I’d been aware of the Florida Trail for many years, but hadn’t really put much thought into thru hiking it. Like the Alaskan tundra–I was happy to know it was there, but had no desire to actually venture out and immerse myself in that terrain. When planning a pedestrian adventure, I focus on a pretty narrow list of desirable traits. Alaska and Florida don’t get my pulse thumping the same way other areas do.
I had heard a few stories. Friends who had set out to hike the trail from end to end didn’t have very high praises to sing. There were complaints of long, paved road walk sections. Endless miles of trudging through mucky swamps. An elevation profile devoid of any apparent physical challenge.
During my 2017 thru hike of the FT, I found many of the warnings to be true. I also discovered many of the gems that Florida has to offer.
Being that Florida doesn’t have public lands the same way they do out west, a thru hiker is often forced to reroute along highways to avoid private property. These road walks aren’t the two-track dirt roads of the Continental Divide Trail, either…these roads have semi truck traffic.
I can’t remember where, but I once heard someone say that a thru hike is like a pearl necklace. Each trail is composed of a number of beautiful pearls, but they’re connected by unremarkable lengths of string. To reach the pearls, one has to endure the string…and just like a necklace, each route is unique in the distance between each pearl. The Appalachian Trail has smaller pearls, but they’re all packed tight together. The Pacific Crest Trail has larger pearls, with short sections of string to connect the dots. The Continental Divide Trail has HUGE pearls but also longer strings. Each necklace is beautiful, and one artists design isn’t necessarily better than other…they’re just different. With the Florida Trail, the pearls may not be as grand as the Sierra mountains or the Wind River Range, but they’re gorgeous just the same. It’s just the damn strings between them are so long!
What really made me fall in love with the Florida Trail is different than my love affair with Americas other trails. Being able to set out on a thru hike in January, when the rest of the country is draped in snow, was what initially won my heart. While everyone else was planning their spring/summer hikes in the depths of winter, I was able to venture out in short shorts and a tank top shirt to enjoy Florida’s mild climate. The unique ecosystems also piqued my interest, since I’d never traveled through swamps before. The only alligator I’d ever seen was in a zoo, and who wants a metal fence separating them the toothy jaws of a prehistoric relic? I wanted to get the crap scared out of me with close encounters of SWAMP MONSTERS!
My main objective for this years winter was AVOIDING THE COLD! Something snapped in me this year, and the thought of another dreary Northwest winter sent spurts of ice through my veins. I didn’t want to wear a rain jacket and insulating layers while I escaped the city. I had no desire to tromp around in snowshoes and a parka, bicycle while getting sprayed with slush, or run circles on pavement while the mountains above where socked in with feet of snow. I WANTED TO BE WARM IN THE SUN! The plan was to drive south. Farther south. Like, Mexico south. My partner and I found ourselves on the sandy beaches of the Baja Peninsula, eating cheap tacos where land meets sea, and doing our best to communicate with our limited Spanish. Here we enjoyed a respite from the cold, but gas strikes across the peninsula made fuel. Being in an RV, we were dependent on combustible fossil fuels. We decided that this was the universe gently pushing us back north, so after a week or so we drove back across the border. Back in the United States, we filled up our tank and scratched our heads in frustration. Now what? Mexico was a bust, so where else could we hide from winters icy grip?
That’s when the Florida Trail popped into my head. I had all my thru hiking gear with me, and Florida NEVER has snow! I had really been looking forward to a steady diet of questionable Mexican street food and long runs on the beach, but the timing was perfect for a thru hike in Florida. So off we went, first towards Gainesville to purchase some maps from the Florida Trail Association and then down to the Everglades to start walking north. Nothing like zero preparation before a 1,100 mile journey to up the adventure factor!
The official start of the FT is at the Oasis Visitors Center in the Big Cypress Everglades, but I had heard from my buddy Jupiter that I really needed to extend my hike and begin 8 miles south of there for a true Florida swamp experience. Getting dropped off on some dirt road 8 miles from the official beginning of this hike didn’t seem like much, but holy cats, that section was an eye opener. Within a couple of miles the trail became submerged in water, and the friggin’ snakes started popping up all around me in numbers I couldn’t believe. These weren’t the polite rattlesnakes we have out west, who give a friendly warning rattle when you get too close…these vipers were dead quiet and gave no indication that they were pissed at your presence. Every ten minutes I spotted a gaping white mouth, opened wide in defense and aggression. I even had one fatty SWIM TOWARDS ME! Nothing quite like frantically locating a stick to scoop up and launch a vicious snake to get your blood pumping. Teaching snakes how to fly…this was my introduction to the Florida Trail. I don’t even wanna talk about the river crossing with the alligator snout poking up near the only reasonable route across.
With Big Cypress Snake Breeding Reserve and Killer Gator Sanctuary behind me, the rest of my time on the FT was much more tame. This was a supported hike, as my lovely partner followed me along and met me at road crossings in our vehicle. Not only did this allow me to spend quality time with a loved one, I was treated to hot meals on a campstove, cold drinks from a mini fridge, and the occasional solar shower. I’m afraid if I brag about getting access to clean clothes and cartoons on my laptop every night, my status as a thru hiker will be diminished in the eyes of my hardcore hiker friends. Rest assured, I still was thru hiking, albeit with the pampering and support anyone would enjoy given the opportunity.
I’ll spare you any more details of this 42 day trip. There are a host of better authors out there who were actually journaling as they trekked north (check out dirtybowl.wordpress.com), and their descriptions of this route do a much better job than my simple brain can recall, weeks after completing the trip. (I wasn’t even going to write anything for this site, but I’ve been getting vague death threats from hikers who are SICK of me neglecting this page, so I’ve decided to finally start smashing my keyboard and hoping it’s worth reading.)
What I will say is that the Florida Trail is not to be missed, and hikers looking for a unique challenge during the winter months should consider a journey on this National Scenic Trail. The flora and fauna are incredible, weather is pleasant, and the community of trail maintainers I met are second to none. My path led through muddy swamps of cyprus trees, coniferous forests that towered above my head, and volunteers who put a lot of effort into maintaining this route.
Don’t let the swamps and road walks scare you! Encountering alligators and cottonmouth snakes builds character. Drinking swamp water rich in tannins keeps your immune system strong. Tromping along a paved road walk reminds us how important public lands really are, and how vigilant we need to be to their preservation. As thru hiking continues to grow in popularity, the communities along the way will see how setting aside public space increases revenue for their town and allows visitors to fully appreciate the special places they call home.
I’ll be back to hike the Florida Trail again, for certain. If you’d like to find me on trail, just look for the big tattooed dork in shorts that are borderline inappropriate and a blaze orange hat.