife tracks, including coyote, bear, deer, raccoon, and possum. The area hosts a larger population of coyote and bear than any other region in Central Florida, except for Ocala National Forest. The checking station guard on Treat Road was recently surprised to see a large bear peering into the guard station window, checking her out. Florida Game and Wildlife officials caution that the area does have a prolific bear population. Accordingly, they are advised not to run or climb trees if approached by bears. Black bears almost always avoid human contact, but there are rare and isolated exceptions. One of the more common wildlife encounters is with wild turkeys. They are large and beautiful birds and frequently travel in flocks.
For those people who mingle recreational paddling with fishing and photography, these two lakes are a “diamond in the rough.” The restricted access, no-wake zone restrictions, and the fishing preference for Lowry make Magnolia, especially attractive water, to paddle.
Food & Lodging
Both Lowry and Magnolia Lakes lie around five miles north of Keystone Heights, which is a small residential community with minimal commercial enterprise. Several restaurants can escape fast food classification; however, if desired, fast foods are plentiful in Keystone. Several of the Keystone restaurants that sidestep the fast-food categorization include the following:
- McHenry’s Sports Pub: 323 Commercial Circle, Keystone Heights
- Johnny’s Bar B-Q and Catering: 7411 State Road 21, Keystone Heights
- Keystone Inn Family Restaurant: 208 SE St. Rd. 100, Keystone Heights
- Laredo’s Mexican Restaurant: 7380 State Road 100, Keystone Heights
- Blue Water Bay: State Road 26, Melrose
Unfortunately, when it comes to lodging, Keystone comes up inconvenient. There are no motels/hotels in the community. For overnight travel to the area, surrounding locations become essential. Starke lies 15 miles north of Keystone on highway 100. Middleburg lies 28 miles north and east of Keystone on highway 21. Waldo is nearby as the crow flies, but road access demands 20 miles of travel. All three of these locations offer economy rooms only, and of the three choices, Starke is probably the best. Starke lies around 15 to 20 miles from several large state prisons. Accordingly, many people visiting incarcerated relatives find lodging on the north end of Starke on Highway 301. Due to this demand, several economy types of motels are available, all located on the north side to the town on highway 301.
For more social exposure and additional choices of restaurants and motels are desired, Gainesville —the home of the Florida Gators — would be the recommendation. Gainesville lies 30 – 35 miles west and slightly south of Keystone. From Keystone, you should take Highway 21 south to the small community of Melrose then turn right/west on Highway 26 to Gainesville.
Lowry and Magnolia Lakes lie on the south-eastern boundary of Camp Blanding in North Central Florida. They are on the northern part of a landscape that is prolific with lakes from large to small across the Florida landscape. They are good examples of how the desolvation or deterioration of limestone over historical time has formed an abundance of natural water recreational resources in North Central Florida.
Access to the two lakes is both easily found and restricted. Despite the apparent contradiction of that statement, both lakes lie about four to five miles north of Keystone Heights, Florida, off of Highway 21. Consider the following directions if you are traveling north from Keystone on highway 21:
Highway 21 north 3-4 miles to a left on Treat Road; a memorial dedication sign marks this intersection.
Take Treat Road west for about one mile to the check-in station. Continue on Treat Road for about 1-2 miles to Magnolia Lake boat launch, visible from the road. Alternately continue on treat road 2-3 miles to Lowry Lake Road on the right. Take Lowry Road a mile or two to the Lowry Lake boat launch.
Because Keystone Heights is a tiny residential community with the limited business enterprise, one might best locate it from surrounding landmarks. Firstly Keystone lies 15 miles south of Starke, Florida, on highway 100. It lies 28 miles southwest of Middleburg on Highway 21. Keystone also lies close to Waldo and Gainesville as the crow flies, but road travel demands 20 miles. Gainesville, Florida, and the home of the Florida Gators is about 32 miles away.
Whether your choice is fishing, photography, paddling, or observing wildlife, Magnolia and Lowry Lakes are a great choice with the unique history and governmental regulations. It is an ideal location, where the natural world has been tainted minimally with commercial development and public use. Unfortunately, access to both is limited, which also happens to be a significant attraction.