Hiking the Florida Trail
Hikers hit the Florida Trail through Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa. [Photo: Douglas R. Clifford/St. Petersburg Times]
Hike the entire Florida Trail, almost 1,400 miles from the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Alabama border, and you'll miss only one thing: Mountains.
Take the three or four months to do the trail in a constant journey or break it up into daylong or weeklong sections as Sandra Friend has. She's notched 950 miles of the Florida Trail since 1999.
"Along the Suwannee River, (there are) awesome views, rugged karst, ancient trees. What gorgeous views," Friend says.
The views there and along many Florida trails are of one scenic resource the state does have in abundance: Water. At Suwannee, it's the lazy flat water of a very famous old man river. But it could be crystal clear pools with brilliant bromeliads or fresh water springs, sinkholes or roaring surf next to a white sand beach.
Friend, who grew up in New Jersey, doesn't mind swapping water views for mountain highs. "The nearest mountain I could see from my bedroom had the Appalachian Trail on it. My parents took me hiking plenty."
She does hit the mountains on occasion, but now Friend claims the Ocala National Forest with 200 miles of trails as her back yard. For more than 10 years she's spent her time and calf muscles hiking and celebrating our trails for books, trail guides and a website, floridahikes.com. Compared to the Great North Woods, she says, "Florida is so much more diverse and interesting. Everything changes with just a tiny bit of elevation."
The Florida Trail, begun in 1964, is now more than half as long as the Appalachian Trail. It winds from the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee and then splits, one route east of Orlando and one through the Green Swamp to join in the Ocala National Forest and then wend west across the Panhandle.
"There must be dozens of trails within 30 minutes of anywhere," says Deb Blick, a hiker on the staff of the Florida Trail Association. "Most residents zoom past. They never stop to think there's a beautiful trail right there," which makes Florida a wonderland of day hikes.