Florida Trail Backpacking Guide

For my money, the Florida Trail has the most consistently beautiful sunrises and sunsets of all the US long distance trails. What it may lack in altitudinal variation, (i.e. the highest point is a dizzying 270 ft above sea level), it more than makes up for in regards to flora and fauna. The biodiversity encountered on the FT is truly amazing.

I hiked the Florida Trail in the winter of 2011/12. All information has been updated as of December, 2016.

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Campsite visitor | Florida Trail.

Distance: 1089 – 1136 miles (depending on route choices)

Avg. Time:  60 days

Start / Finish:

  • Northern Terminus: Fort Pickens. Situated a short taxi ride south of Pensacola. The latter is public transport accessible by either air or bus.
  • Southern Terminus: Oasis Visitor Center, Big Cypress National Preserve. Situated 58 miles west of Miami on US 41. No public transport options available. If you don’t have private transport, probably the cheapest way (other than hitching) is a combination of bus & taxi. According to the travel website, Rome2Rio, you can catch a bus (Line 51) from the Stephen P Clark Center in Miami to SW 26 st & 137 Ave. From there take a taxi to the Oasis Visitors center. As of December, 2016, the overall cost is between $78 and $98.
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Florida Trail Overview Map (Floridahikes.com)

Season:

  • The winter “dry” season is ideal for extended hiking trips on the FT. Basically any time between November and April. Unless you’re a fan of torrential rain, high humidity and mosquitos, you may want to avoid thru-hiking in the summer.
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Sunset over Pensacola Bay at the end of the first day.

Maps / Info:

  • Florida Trail App: The folks that bring you the Florida Trail Guidebook, have teamed up with Guthook Hikes and High Sierra Attitude to produce an FT app. It contains mileage points, town information, side trails, waypoints, etc.

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    Sunrise over St.Marks.

  • Permits: As of July, 2016, you will need to organize some permits if you are thru-hiking the entire FT. For a detailed rundown of the hows, whys and wherefores on the permit situation, see ThruHikeFlorida.com.
  • Resupply: See the Florida Trail Guidebook for a comprehensive look at resupply options. For online information see Thruhikeflorida.com.
  • Wildlife: On the fauna front, there are black bears, alligators, gopher tortoises, wild pigs and a large variety of reptile and birdlife. If you are extremely lucky, you may even spot a Florida Panther.
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Cottonmouth | Big Cypress National Preserve.

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This photo was taken in St.Marks Wildlife Refuge, which after Big Cypress National Preserve, was my favourite section of the FT.

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Ebony & Ivory – Feathered Friends helping one another out on the FT.

Route / Conditions:

  • Signage: The Florida Trail is well marked throughout its course with orange blazes.
  • Elevation (or lack thereof): The FT may well be the world’s flattest long distance trail. The highest point on the FT is around 270 ft above sea level. You can leave the Diamox and oxygen tanks at home for this one.

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  • Environmental Diversity: What it lacks in altitudinal variation, the FT more than makes up for on the ecological front. Florida’s subtropical and temperate ecosystems make it the most biologically diverse of America’s lower 48 states. Environments that the FT passes through include swamplands, scrub, pine forests, hardwood hammocks and Palmetto prairies.
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Aqua trail through the swamps of Big Cypress.

  • Sunrises & Sunsets: In addition to the variety of flora and fauna mentioned above, personally speaking the other highlight of the FT was the sunrises and sunsets. The most consistently beautiful of any of the long trails I have done in North America.
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Walking along Lake Okeechobee at sunrise.

  • Lowlights?: The big one is the road walking. There’s a lot of it. According to the Florida Trail Association, a little less than 300 miles in total. Additionally, the water situation on the FT can be a little sketchy at times (e.g. canal water). Definitely bring along a filter and/or purification drops or tablets; anti-diarrhea medicine mightn’t be a bad idea either.
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Vultures lying in wait for FT Hikers that have drunk straight from canals…….just joking…….not really.

Florida Trail Extension – Is it worth it?

Speaking of road walking, quite a few FT thru hikers (including yours truly) extend their journeys some 200 miles by either starting or finishing their hikes at Key West, the southernmost point of the contiguous United States. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend it.

“Why?”

It’s virtually all on paved roads, many of which are very busy and have little in the way of shoulders. While there’s no denying that the Florida Keys are gorgeous and definitely worth visiting, personally speaking it struck me that the Keys is a place that needs to be experienced on water (i.e. fishing, swimming, diving or sailing), rather than on foot. My recommendation is to start or finish your hike in Big Cypress.

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The Finish | Yours truly at Key West.

Reflections

1.  Osceola County Police

Early one morning during a long road walk in Osceola County, I stopped to remove some layers. With all my gear strewn over a grassy roadside patch, a police car rolled up beside me. I thought to myself, “here we go, I’m about to be mistaken for a vagrant……..again”.

It turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A young policeman by the name of Clayton had stopped more out of curiosity than anything else. An outdoorsman himself, we chatted about the Florida Trail and other hikes I was doing during my 12 Long Walks journey. After about 20 minutes, we shook hands, said our goodbyes and he drove off. Nice bloke, I thought to myself.

Fast forward eight miles and two hours of road walking later. I was still heading south on CR 419, when another police car abruptly stopped not more than 50 yards ahead of me.

“Really………twice in one day?

My concerns were immediately allayed when none other than my old mate, Clayton, emerged from the vehicle. With a big smile on his face, this time around he had come bearing gifts.

Since our initial meeting earlier that morning, he had taken a moment to check out my website upon returning to the police station. Suitably impressed, he decided to surprise me with much appreciated refreshments, in the form of a quart sized Gatorade and a couple of bottles of spring water!

In an area where quality water sources were few and far between, I could not have been happier if Santa Claus himself had turned up with a sleigh filled with ice cold Belgian beer!

2.  Big Cypress Reunion

Splashing my way through the shin high waters of Big Cypress National Preserve, I spotted a couple of hikers coming towards me.

Now my eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be, but nonetheless I could have sworn that one of the pair looked familiar. Sure enough as they drew closer I realized that I was right; it was none other than Billy Goat!

At seventy-two years young (now 77) and with a flowing white beard that would put Saint Nick to shame, Billy is a legend in the US long distance hiking community.

With the exception of a couple of months each year during which he moonlights as a tightrope walker for Cirque du Soleil, BG can usually be found rambling along one of America’s long distance pathways. His long-time favourite is the Pacific Crest Trail, upon which he has logged more than 35,000 miles since the early 1990’s. It was on that famous footpath that we had previously met back in August of 2007.  

It was great seeing him again after all these years. We swapped trail stories, discussed mutual friends and talked about hiking plans for the future. It wasn’t until a good forty or fifty minutes later that we eventually said our farewells.

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Billy Goat & Swami | Big Cypress, January, 2012 (Note: This is one of my favourite photos from the whole 12 Long Walks journey).

Walking away I couldn’t help but chuckle. Here we were, two guys who had last met on the other side of the United States some five years before, randomly reuniting in the middle of a Florida swamp. And the best part about it? We didn’t miss a beat and chatted away as if we’d kept in touch the entire time. What a small and wonderful world the US long distance hiking community is!

Postscript:  Five months later I was hiking north on the Pacific Crest Trail. As I sat in a McDonald’s at Cajon Pass, CA, I looked toward the door and a familiar face walked in. A small world, indeed.

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McDonald’s at Cajon Pass, CA | May, 2012.



Comments

Florida Trail Backpacking Guide — 11 Comments

  1. Cam,
    That is awesome! Your story about Billy Goat is great! I believe that these meetings in odd places are not by chance but guided by the hand of God! There was a reason your paths crossed on multiple occasions over the years. You may have already thought of or know the reason by now. The article about him in the recent Backpacker Magazine was truly inspirational. People like you and Billy Goat help the rest of us truly understand what can be done if we put our minds to it. Thanks, and keep sharing your story-I love it!

  2. Hi Cam,
    Love reading your articles.
    Yes, it certainly is the people you meet that make the trip.
    I’m planning my trip to Tassie with far less gear this February.
    Happy Christmas.
    Cheers Pete

    • Very low. Unless they’ve become habituated to people and associate you with food, then gator attacks are rare. As for snakes, none are aggressive and unless provoked (i.e. stepped on or very close to it) they’ll leave you alone.

  3. I am really interested in your gear! What did you find you really needed on the FT? What brands did you like? What would you use if you did it again? I’m having a difficult time finding gear suggestions for warm weather and swamp hiking. Thanks!

    • Hi Jeni,

      I carried more or less the same stuff I took on the PCT and CDT that same year (i.e. 2012). See the Gear Lists drop down menu on the website for details. You don’t need anything particularly different for the swamps – trail runners and thin socks work fine.

      Cheers,

      Cam

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