There is great hiking across the entire USA in every type of terrain one could imagine, but as fall turns to winter many of us are either not up to the challenge of winter hikes or just plain old do not relish the idea of “snotsicles” hanging from our noses and sticking hand warmers in places that hand warmers were not meant to be. For those who prefer winter hikes in temperatures that rarely drop below “oh god its cold level” consider the Florida Trail. The Florida National Scenic Trail is approximately 1,400 miles long and is easily accessible from most parts of the state. This popular trail system is perfect for those who like to indulge in some fun day hikes and loops and also for those who want something a bit longer or more demanding. The Florida Trail passes through or near some incredible State Parks and other scenic ecosystems and parks. We will break down the Florida Trail into regions and mention a few of our favorite hikes or Wildlife Management Areas, but there are many, many more. This is just to wet your appetite.
In the South Florida Region where I live, theBig Cypress National Park holds some of the best hiking and most incredible habitats in the state. Depending on small changes in elevation you will come across a variety of different environments includingCypressstrands, hammocks, sawgrass prairies and of course the vast swamp known as theEvergladesencompassing it all. The trails are all quite passable during the dry season and go through many WMA’s (Wildlife Management Areas) as well as utilizing the tops of levees used to control water flow. The open prairies give way to dense tropical foliage and then back to prairies and swamp depending on the elevation of the area.
You can easily access some of the best parts of the Florida Trail from Miami and Fort Lauderdale merely by heading about 45 mins west on either I-75 or US 41, this should take you to the North or South Section of the Big Cypress National Preserve which boarders the northern part of Everglades National Park. My Favorite part of the Trail can be accessed off of I-75. This part of Big Cypress has an abundant amount of wildlife that includes Whitetail Deer, Black Bear, Various Bird life, many American alligators and even the endangered Florida Panther. Big Cypressis in fact BIG! With over 730,000 acres of subtropical terrain including hardwood hammocks, sloughs and cypress swamp to name a few of the types of terrain possibly encountered. You need to determine what you are seeking to determine what time of the year would be best for your hike. If it’s in the wet season, bring plenty of insect repellent.
Central Florida Hikes also offer a great deal of variety in habitats from the vast prairies inhabited by the generations of Cattleman and Ranchers that have worked this part of the state to the hardwood hammocks and the rivers such as the St. John that cross the state. One of my favorite hikes along the Florida Trail is found in the WMA of Three Lakes, found about 45 minutes fromOrlando, Get off at Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike and you are just about there!
This area is surrounded by many lakes such as Lake Kissimmee and during the wet season can make for a very interesting slog through parts of the trail. This part of the Florida Trail passes through many palmetto prairies and pine flat woods transition frequently into open scrub, a favorite area of the feral hog. The marshy areas in this region are also an incredible area for bird watching hikes as it is a vital wintering spot for both Sand hill Cranes and Whooping Cranes. The three lakes WMA is a great place for a quick overnight or weekend hike and has quite a few sections that will loop around so you won’t need to double back. Each loop is about 5.5 to 6 miles in length and maps can be had from each of the trailheads. The North and South loop trails are found within the adjacent Prairie Lakes Unit. Wildlife consists of feral hogs, Whitetail deer, Wild Turkey and birds of prey such as the Bald Eagle and the elusive Caracara.
As you move more towards the Northern regions of the state the flat prairies begin to turn into more hilly terrain and Pine forests become more of the norm. The hills may hide numerous ponds and lakes with small rivers cutting gullies and ravines into the landscape. This part of Florida is well known for its underground rivers and aquifer. Sand dunes and scrub are abundant in this area. The Ocala National Forest has abundant rolling hills featuring open forests of longleaf pines and oak trees and many areas of scrub, sand dunes and wiregrass. This is perfect habitat for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, indigo snake and gopher tortoises as well as deer, hog, black bears and armadillos. If you are hiking this area during the hunting season be sure to wear blaze orange for safety.
Use the numerous signs to figure out where you are as this part of the Florida Trail is well maintained, but remember you may be passing through floodplain forests, which could make following the trail a bit more difficult. Towards the extreme North section of the Florida Trail, it will go along Cross Florida Greenway through the Rodman Campground and along the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was originally a project to connect the Gulf of Mexico to theAtlantic Ocean before it was cancelled for environmental reasons.
The section of the Florida Trail that cuts into the Florida Panhandle (upper northwest part of the state) offers some of the highest elevations inFloridaand allows hikers to roam along the edges of theGulf of Mexico. The estuaries and frequent transition from high forest and woods to low marshy areas make this a great area to view wildflowers and many other types of incredible Florida plant life. The parts of the Florida Trail in and around Apalachicola are perfect for shorter day hikes and passes through some astonishing terrain. The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is worth the effort but permits are required for overnight camping.
Just a bit north of the Wildlife Refuge is the Sopchoppy River. This river flows through the Apalachicola National Forrest and the Bradwell Bay Wilderness through the town of Sopchoppy. Bradwell Bay is not a “Bay” in the common sense; it is more of a recess land surrounded by hills and is mostly swampland. This is a beautiful area but keep an eye on water levels or it can be a very wet hike.