Gulf Islands National Seashore occupies a narrow margin of land on Santa Rosa Island on the Florida Panhandle. Bounded by Pensacola Bay to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, the park is about as far west as you can go along the coast in the Sunshine State, as least as far as the Florida Trail is concerned anyway.
The northern terminus of the Florida Trail, one of eleven National Scenic Trails, is found near the western edge of this barrier island at Fort Pickens, the pentagonal U.S. military fort built completed in 1834. The fort remained active until 1947.
Just outside the old walls, the Florida Trail leaves from a kiosk and meanders east through the sand pines and scrub, the first of its 1,102-mile length. Hikers who go the distance will emerge from the diverse terrain of the Florida wilds at Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park.
I hiked along this initial stretch of the Florida Trail in January, on my birthday to be exact. I’ll never forget it, because I remember chuckling that day to my wife that I think I’d like to spend more birthdays where they plow sand and not snow. It’s true, because of the winds here and the narrow spit of land, to keep the park road open crews must regularly use plow trucks to move the drifting sand aside.
This isn’t the first time I’ve walked a portion of the Florida Trail. Just last spring, right before my wife dropped me off in Georgia for the start of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, we camped for three nights at Camel Lake in Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee.
We discovered the Florida Trail came right through the campground, and that meant only one thing—we had to hike some of it. So we shouldered our daypacks and went for a nice 11-mile loop through the pines, swamps and lake country nearby, half of it on the orange-blazed FT.
I think that’s where I started to get hooked on the Florida Trail. And later at Gulf Islands I kind of went off the deep end, if you will, and started thinking seriously about a thru-hike of the entire trail. Next winter, starting early January.
Florida had never much appealed to this Mainer. Too flat, too hot and humid, too many people. I went to Disneyworld once only because I had a conference there. But other than that I’d managed to avoid the place like, well, the plague. Oh, except for the week in Key West in 2007, but that’s an entirely different story.
Spend a little time in a place, however, and you begin to see its beauty, its special qualities. And I’ve come to see the beauty, the value of so many places around the country that I had pretty much altogether avoided before, mostly through traveling about and by spending some time here and there. Florida is one of those places, and I’ve begun to really like the place. Not the crazy built-up parts of it like Miami or Orlando and such, but spots like Gulf Island and Apalachicola.
So now I’ve got the Florida Trail Guide in hand and I’ve been reading and underlining and taking notes. And what I’ve discovered is pretty interesting.
This will not be an easy hike. No way, no how. Yeah, it may be kind of flat. But there are plenty of difficulties and potential dangers to make up for that.
Alligators for example. It’s not a good idea to bend down and filter your water near a pond, canal or slough between sundown and sunrise. Apparently alligators can mistake you for a deer and muckle on to you, with a less than pretty outcome. Hmmm.
Swamps. Through the Big Cypress country, there’s not much dry ground for about 50 miles. And in and around Apalachicola, you can be up to your waist in dark water for 15 miles as you traverse Bradwell Bay Wilderness. Now that sounds like my kind of fun.
Snakes. Four venomous types. Cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, copperheads, coral snakes. That’s two more types than on the AT.
Panthers. Elusive, yes, but. Black bears. Poisonous plants, including the trifecta of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, plus the apparently even nastier poisonwood. Sweet.
Insects. Not too bad in winter, which is really the only time to thru-hike the Florida Trail. I’ll take a good dose of bug dope anyway.
Bubbas. You know what I mean, you know ‘em when you see ‘em. I’ve had my share of run-ins with locals in rural parts of the south on several AT hikes. No fun. Scary even.
All that said, I’m still psyched. And getting more excited by the day. I even got some encouragement from an old high school friend, Mike Myatt, now a longtime Florida resident and outdoorsman.
“Gators are not that aggressive. Snakes generally don’t bother you as long as you’re wearing “snake boots” or gaiters for the occasional rogue. Panthers are a rare commodity but always welcome. Bears are small and as you know are controllable. Hogs, well, hogs are just nasty west of the lake [Okeechobee]. All that being said, winter (not this year) is generally the dry cool season. The skeeters are only the size of sparrows. When you encounter the 300 or so species of birds and the orchids, it’ll ring the bell. By the way, the Bubba thing north of Clewiston is pretty spot on, banjos and such. Worth every step I reckon, done a bunch of it.”
Hogs? Snake boots?? Jeez. Am I nuts?!