Florida Trail: A Guide to Traveling the Sunshine State

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There is a lot more desert, and a lot more ecosystems hiking in Florida than most people think. Example: the Florida Trail, which crosses more than 2,500 kilometers of beaches, swamps, pine forests and meadows. Only about thirty people try to Hiking the Florida Trail each year, compared to the thousands of people who head for the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; if you want solitude, wildlife, and bragging rights this is a great trail for you. As a bonus, the Florida Trail is open year-round, with no worries of snow at its maximum elevation of 300 feet.

The 1,500-mile Florida National Scenic Trail stretches from the mangrove wetlands of Big Cypress National Reserve to the white sand beaches of Gulf Island National Seashore. Most hikers start from the south, where they can start on the warmer part of the trail. The first 24.6 miles pass through a subtropical cypress swamp, pine-studded islands and saw palmetto meadow. Camp at Seven Mile Camp and listen for wild turkeys, hawks and the distinctive call of a bobcat.

The next section climbs to a drier section of Big Cypress National Reserve, overlooking the lush marsh. There are three campsites along this stretch: Carpenter Camp, Panther Camp and CCC Camp. The next 40.3 miles run through similar terrain on the Seminole Tribe Reservation. From there, head to Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest lakes in the country at 730 square miles. This section of the trail follows canals and levees along the water. Shade can be hard to find here, but the scenic views of the lake (home to herons, sandhill cranes, and larks), palm tree hammocks, and sugar cane fields make up for it. Choose the east or west route along the lake; both are equally worth seeing. The two lake routes total approximately 90 miles.

After Okeechobee, head into the Marshall Swamp Jungle, where the Silver River’s floodplain stretches 32 miles through sandy islands of pine trees, hardwood forests, and swamps filled with huge trees and ferns . The next 40 miles mixes singletrack, bike trails and drives through old ranches, oak forests and historic towns. Passing through the Withlachoochee State Forest, the trail climbs up sandy hills dotted with campsites. Wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed along this 30-mile stretch; deer are the most common, but Florida panthers live here too.

Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve is along the route of the Florida Trail. (Photo: Mark Newman/The Photo Bank via Getty)

From there, the trail temporarily splits into east and west corridors. For the western portion, return to riparian swamps and hardwood forests for the next 50 kilometers, keeping an eye out for armadillos, bobcats, foxes, and alligators. The next section, in the eastern part of Green Swamp, where four of Florida’s major rivers begin. Some of the 25 miles of the swamp often require traversing cypress floodplains, so be prepared. The next 50 miles is a walk with no designated campsites, although there are several motels. For the eastern section, again leave the roads for the woods for 34 miles of parks and reserves, home to a 2,000-year-old cypress tree and a large population of black bears. The next section again mixes roads and trails for 30 miles, passing some of the tallest cypress trees in the state. Bald eagles also nest along this stretch. From there, return to the wilderness for 35 miles. In the spring, wild irises bloom across pine and cypress woods and along the edges of swampy areas. Switch to the rail trails for the next 37.7 miles, where the Allen Broussard Conservancy offers one of the few campsites along the route with a shower. Head to the wet meadows surrounding Lake Kissimmee, which are key wintering grounds for Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes. These 53 miles can be quite exposed so be prepared for sun, heat and storms. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, near the end of the section, became Florida’s first Dark Sky site in 2016.

The two routes come together when the trail leaves the prairie to follow the Kissimmee River for 33 miles. From there, jump down to the Suwanee River, one of the hilliest sections of the trail. The 71 miles parallel to the Suwanee include several waterfalls, a hot tub, and four primitive campsites. From Suwanee, travel 25 miles through the longleaf pine forest, prime Florida black bear habitat, then return to Suwanee and the white waters of the Big Shoals. The next section heads over rural roads and through pine forest for 23 miles. If you hike this area in February, listen for the artillery: the Civil War battle of Olustee is re-enacted here every year. Head for drier dunes for the next 70.2 miles, crossing the Central Florida Highlands. Other northern tree species are beginning to appear here, including poplars and dogwoods. Check out the blooming azaleas along the trail in the spring. The next 80 mile crossing Ocala National Forest, where the Florida Trail’s first blazes were painted. This section stays in the forested uplands home to black bears, armadillos and easter snakes. You can camp anywhere in the Ocala, but during hunting season it is recommended to stick to established sites. The last 339 miles of trail heads into the Florida Panhandle for the highest points and most of the trail’s climbs, including several miles of wandering through mountain laurel and wild azalea, pine forests that give way to estuaries filled with wildlife, and finally 25 miles of spectacular beach boardwalk at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

South Florida Pines and Wetlands in Palm Beach County
South Florida Pines and Wetlands in Palm Beach County (Photo: Lisa5201/E+ via Getty Images)

Florida Trail Skills: Follow the Flames

Most of the Florida Trail is marked by orange blazes, with each blaze in sight of the next. A double light indicates a turn, but the way the double light is made is not consistent throughout the course: in some places the top light is offset to indicate the direction of the turn, but in others it it’s not the case. You should be able to see the next fire from around the bend though, so look carefully before continuing. Don’t rely on traffic lights alone, especially in the pedestrian sections: bring a map and compass and, if you wish, a GPS device, and know your route before you set off.

A colorful sunset over the sea and dunes of Fort Pickens Beach in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida.
A colorful sunset over the sea and dunes of Fort Pickens Beach in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida. (Photo: lightphoto/iStock via Getty Images)

Equipment for the Florida Trail

The biggest concern on the Florida Trail is water, whether you’re wading through a cypress wetland or caught in an outdoor thunderstorm. Bring waterproof layers, both a jacket and pants, and waterproof gaiters and boots. Extra socks are also recommended in case the water gets too high or your feet’s waterproofing fails. Although winter temperatures can still reach 80 degrees, they can also drop below freezing at times; also be sure to add a light layer of insulation. Your tent should have a durable and proven flysheet.

Florida Trail permit

The Florida Trail Association requires hikers to notify them of their plans at least 30 days before beginning their hike. Although most of the trail does not require permits, a few sections, including the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Seminole Tribe Reservation, do require permits for travel or camping. Check the Florida Trail Association Data Book for the latest information on locations that require permits or reservations.

More hikers start the Florida Trail in the winter, especially January, and take two to three months to complete the entire route from south to north. This keeps the entire hike in Florida’s driest season and also avoids fall hunting season. You can day hike, section hike, or hike the Florida Trail any time of the year, but during hunting season be sure to bring light clothing and make noise . Florida summers are very hot and severe thunderstorms are common: if you’re hiking during the summer, make sure you have sunscreen and a sun hat, waterproof layers and a rescue plan if time becomes too difficult.

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