Backpack camping in Florida
By Lauren Tjaden
With varied terrain and tremendous ecological diversity, Florida provides hikers of every skill level a perfect backdrop for exercise and adventure. You can discover paths that meander by crystal clear springs, curve through quiet forests and reveal remote, sandy beaches. Here are some you don't want to miss.
Blackwater River State Forest
For spectacular scenery, hike the northernmost section of the Florida National Scenic Trail in Milton’s Blackwater River State Forest, situated northeast of Pensacola. Massive red clay bluffs tower above Juniper Creek, providing grand views as the path tracks the Blackwater River, its gleaming white beaches and large sandbars contrasting with the dark, tannic water that gives the river its name. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife that includes gopher tortoises, great blue herons, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and opossums.
Santa Rosa Island Beach Hike
Stroll back in time at the Florida National Scenic Trail’s northern terminus, located at imposing, historic Fort Pickens, built in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay. You’ll hike along Gulf Islands National Seashore on the only section of any National Scenic Trail that follows an ocean beach—and it’s a beauty, a wonderland of peaceful sugar-sand beaches and turquoise-hued waters. Remember plenty of water and sunscreen.
White Springs Area Trails
You’ll find some of Florida’s most popular and picturesque hiking close to the tiny, historic and utterly charming town of White Springs, located north and a smidge west of Lake City. If you’re looking for a weekend hike, pick a spot to camp on the Suwannee River’s pristine white-sand beaches. For a fantastic day hike, it doesn’t get better than the hiking trails at Big Shoals State Park. The Park offers 28 miles of trails, boasting views of Florida’s only major whitewater rapids.
Torreya State Park
About an hour west of Tallahassee, the small village of Bristol—in an area so remote it’s the only incorporated city in Liberty County—invites you to explore the natural beauty of Torreya State Park, along either the seven-mile, aptly named Torreya Challenge Loop or the six-mile Rock Creek Loop. If you’re an experienced hiker, you’ll love these demanding trails, nicknamed the "Mountains of Florida.” The trail promises blockbuster vistas of the Apalachicola River, which flows as much as 200-feet below. The endangered Torreya tree can be found here as can the rare Florida yew.
Florida Trail Ocala
A weeklong backpacking trip on the Florida Trail Ocala, the first, immensely popular section of the Florida National Scenic Trail in the Ocala National Forest, delivers 72 miles of uninterrupted wilderness hiking through sandhills, prairies, pine flatwoods, and the striking Big Scrub. Wildlife is abundant, including deer gopher, tortoises, scrub jays and black bears. Outside of the fall hunting season, camping is allowed wherever it suits you on the trail, unless it’s posted otherwise. No permits or fees apply.
Little Talbot Island
Situated north of Jacksonville, Little Talbot Island State Park is an untouched barrier island that offers age-old dunes, secluded beaches, generous wildlife viewing and a trail where you can discover them all. The Park’s four-mile-long Dune Ridge Trail wanders down sun-dappled, sandy paths through a mature maritime forest before it fades into rolling dunes, where you can hear the music of the surf. The path then tracks the pristine beach for two miles, with stretches of sand highlighted with the sun-bleached skeletons of trees, twisted natural sculptures that beg to be photographed.
Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State ParkThe Ravine Trail at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park is nestled roughly midway between Gainesville and Jacksonville on the rolling sandhills of Florida's Central Ridge. The Park’s four marked trails vary in duration from 10 minutes to two hours, showcasing wonders like the Devil’s Washbasin, also known as Deer Lake, a sheer -sided sinkhole fringed by a sand pine forest. A designated portion of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail, the Park features abundant populations of warblers, thrushes and other songbirds as well as wild turkeys, bald eagles and swallow-tailed kites.
Citrus Hiking Loop
Sited some 40 miles southwest of Ocala, the city of Inverness is a natural paradise fringed by dense forests and serene lakes. It promises more than 40 miles of Florida hiking trails via the Citrus Hiking Loop in the Withlacoochee State Forest, a series of loops that are perfect to train for long-distance backpacking. Day hikers can enjoy shorter loop hikes by utilizing cross trails with multiple access points. The terrain can be challenging, with rolling hills that ramble through oak thickets, fragrant longleaf pines, and eye-pleasing rocky hammocks.
Little Manatee River State Park
Nestled on the east side of Tampa Bay, Little Manatee River State Park- an aquatic preserve that offers a twisting river, equestrian trails, campsites, picnicking and fishing- is home to a premier hiking trail. Its rustic 6.5-mile stacked loop trail winds through the wilderness area encompassing the park’s northern half, showcasing its rare ecosystems that include riverine hammock and floodplains, scrubby flatwoods, pine forests and remnant sandhills as well as wildlife that includes red shoulder hawks, gopher tortoises and white-tail deer. You’ll want to bring your camera; the soaring bluffs of the river bank look across the Little Manatee River, a verdant, unspoiled blackwater river designated as an Outstanding Florida Waterway.
If you’re not feeling that ambitious, the Oxbow Nature Trail traces a one-mile loop along scrub ridges that fringe the river and an oxbow wetland. You have even more options: more than 15 miles of equestrian and multi-use trails bend through the southern half of the park.
Hillsborough River State Park
Mere minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tampa, historic Hillsborough River State Park boasts some of the best urban trails in the state. Choose from four mostly-easy hiking trails that total more than seven miles, curving through dense, age-old forests and alongside the river’s foaming whitewater rapids. The River Rapids Nature Trail begins at the ‘Prayer of the Woods’ sign and links to all the park’s trails except the Wetlands Trail.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
Located south of Orlando, Lake Kissimmee State Park hugs the shores of Kissimmee, Tiger and Rosalie Lakes, bringing Florida's heritage to vivid life with history demonstrations of the first Florida cow hunters in an 1876-era cow camp. It tempts hikers with 13 miles of trails that ramble through hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and freshwater marshland, which are home to wildlife that includes white-tailed deer, bobcat and wild pigs. Your options include an easy-peasy, half-mile self-guided nature trail, two loop trails and a spur trail out to the lake.
For an epic adventure, spend the night under the stars at one of the two backcountry campsites along the trails.
Flat Island Preserve
On the outskirts of Leesburg, you can discover the Daubenmire Trail in Flat Island Preserve, a 2,300-acre hideaway brimming with lush hardwood hammocks and uplands on an island surrounded by the Okahumpka Marsh. Built and maintained by volunteers from the Florida Trail Association, the 3.6-mile loop trail is lightly used and suitable for all skill levels. Birders take note: it’s one of the top spots for spotting feathered friends in all of Lake County.
Bulow Plantation Loop
You’ll find Bulow Creek State Park and Bulow Plantation Ruins State Park in Ormand Beach, nestled against the Atlantic in central Florida. The 6.8-mile Bulow Woods Trail connects the two parks, tracking an original Native American path that became a plantation road in the early 1800’s as it winds beneath a canopy of ancient, enormous live oaks. Make sure to take a selfie in front of the Fairchild Oak at the trail’s southern starting point; it’s estimated to be approximately 600 years old. Fun Fact: Naturalist John Audubon explored these forests while staying at Bulow Plantation in January of 1832 while working on his famed book, "Birds of America."
Big Cypress National Preserve
High adventure calls at this rugged and beautiful destination for hiking in Florida, regarded as one of the most unusual in the nation. Hidden deep in the backwoods of Ochopee— a city with a population of under 150 at last count- Big Cypress National Preserve encompasses the southernmost section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, with good access points at the Oasis Visitor Center on Highway 41 and the I-75 rest area near mile marker 63. Depending on rainfall and season, be prepared to hike in knee-deep water though miles of dwarf cypresses festooned with bromeliads and native orchids. Have your camera ready – this is one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered Florida panther.
Seabranch Preserve State Park
South of Martin County’s Stuart, heralded as the Sailfish Capital of the World, you can explore six miles of Seabranch Preserve State Park’s hiking trails as they weave through one of the last unspoiled scrub habitats in the southeastern United States. Keep your eyes out for bald eagles, swallowtail kites, and a park favorite, the gopher tortoise.
Jonathan Dickinson State Park
For a mesmerizing sub-tropical adventure, visit Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, some 25 miles north of West Palm Beach. You’ll discover a secret World War II training camp, learn the story of the shipwrecked Quaker merchant who’s the park’s namesake, and explore the stomping grounds and home of trapper and fur trader Trapper Nelson, the fabled Wild Man of the Loxahatchee. The park's extensive trail system offerings include the 1.5 mile Kitching Creek Nature Trail, festooned with glorious pink orchids and verdant ferns overlooking a meandering creek; and the Hobe Mountain Trail, a short boardwalk which leads to an observation tower, rewarding your walk with commanding views of the park.
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park contains over 2,400 gloriously pristine acres, one of the largest tracts of tropical West Indian hardwood hammock in all of the United States. Recognized as part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail as well as the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, it’s home to 84 federally listed species of plants and animals. You can discover its wonders on over six miles of nature trails, most of which are paved and accessible by wheelchair.
When You Go ...
Before setting out on your hike, be sure to check for any route changes or closures on the trail. For Florida National Scenic Trail hikes or hikes that are maintained by chapters of the Florida Trail Association, visit floridatrail.org. Printed section maps can also be obtained for a fee from the FTA, and always bring a compass. Check for resupply points and water stops before heading out on the trail, and bring adequate amounts of water along with you. For hikes within the boundaries of state parks visit www.floridastateparks.org for additional information.