Hiking Adventures on the Florida Trail
More than 40 years ago, Miami resident Jim Kern returned from a trip on the Appalachian Trail and wondered why the Sunshine State didn't have its own long-distance hiking trail
Kern and some friends subsequently formed the Florida Trail Association and then set out to hike from Big Cypress National Preserve to Highlands Hammock State Park. In 1966, volunteers from the new organization painted the first blaze on a tree at Clearwater Lake in Ocala National Forest.
The 70-mile stretch of marked trail, the first section of the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, is still one of the most scenic trails in Florida.
The varied terrain, multitude of camping sites and frequent access points make this portion of the Florida Trail the guidepost by which all others must be measured.
The trail is well marked with orange blazes and signs. Side trails have blue blazes and turns are marked with two blazes. Boardwalks guide backpackers through wet portions and campsites are within easy walking distance of each other.
Three major springs – Alexander, Juniper and Salt – make for easy diversions, another reason why the Ocala segment has been christened "the crown jewel" of the Florida Trail system. The Ocala Trail can be done in segments. But there are dozens more major trails in Florida worth venturing to.
North Florida Trails
Backpackers can work their legs on these trails in Florida, as the terrain is hilly.
The trail through Torreya State Park located 12 miles north of Bristol, is one of the state's most unique. It overlooks the Apalachicola River and in some sections, has bluffs from 150 to nearly 300 feet high.
The seven-mile perimeter trail passes by dogwoods and cedars. The tree for which the park is named is native only to this area.
Other noteworthy Northwest Florida trails include sections of the Florida Trail that pass through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the eastern and western sections of Apalachicola National Forest.
Although no longer part of the Florida Trail, Bulow Creek State Park near Bunnell in northeast Florida offers backpackers a chance to step back in history. Acclaimed naturalist John James Audubon spent time on this former sugar plantation, the ruins of which are now a national historic site.
The Bulow Woods Trail, seven miles long, runs from Fairchild Oak in the park to the ruins. The trail passes through an old-growth oak hammock that contains some trees that are well over 200 years old.
In addition to the 70-mile trail through Ocala National Forest, North Florida has several other great overnight hikes. Osceola National Forest, east of Lake City, has 18 miles of well-marked trails that pass through pine flatwoods and cypress swamps.
Central Florida Trails
In Central Florida, the trail segments that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest can keep an intrepid trail walker busy for years.
With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge beginners as well as experts.
The Richloam Tract, 10 miles north of Dade City, has several combinations of five- to 10-mile loops. The Croom Tract, located east of Brooksville, has four loops that make good day hikes. The Citrus Tract, southwest of Inverness, offers four nested loops that can be combined for hikes of up to 40 miles.
South Florida Trails
In South Florida, Big Cypress National Preserve has one of the state's most challenging hikes. Encompassing more than 900 square miles of subtropical wilderness, Big Cypress is home to deer, black bear and the endangered Florida panther.
The southernmost terminus of the Florida Trail, Big Cypress can be divided into three sections for backpackers and hikers.
The trail from Loop Road to Highway 41, roughly 7 miles long, passes through stands of dwarf cypress and is moderately difficult during the dry months. The 28-mile stretch from U.S. 41 to I-75 is not for the casual hiker. The last section, an 8-mile segment from I-75 to the preserve's northern boundary, offers a loop trail perfect for a weekend backpack trip.