Tucked in amongst the spiky saw palmettos beneath a canopy of spindly slash pines, I erect the tent on a patch of golden grass and unload my gear. A handful of other hikers arrive and pitch nearby. I grab my new trail buddy, Boxcar (that’s his trail name), and we trundle over the sawgrass prairie to the dome of cypress trees a few hundred feet west.
Twenty feet across, the limestone sinkhole, also known as a “gator hole,” thankfully holds water. Dark and stagnant, it is liquid nonetheless, and we’re relieved to find it. Easing to the squishy edge, my friend squats and dips his hydration bag in the water. I stand guard over his shoulder, observing keenly for, yes, you guessed it, alligators.
As Boxcar scoops and I scope, the words from the Florida Trail Guide swirl through my head: “Avoid collecting or filtering water on the edge of a body of water between dusk and dawn, when an alligator could mistake your bent-over body or kneeling form for a deer.”
It has been a dry winter in South Florida, forcing alligators and other wildlife to seek out sinkholes like this one. Dying an awful death in the jaws of Alligator mississippiensi in a swampy wilderness over a couple liters of water isn’t part of my plan, but with each of us standing sentry, as we dutifully would over the course of the 700 miles we’d end up hiking together, we finish and retreat to camp in the twilight of this first day on the trail, survivors.
The Florida Trail is one of eleven long footpaths in the US designated by Congress under the National Trails Systems Act as “national scenic trails,” and beginning with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in 1968, the law launched a concerted effort to preserve and protect special natural places and promote their enjoyment and appreciation. The Florida Trail was honored with this distinction in 1983, becoming part of what today amounts to some 19,000 miles of non-motorized recreational trail miles that have been authorized.
Owing to its subtropical and tropical climate zones, the Florida Trail is the only long-distance trail in the US that’s suitable for hiking in wintertime, when it’s sunny, dry and cool and there’s no real need for thick layers of down and fleece. And that makes it an obvious draw for hikers from far and wide looking to log some long mild-weather miles between October and April, the prime time for hiking Florida.
Starting from the edge of the Everglades, the Florida Trail strikes northbound through the rural interior heart of Florida, avoiding the populous coastlines. There are big loops around Lake Okeechobee and the Orlando metropolitan area, and an alternate finish leading to the Alabama border, plus several other side trails. Altogether, the Florida Trail system includes 1,400 miles of hiking possibilities. A thru-hiker will cover 1,100 miles end-to-end on the journey from Big Cypress to the northern terminus at Fort Pickens on Pensacola Bay.
For me personally, Florida never held much appeal. I visited Orlando once and did the theme park thing, and returned again for a bit of carousing in Key West. Other than that, though, forget about it. The state 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.
It was early March 2015 on my way south from Maine to begin a second AT thru-hike when 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 sunshine, which we found in abundance during a week of camping and hiking at Gulf Islands National Seashore and Apalachicola National Forest, each of which contains chunks of the Florida Trail.
The brilliant white sand beaches, the deep woods of pines and oaks and palms, the dark and swampy thickets and the savannahs of long grass and saw palmetto, all of these wild landscapes were so unfamiliar to my experience that I completely fell for Florida, and knew full well that I’d have to come back for more. I mean, c’mon, with alligators, venomous snakes, panthers and bears and wild hogs, skeeters galore, poison ivy and oak and sumac and the even nastier poisonwood, what could possibly go wrong?
At sunrise on the third morning, I stepped away from Oak Hill, a damp clump of oaks just inches above the surrounding swamplands, and waded into the water, knee deep at first, then thigh high and finally, a mile or so ahead, up to my waist in the infamous “Black Lagoon.” Snakes were front and center on my mind, and it wasn’t long before I stepped over one cottonmouth and then another, each curled around the tree roots I crawled over. I never saw either one, but rather was alerted by hikers immediately behind me. Yikes.
There was no dry ground for miles, just a meandering route through the swamp marked with faded orange paint on cypress trunks. For the first person in line, the water was crystal clear, but as it got churned up by subsequent hikers, the “trail” became a gray slurry of mud. The thick shoe-sucking marl slowed forward progress to a mile an hour, and with nowhere to stop and rest, you just slogged on hour after hour and ate whatever was stuffed in your pockets.
Big Cypress is a wild country of huge blue skies and puffy clouds, skeletal stands of needleless cypress hung with strange looking clumps of green air plants, and miles of quietude. You can look around and enjoy the surroundings occasionally, yes, but to make any progress you have to focus on the task at hand. Unseen solution holes in the underlying limestone are a constant objective danger, and you wished only that when your foot gets suddenly caught in one that you’ll only fall over in the muck and not break an ankle or leg.
Our bedraggled group of hikers emerged from the Big Cypress swamps at a rest area on Interstate 75 (aka Alligator Alley), where we cleaned out the vending machines of sodas, chips and chocolate bars, then commandeered the restrooms to wash our bodies and clothes and empty boots of the silty mud.
At sundown, we set off again on a narrow old road between two canals covered with green slime and lined with jungle-like growth. That’s when I nearly stepped on a monstrous alligator in the thick grass just inches from the path. I screamed and jumped, my hiking buddies laughed hysterically, and it was several more cautious miles until my heartbeat returned to normal.
Beyond, amid the grasslands, sugar cane fields and pastures of cattle, we walked atop levees along a confusing system of canals that drained Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest. Thrilled to be free of the swamp, it seemed like a good idea to camp cowboy-style out in the wide open. Ten minutes after watching a breathtaking sunset, however, millions of mosquitoes emerged from the surrounding waters and a frantic, bloody slap-fest ensued as we hurriedly erected the tents to escape the ferocious attack. Lesson learned.
Boxcar and I finally stumbled into the hardscrabble town of Clewiston at the 100-mile mark, grabbed a bag of burgers and fries and a six-pack to go and collapsed exhausted in a questionable motel room at the conclusion of what had been quite the introductory week. Welcome to thru-hiking the Florida Trail, we thought.
In the summer of 1961, twenty-something Miami resident Jim Kern, considered the father of the Florida Trail, joined his brother for an overnight hiking adventure on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. Equipped only with blankets tied up with cans of food and no maps, the ill-prepared duo had a miserable time of it. But the spark had been kindled for the inexperienced Kern, and he returned home wondering about places to hike and backpack in Florida.
Casting about, Kern did find trails, but nothing more than a half-mile long. That’s when he decided to start a long hiking trail, and the idea of the Florida Trail was born. Kern founded the Florida Trail Association, enlisted the media support of the Miami Herald, and set out to hike 160 miles from Highway 41 (now Big Cypress) to Highlands Hammock State Park, concocting a route as he went.
Owing to the paper’s cover story on his hike, Kern’s publicity stunt was a huge success, and in just a few months, the FTA had recruited seventy members and the Florida Trail project was underway in earnest. The group scoured likely locations for a trail, focusing on existing state and federal conservation lands, and in just ten short years, identified, secured and built a critical mass of through-trail segments from one end of the state to the other, about 800 miles all told. This left about 300 miles of the Florida Trail on roads of some sort, “gaps” that ranged from busy paved highways to quiet gravel lanes, a situation that still largely exists today. Progress has been made, albeit slowly, with private landowner successes as well as setbacks.
On the north side of Lake Okeechobee, heading into the Kissimmee River floodplains, I encountered Route 70 and the first sustained stretch of highway walking. Beyond River Ranch, a shoulder-less bridge crossing and white-knuckle tramping along Route 60 replete with citrus and pulp trucks and heavy traffic speeding past just an elbow away are 6 miles I wouldn’t care to repeat.
To get through the Orlando metro area—its sprawl extends across the middle of the state nearly from coast to coast—road walking simply cannot be avoided. But thanks to a handful of detours onto bicycle and pedestrian pathways, however, and an abundance of fast food joints and convenience stores, the journey around Florida’s third largest city turned out to be a rather enjoyable affair.
The Florida Trail road gaps are a necessary part of the long-distance experience and take some getting used to. But you do eventually, and gain an appreciation for the rural parts of the state you wouldn’t see any other way, the ranches, orchards, farms and most especially the lovely local people who live and work along the way.
At Clearwater Lake in Ocala National Forest, Jim Kern and his volunteers painted the first orange Florida Trail blaze in late 1966. Three years later, a 26-mile section was opened between here and Route 40, a stretch that remains intact today and serves as a testament to the vision and determination of Florida’s hiking community who created this gift for the citizens of the Sunshine State and the nation. The hike through Ocala is perhaps the trail’s finest 72 miles, a leisurely way through orderly stands of longleaf pine and the largest sand pine forest in the world, along wetland prairies, blue lakes and little ponds, and past a host of bubbling warm springs that is over all too quickly.
North of Ocala, the Florida Trail begins its westerly arc toward the Panhandle and soon reaches the Suwannee River, and for the better part of a glorious week I hiked and camped along its winding, coffee-colored waters. Spring arrived abruptly on the Suwannee leg, and as the maples leafed out and the white lilies bloomed, I strolled happily on humming the old Stephen Foster tune, “Old Folks at Home:” “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away….”
Emerging onto the pavement of US 98 after several days in the thick cover of the Aucilla River drainage, my hiking partner got a call from home about a family emergency. And just like that, he hitched east to find the nearest bus station, while I walked away west into St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. That evening in camp, I fended off two large, aggressive feral hogs, and the next day, padded through the salt marshes on grassy dikes lined with alligators sunning on the muddy banks. The trail abruptly ends at the St. Johns River, where the only way across is to hail down a passing boater. It took a good half-hour of frenetic waving before a young man in his skiff motored over and deposited me on the far shore at the marina crab shack. Two dozen of the best raw oysters I’d ever eaten matched with several cold beers and I was ready to move on.
In the days ahead, I sauntered through cathedrals of cabbage palms, tiptoed around rattlesnakes in the dry hardwoods, waded up to my chest for miles in the dark titi swamps of Bradwell Bay in the unpleasant company of water moccasins, and ambled in awe of the slender pitcher plants that graced the pine-dotted Apalachicola meadows. In a place called Pine Log, emerging onto a smoky old road surrounded by erupting walls of flame, I stood bewildered for a few moments until a forestry crewman on an ATV appeared out of nowhere just in time to rescue me from the prescribed burn.
The sunsets and smiles, campsites and companions, blisters and big sky views of every long journey on foot tend to meld together in time, and it was no different on the Florida Trail. Alone for weeks now, seduced by the comforting daily rhythm of simply putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end, I realized quite suddenly one day on a long, rainy road walk that a whole lot more miles were behind me than remained ahead.
Soon after the bluffs and ravines and clear sandy-bottomed creeks in the unlikely wildlands on the northern fringes of Eglin Air Force Base, I crossed the arching bridge over Santa Rosa Sound and stepped barefooted onto the blinding white quartz beaches at Navarre. The final 30 miles of the Florida Trail and its incredible biodiversity tour lead west along the barrier island of Santa Rosa, a pleasant stretch of brilliant sands, grassy dunes, soothing surf and squawking gulls interspersed with pathways and sidewalks weaving through beachfront hamlets busy with spring breakers.
At Gulf Islands National Seashore on the afternoon of my 72nd day, tired, windblown, sunburned and caked with salty sweat, I wandered hand in hand with my wife down a wide gravelly corridor overhung with scraggly pines. Passing the northern terminus monument, I stopped at the sign looking out across historic Fort Pickens to the Gulf of Mexico, and there, put a period—better, an exclamation mark—on the end of an unforgettable adventure.