Alligator at Big Cypress National Preserve Photos by Carey Kish
Along the Suwannee River
Big Cypress National Preserve
Carey Kish in Cypress National Preserve
Evening glow Gulf ISlands National Seashore
Florida Trail crossing
Longleaf Pine Forest
Open country on Florida Trail
Pines and prairies on the Florida Trail
Sunset Gulf Islands National Seashore
Water moccasin or cottonmouth at Bradley Bay Wilderness Apalachicola
One year ago, this Mainer was in the early days of an unlikely long hike in a rather unusual place.
While the Pine Tree State was locked in the deep freeze of January, I was in the Sunshine State, trekking northbound on the Florida National Scenic Trail, an extraordinary journey from the edge of the Everglades to Pensacola Bay. It would take 72 days to cover the 1,100-mile distance.
It’s minus-8 degrees as I write this, and glancing at the television, I see the Weather Channel guy is showing a map of southern Florida, where it’s 72 degrees. As I load another log into the woodstove, you know darn well where I’d rather be right now, hiking happily along in shorts and T-shirt with a big smile on my sunburned face.
A lot of Mainers apparently have the same thoughts about escaping the snow and cold. I checked in with AAA Northern New England the other day and learned that bookings to Florida from the Portland and Bangor airports are strong from now through April. The theme parks of Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World are the big attractions, so too are the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico beaches.
For me, Florida never held much appeal until recently. I went once for a conference in Orlando and then again for a long weekend of carousing in Key West. Other than that, though, forget about it. The place was too flat, too hot and humid, and there were too many people. And then, quite by accident, I discovered Florida’s wealth of hiking trails, bounty of public lands and astounding ecological diversity.
In early March 2015, on the way south to begin a second Appalachian Trail thru-hike, my wife and I overshot Georgia and didn’t stop until we reached the Florida Panhandle. Before tackling the rigors of the AT, I needed a good dose of sun and warmth, and we found both during a week of camping and hiking at Gulf Islands National Seashore and Apalachicola National Forest.
Both of these federal lands contain good stretches of the Florida Trail. We spent many delightful hours following the orange blazes through sandy scrub and along beaches, into deep woods of pines and palms and oaks, through dark and swampy thickets, and across savannas of long grass and saw palmetto. These wild landscapes were so unfamiliar to my experience that I completely fell for the place and knew I’d have to come back for more.
The Florida Trail is the only long-distance trail in the U.S. that you can hike in wintertime without the need for serious cold-weather gear, making it an obvious draw for hikers from around the country and across the northern hemisphere. There are big loops around either side of both Orlando and Lake Okeechobee, an alternate finish at the Alabama border, and several other side trails. All told, the Florida Trail system tallies an impressive 1,400 miles of hiking.
While you could easily spend your winter vacation time lounging with a cocktail on Fort Lauderdale’s beaches or wandering through the fantasy world of Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty, you should also consider a hiking adventure on a portion of the Florida Trail.
My favorite part was the 72 miles through Ocala National Forest, with its crystalline springs, scrub forests and expansive prairies. Big Cypress National Preserve offered the most excitement, 30 miles of mostly wet walking through sawgrass prairies and cypress strands, including the memorable Black Lagoon. The Suwannee River is a meandering 62-mile hike that’ll surely have you singing the old Stephen Foster tune. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, Ecofina Creek Conservation Area and Blackwater River State Forest are also worth a good look-see.
Hiking in Florida is unlike anything you’ve done before, believe me, so a good measure of preparation is in order. There are alligators, yes, but they’re generally not interested in you if you keep your distance. Four types of poisonous snakes require vigilance, especially the cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. There are mosquitoes even in winter. Consider yourself lucky if you see a panther or bear.
Florida Hikes! is a fantastic resource for information and inspiration on the Florida outdoors; visit floridahikes.com.