Reconsidering The Florida Trail As A Valuable Long Trail
This post I’ve been ruminating on for oh,
probably eight months now a year now (can you tell this has been sitting in my drafts folder for awhile?). It first started out with me a little upset that a hiking blog I followed was lamenting that their hike through a section of remote wilderness ended up being on a converted rails-to-trails section of trail rather than up and over mountains as they had initially thought, therefore the trail had been flat which had equated it to being boring.
yesterday six months ago or so, the Facebook group ‘Thru-Hiking’ reshared a photo from the Florida Trail Association and asked if anyone had thru-hiked the Florida Trail. Being an advocate for the trail I replied that yes I had and wished more folks took an interest in it. And then of course there were the smart-ass remarks about the ‘climbs’ and elevation from others. Since when do trails require a significant amount of elevation change to be valuable and interesting?
So, this post is one part about hiking/backpacking on flat trail and one part about the Florida Trail. Yes, it all intermingles somewhere, so you’ll have to excuse any rambling I end up going into.
Recently (this is actually an accurate ‘recently’!) I wrote and submitted an article to the Florida Trail Association’s Footprint magazine, the quarterly that comes with a Florida Trail membership. Though, since it seems it is now online I guess the general public can read it as well. My article is on page 15.
My reason for writing the article was mostly in response to some frustrations I encounter when I hear people talking negatively about the Florida Trail. This usually comes from people who haven’t hiked on the Florida Trail (FT) or anywhere in Florida before. Perhaps they hear something second hand from other hikers and draw their opinions based on that. Most recently on an episode of The Trail Show, the FT was briefly brought up as an alternative for a trek during the winter time when someone wrote in asking what adventure they could do in a narrow window during winter, but then it was quickly eschewed as uninteresting or boring due to its lack in terrain. I’d have to go back through the podcast to get the exact wording, but they certainly weren’t words that would entice anyone to hike the Florida Trail.
Let’s face it, the Florida Trail is the red-headed stepchild of the National Trails System.
While I certainly don’t believe the Florida Trail is going to be every hiker’s favorite long distance hiking trail, it doesn’t deserve the berating and belittlement by the hiking community that it gets. Moreover, I also don’t think that its thru-hikers, sections hikers, or its maintainers and the Florida Trail organization as a whole do enough to promote it as a thru-hiking trail. It is probably rough of me to say that, and I’m certainly generalizing on that statement, but it is a frustration I feel.
Or, maybe I’m not the only one. Also in the recent magazine was an interview with the Florida Trail founder Jim Kern. His interview begins on page 22 and continues to page 31.
He says, “One more thing, Carlos, that I wanted to get across. There’s the discussion that I know has been going on, at some time or another, about the emphasis on the Florida Trail corridor itself, and all the side trails that we’ve built over the years. I remember I was in Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, and I saw a sign there that said, ‘This trail built by the Florida Trail Association’. And I was very proud of that fact. But there’s a big caveat here; there’s only so much energy, so much time, and so much money. The thing that is going to capture the imagination of Floridians, whose vote we need for things that we want for the trail, ultimately, and also visitors who come to Florida and are into exercise and health and hiking, is the Florida Trail. They want to know where the Florida Trail is.
They don’t care so much about some little blue-blazed trail over in the Withlacoochee State Forest. When I drive north I want to set foot on the Appalachian Trail. You tell me there’s some little trail in Pennsylvania that goes from Blaine to Harrisburg, and I’m not really as interested. That’s my thought about that. Therefore I think the overwhelming emphasis ought to be on the Florida Trail. And I’m not so close to it, so I don’t know, but I have the impression that a huge amount of time and energy has instead gone into side trails.
There may be reasons for this, and maybe side trails are closer to population centers. So, you know, the wisdom of the Board has to figure this out. But obviously the money, which trails back to the Forest Service, is connected to Congress, which is connected to the Florida Trail. That’s where the money is. And that’s where the vision is. People, if they hear that there’s hiking in Florida, should hear two things: One, we have a winter trail. And two, it’s called the Florida Trail. That’s what they want to do, that’s where they want to go. And I hope the Board doesn’t lose sight of that. It’s very important.”
When I read those paragraphs I was a bit hopeful, that someone else was realizing what I was realizing. It was something I felt when we were thru-hiking ourselves and encountered people out on section hikes. There was no concept of what the trail needed from a thru-hiker’s vantage point. As for his mention about side trails (though the one(s) in Withlacoochee is very nice, we hiked a large loop in prep for the AT) I remember being in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park near Naples once and seeing orange blazes on one of their old logging tram trails. It was the only one blazed out there and after inquiring with Mike Owen, the biologist and ranger for the park, I found out that at the time the FTA maintained that trail. It seemed quite odd to me then as the actual Florida Trail was many miles east of there. I have no idea if that is still maintained by them or not.
This is all probably easy for me to say as someone who first did day hikes and a couple of longer overnights on the trail before thru-hiking it, and as someone who has not done trail maintenance for the trail. However, I think I’ve tried to at least write about the compelling parts of the trail here on the blog. And its one of the reasons I’m still slogging away at the book about the trail…there’s just not enough coverage on thru-hiking the Florida Trail out there.
All of this is coupled with what has seemed to be some tenuous times for the FTA that I’ve noticed in the last year. As I’m not actively involved with the local groups since we now live out of state, I get most of my news about the trail through a couple of active members on Facebook and through Sandra Friend’s Florida Hikes! blog.
The first issue I noticed was last spring with the closure of the trail near Bluff Hammock close to the Kissimmee River in central Florida. When we’d gone through, now almost three years ago, the only issues with boardwalks in this area were easily avoidable, just skipping over a few planks or getting down and avoiding a few bog bridges that were in disrepair. When we finished our hike I wrote the FTA with a list of issues we’d noticed in an effort for them to reach out to their local chapters so they could figure out where maintenance needed to be done. I never received a reply so I figured it went out into the ether. So, imagine my frustration and anger when I heard about the closures when at that point it had been two years since we’d come through. I couldn’t help but wonder if attention had been paid to the trail during that time instead of postponing it, the trail wouldn’t have been in the situation it is in now. (Again, I’m writing this as an outsider with no clue as to the inner workers of permissions from landowners/funding etc. But at that point it seemed like only minor repairs needed to be made.) Now it is late December and that entire section of trail has been rerouted to stay east of the Kissimmmee River and go through Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPPSP), bypassing Hickory Hammock and Avon Park Bombing Range, until it reaches the S-65A lock to cross the river. Which by the way, the lock isn’t quite ready for thru-hikers to cross….during thru-hiker season. What??? (Thankfully there’s a trail angel who has been kind enough to assist hikers with a drive around this to avoid a very long roadwalk. Her information is in the link a few sentences above.)
The numbers tossed around on Facebook was that the repairs were going to be upwards of a million dollars for all of the bridges and bog boards to be repaired or rebuilt in order get through a few sloughs in that area. Which…if you are doing maintenance on a regular basis, wouldn’t this be preventable? Or am I just far too optimistic? I don’t mind that the trail has been moved to KPPSP, that’s probably the red-headed stepchild of the Florida park system. It is freakin’ beautiful and is insanely quiet because no one goes to it as it is located in the middle of the state. However, losing the hiking in the Hickory Hammock/Bluff Hammock area is a big loss just as well.
And that’s just the start. As you will see on page 5 of the magazine is an announcement that Deb Blick, an integral part of the Florida Trail Association, was laid off from her position due to lack of grant funding and then lack of internal funding from the FTA itself. And it continues to be dire when you read on page 6 the message from the VP of Trails and continue on to the VP of Membership’s report. Of course the need is money, but what organization doesn’t need money. But, when the general hiking community continues to have a negative viewpoint on the Florida Trail, and the outdoor recreation users in Florida don’t even know there’s a long distance trail in their state, what do you expect?
There’s not much I can do living out of state. I can give more money as I have it available in my personal budget and I can write about it here in my blog, and hopefully via my book which is getting closer to being completed. I can be the Florida Trail’s cheerleader from afar.
(And the FTA is hardly the only trail association having money woes. The Continental Divide Trail’s CDTA dissolved in 2012. Now, there are other groups filling this niche, but I wonder what kind of clout they will have to get through red-tape?)
Now, to put to rest the fears or rumors out there that I think dissuade folks into thru-hiking it. They are: lack of terrain (which I think equates to lack of beauty), water and swamp walking, and finally the amount of road walking involved.
Lack of Terrain (therefore Lack of Beauty):
Florida is flat, or at least flatter in comparison to any of the other big three long distance trails. Get over it. Enough with the snide remarks about no mountains or flat is boring, the simple truth about the trail is, it is generally terrain deficient. But lacking in terrain doesn’t mean it doesn’t lack in beauty. Are some parts less stunning than others? Yes. I wouldn’t say that walking next to sugar cane fields is all that exciting, but on the other hand during that time of year there are a lot of migratory birds in the area which provides an opportunity to see these species. Call it looking on the bright side, but there is some beauty in walking adjacent to sugar cane fields.
Florida has a variety of habitats and the trail crosses many of these; wet prairie, dry prairie, cypress sloughs (with orchids!), hardwood hammocks, palmetto thickets, baygall/titi sloughs, cabbage palm forests, and dune scrub to name a few. The ecosystems present along the trail are often times in peril. Habitats endangered due to a variety of reasons, most often due to encroaching development. Not only that, Florida has a unique and interesting history, considering the state is the home to the oldest European settlement in the U.S. (St. Augustine), there’s a lot of history with tribes (Seminole, Miccosukee, Tequesta, Calusa to name a few), the destruction of the Everglades and its long trek to recovery, and many little facets of history unique to particular regions (such as the turpentine industry in the north, or the Florida cracker cattlemen).
No, there are not vistas at the top of a mountain, but there are subtle vistas mixed amongst the landscape. Sometimes it means appreciating the sunset through its rays that are scattered through the pine trees, other times it is appreciating the unique flora and fauna in the area, such as the resurrection fern adoring the limbs of live oaks in a hardwood hammock alongside drapes of Spanish moss. It’s seeing bromeliads poking up and blooming all over the state, finding a scrub jay in a scrub habitat, or encountering a bear in central Florida.
With the lack of terrain, you make up for in being able to hike longer and farther once you get your trail legs. Instead of going up and down mountains all day, you can set your cruise control and just walk, focusing on the trail instead of huffing and puffing along the way up a mountain. Maybe you cover more miles in the morning and take a longer break somewhere relaxing in the middle of the day, say next to a spring or a pond.
The Whole Trail is a Swamp:
Not true. Are there some wet sections? Yes. Do you have stream crossings? Yes, like any other trail. Maybe this can be equated to the ‘Pennsylvania is all rocks’ statement on the AT…are there some rocks? Yes. Is the entire AT in Pennsylvania rocky? No. (BTW, all of Virginia isn’t flat either.)
This is probably the biggest fear of anyone who has asked me about the Florida Trail. If the entire trail was wet, there’s no way we would have hiked it in almost eight weeks. Yes, Florida has wetlands but the trail doesn’t go through every one of them. There’s also a reason you hike the trail in Dec-March, this is the beginning of the dry season in Florida. Other times of the year you could encounter more water than you would in winter, and if you start too early in December you may end up with a bit more water than you would in January or February. Plan accordingly.
It helps to know these wet sections beforehand and to mentally prepare for them, but this isn’t 1,000 miles of water to cross the Land of Flowers. Maybe people just need to be more truthful about the wet sections, instead of either glamorizing the wet sections or freaking people the hell out about it. So, here they are, the ‘biggie’ wet sections:
Big Cypress National Preserve: You’re in luck, now that the official start of the trail is on U.S. 41 instead of Loop Road you get to cut out about two miles of wet trail. I thought that section was nice though, as you see an ancient cypress dome complete with orchids and bromeliads. It is pretty awesome…but now you don’t have to walk through it with the southern terminus changed. Then, the other part of Big Cypress to think about is last 8 miles of the trail, more-or-less depending on how soon the dry season starts.
Occasionally you can find more water than normal in Big Cypress, but in a general year, only the north section is really wet. And by really wet, it is mostly an inch to ankle deep, some muddy sloshing, one deeper slough of about knee to mid-thigh near Oak Hill campsite that is maybe a hundred yards long, and then returning to muddy sloshing. I’ve been in that north section when it wasn’t wet and you couldn’t even find water to pump, so take that into account for drought years.
Chandler Slough: 0.5 miles-ish, and you even get a pass here, with a white-blaze high water option routing you to a roadwalk. (Actually, looking at this on the trail map this section may have been removed.)
Bradwell Bay: 7 miles in the heart of Apalachicola National Forest. I can’t speak for this spot as we didn’t have to walk here due to a controlled burn closing the area to hikers, but from what I’ve read, I think this is another area that people are scared of. And I’ll be one to say I think it is a bad option for a thru-hike. When it is written that the depth of the water is waist deep and deeper on those of short stature, this scares people (I quote from the guidebook: “It’s not unusual to wade through water as deep as a tall man’s chest”.) Who wants to hike in deep water with a full pack of gear, and during the winter when the water is colder? No one. This leads me to believe that thru-hikers aren’t always thought about when building trail through these areas. This area sounds like a great day or single overnight adventure, but not thru-hike material.
Other areas: Um, that’s it for the major stuff. Yes, there are areas that are sloshy, places you have to cross streams and small creeks, but what other long distance trail doesn’t do that? The Appalachian Trail is often called the Appalachian River during rain events….come on folks! And often there are bog boards or small bridges to help you out in sloughs and creeks. If not, take your shoes off and go barefoot or put on your wading shoes. You shouldn’t be afraid of water crossing any more than you would be on any other long distance trail. Just be a bit more prepared for some of the other sections and know you will go slower than normal. Also, use your topo maps (buy the maps, they are worthwhile!) and see where any marshes may be located.
This will be a fact of life on this trail until agreements can be made with private landowners to reroute the trail off the roads. Unfortunately I see this as being a long time coming due to budget cuts and dwindling money within the association. Strides are being made, but they are slow going. It is still a developing trail after all. I think people who had done the AT and PCT in recent years are spoiled a bit by the fact their trails are all mostly in the woods. It would behoove them to remember that those trails were in development once as well and weren’t always in the forest.
Road walking can be interesting at times, and dangerous at other times. Often you’ll end up walking in the grassy shoulder which sometimes isn’t very level. Other times you might be lucky enough to have a wide cement shoulder which allows you to walk in relative safety from oncoming traffic. I say relative, there are idiot drivers out there and they don’t always see or expect someone on the side of the road.
I’ve never counted up the actual miles of roadwalking there is but I’d say the total might be around 300 (someone correct me with the total number if you have it). That number seems large by itself, but remember it is all interspersed. There are two longer roadwalks in the Panhandle where private lands are more interspersed between the public connector lands, and the problems here are the need to stealth camp. To break up a 40+ mile roadwalk from Apalachicola National Forest to Econfina Creek Water Management Area we stayed overnight in Blountstown and then did a 30 mile day the following day. (But, looking at the map again, I think they changed the route up a little to detour to an Upper Chipola River Water Management Area parcel, which would help that walk a lot!)
The Take Home Message
The Florida Trail is in development, and it needs more backpackers out on the trail enjoying it. There’s a diverse landscape to enjoy and it certainly isn’t a boring or uneventful trail. It is quiet, if you are looking for solitude. There are no crowds, no people around a shelter at night sharing stories. That took a little getting used to after months on the AT, but by the end of the FT and we encountered a couple of overnight groups, we were spoiled by nearly two months of camping alone.
It’s a great trail if you’ve only got two months to spare and are looking for something to do in the winter. If you live in Florida, start section hiking it. Don’t compare it to other trails and accept that it is a unique trail. If you don’t know anything about Florida, get a wildlife and plant guide to help you identify your surroundings, it will make you appreciate the hike even more.
I hope I haven’t gone too crazy here, and I know the post was long, but it has been bothering me for some time. I loved Florida—still love Florida, it is an awesome state that has much more than white sand beaches and the glitz of Miami.
Now, go take a hike somewhere near where you live and next time you hear about the Florida Trail, don’t bad mouth it without having a little bit of knowledge beforehand. (If you actually hiked the FT and hated it, I’d love to know why!)
Happy Trails, friends!
About 4 years ago I moved to be with my fiancé (now my wife) to Maryland, near DC. I have hiked in many states. I have seen more wildlife in Florida than just about anywhere else I have hiked/backpacked. The exception being Yellowstone and Grand Teton. I have hiked and finished 5 states on the Appalachian Trail. There are vistas along the way but the whole trail is not all mountain views. I remember when the balds in North Carolina were cleared just for the views. For many years, the views were not available. I can see 15 different orchards in Fakahatchee that do not exist anywhere else in the world. I also saw a spider, with a body the size of my fist, eating a frog. Where else could you see this. The views along the Suwannee River, on the FT, were amazing. As for lack of terrain, well, they have never pushed a mowed up and down all the hills along the Suwannee. The views from some of the bluffs along the Suwannee are amazing. Since I first hiked the Suwannee, development along the river has pushed more than 50% of the trail off the river and around houses. The Kissimmee River section was great. But, that was when we had a land manager that promoted the FTA. The history in the area was amazing. The cemetery outside Ft Kissimmee and all the cow dips along the way. The section in Big Cypress National Preserve between Oasis Visitor Center and Loop Road was set up originally to be compass hike down to Roberts Lake Strand and then you turn left on the old tramway (I found an old spike there and gave it to Dade County Historic Museum. The National Park was not interested at that time.) The popularity of this section had us blaze the trail. Did you know that we also had a side trail from the loop road campsite over to the Environmental Ed Center on Loop Road? That has long been abandoned. The hiking along Gulf Islands National Seashore is much better than any other hiking on a beach than any other state. Seeing the fields of wildflowers on the Jackson Red Bluff Trail (now part of FT) in Spring were worth the long trip out to the panhandle each year. You mentioned water chest deep in Bradwell Bay. That was in a rainy season before Monkey Creek bridge was built. I waded through there back then. But, the Florida Trail keeps growing and improving. Bradwell Bay is full of bear. One year I went with Randy Cullum tracking bear. In the 2000 years, the one thing I disagreed with the FTA on way not promoting volunteers as much as they use to. This was particularly true in the “Footprint”. I miss Florida. I am heading back in January just to do a hike in Big Cypress. There is so much to see and do.
This is an incredible article. I moved from South Florida in 2011 to Upstate SC. The hiking here in the mountains is gorgeous, agreed. However, my time on the Florida trails and parks continue to be my “happy places”. I never through-hiked the FT but spent many happy times at places like Bluff Hammock, Hickory Hammock, FT south of River Ranch, Nobles Rd Loop and many more. Sloughing through south of the Tamiami Trail going only by compass readings for 8 hours. Biking Shark Valley first thing in the morning, sleeping in a CCC cabin at Myakka State Park, going to sleep hearing barred owls and waking to deer at the front porch, biking Birch State Park 365 days a year seeing birds, gopher tortoises and of course, iguanas the size of my leg. People who poo-poo FT have never tried the FT. Armadillos at my feet, orchids everywhere, flowers all year long – these are things I miss. And yes, I survived the alligators and the snakes, as did all my friends.
For the past few years, we have spent a month each winter visiting Florida. We hike a bit every day as we wander through the state. We backpacked the FT in the Ocala and have explored other sections of the FT on dayhikes. Before I actually experienced it, I thought Florida had little to offer to someone who loves mountains. I was wrong. Good weather, lots of birds and other wildlife, generally easy hiking, diverse environments — it is a very nice place to hike. I would love to do the FT as a thruhike, though right now that isn’t possible. Hopefully the trail will still be there when it is.
Thank you all for sharing your points of view and your ties to the Florida Trail! I love hearing stories—more, more!!
This is Paul Mags of the previously mentioned trail show. After seeing this blog post, a straw poll was done on both our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/trailshow) and various hiking forums. Seems to be an interest in the FT. Not only that, there were wildly divergent opinions on the trail..even among people who thru-hiked it! 🙂
Long story short, we’d like to make the Florida Trail our “Trail of Da Month” for February. We’d also wondering if you are interested in Skypeing with us for perhaps ~20m to discuss the Florida Trail. If you listened to our show, you know our style: Solid info leavened with just the teeniest bit of sarcasm. 😉
If any of this interests you, please contact me. We’d love to have you on the show to discuss the FT as our “Trail of Da Month”. We need to show the Florida Trail some love..and you seem to be the person to do it!
Let us know!
thank for the post. I appreciate the candidness.
I would like to through hike the FT someday and this post gives me encouragement (just lack the time).
I too love Florida.
I’m a volunteer with the FTA and maintain a section. I too have been thinking we do not market the trail enough. No one seems to know about the trail! it is a treasure and I fear budget cuts / loss of interest will affect the life of the trial.
thanks for the post