Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Florida Trail Thru-Hike

Me and Scott last March on the Florida Trail at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

We are hittin' the trail again! And we're going big. 1,100 miles big. This winter we are leaving the snowy lands of the Northeast and journeying to the Land of the Flora, where we will thru-hike the Florida Trail, all 1,100 miles of it from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens near Pensacola. I have stalled on this post because I have been feeling that oh-so-familiar blend of excitement and apprehension, and have been pondering just how to put into words the journey we plan to undertake. 

Allow me to begin by giving you some background on this trail. This trail was first cut through the Ocala National Forest in 1964, dreamed up and proposed by a man named Jim Kern. Supported by the Florida Trail Association and the Florida Trail Alliance, it has come a long way since then, with just 300 miles of road-walk remaining along its route. Including side trails and alternate routes, it is a trail network now encompassing 1,400 miles, although a thru-hike consists of 1,100 miles from end to end. Despite its magnitude, few people outside of the long-distance hiking subculture are aware of its existence and even fewer set out to hike it. To put it in perspective, nearly 4,000 people attempt the Appalachian Trail each year...a mere 5 to 20 people attempt the Florida Trail each year. 15,000 people have completed the AT since its creation, however only 254 people have completed the Florida Trail, and of those people, only 160 of them were thru-hikers. We hope to bring that number to 162. 

Trail through Big Cypress National Preserve - photo credit Brian Kaprowski (flicker)

We chose the Florida Trail for a number of reasons. Firstly, we wanted to pick a region in which we were unfamiliar. As I have on my previous hikes, I will be researching the wild plants that we encounter. We will by all means be strangers in a strange land, but there is nothing more wondrous than meeting a plant for the first time. We are hoping to learn an assortment of these plants well, including their ethnobotanical uses in both food and medicine. Secondly, We are interested in these trails less traveled. Here is solitude and wilderness and the opportunity for creative thought to percolate. As we travel through small towns along the trail too, we will mingle with locals and similar to the Long Path, likely people who know nothing of the trail. We look forward to experiencing these tiny towns as well as some of the big ones with lots of amenities like restaurants, laundromats, hotels, and grocery stores - gems for the thru-hiker! Thirdly, where else can you go hiking in Winter? Comfortably that is. 

Latana camara

We are planning to begin mid-December in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress is a highly protected part of the Everglades, encompassing over 700,000 acres of biodiverse freshwater swamp. Therein are plants that I have never encountered, but of which I have tried hard to conjure images when reading about them. This past spring I read for the second time John Muir's journals documenting his tribulations in the Everglades, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. He described otherworldly beauty and walking more difficult than he had ever imagined...he also contracted malaria. I am hoping for a better outcome for us. He was not following trail, but rather clawing his way through Mangrove thickets never explored. We on the other hand, will be afforded the luxury of the Florida Trail, however we will likely be doing more wading than hiking. The first 30 miles are swamp, of which roughly 10 miles are guaranteed to be under water, with depths reaching ankle- to thigh-deep. We will share waters with snakes and gators and hookworms. But still, I am hoping when we get to our tussock for the evening and pitch camp, to do some botanizing.

Gators in mid-day sun

Once we emerge from the swamps, our hike should become easier as we make our way through the Seminole Reservation and around the western side of lake Okeechobee, with views of Sugarcane fields as far as the eye can see. We will walk the elaborate levee system that makes Florida habitable as we know it today. In Central Florida we will hit familiar turf, given that we hiked a week through this region last March, hiking through vast Saw Palmetto prairies, old growth Live Oak forests and beneath Palms that reach for the sky. 

Scott walking prairie through Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Scott walking amongst Live Oaks and Palms
Traveling northward we will then travel an eastern route around Orlando through yet more open prairies and Pine savannas, then through Palm hammocks, past old-growth Live Oak and Cypress trees, and beneath Long Leaf Pine, brushing shoulders with civilization along the way.

Live Oak draped in Spanish Moss
In the Ocala National Forest, where the first miles of the Florida Trail were laid, we'll trek for over 70 miles through sandhills, Pine flatwoods, and the world's largest Sand Pine scrub forest. Likely we will take a dip in one of its first-magnitude springs that are reportedly extraordinarily clear and filled with tiny bubbles. Just what the hiker ordered!

In Northeast Florida, we'll trek through another unique wilderness, Osceola National Forest, home to carnivorous Pitcher plants and Sundews. Connecting our route from Ocala and Osceola is a diverse array of terrain from bike paths to swamps to road-walks and forest roads through timberlands.

Sundew - a carnivorous plant
Along the Suwanee River are waterfalls and white sand beaches and further west along the trail is the Aucilla River dotted with sinkholes. Here in the Panhandle, we will begin our journey into the St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge and Apalachicola National Forest. At this point, our exact route through this portion is still questionable due to the damage wreaked by Hurricane Michael. Trail crews have been hard at work rehabilitating the trails and forest roads through these wilderness areas and as of now there are less than 100 miles of trail closed...a big leap from over 300 miles initially following the storm. It will surely be heart-wrenching to see the destruction this storm has left in its wake.

If all goes as planned, nearly three months into our trek, we will wander through a number of small towns and natural areas along the Chipola River, cross into Central Time Zone, and tramp through old-growth forests in the Eglin Airforce Base, with permission of course, and finally reach its northern terminus on the beaches of Santa Rosa Island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. 

I hope that you will follow along with us on our journey. As always, I'll be posting regularly here at the blog. If you'd like to receive these posts by email, please type your address into the space provided beside "Follow by Email" on the righthand side of the page. These posts, as well as pictures, and videos will also be posted on our facebook pages: and Tune-in for botanical musings and muddy swamp trekkin' shenanigans!  

To learn more about the Florida Trail visit: and