Hiking the Florida Trail is the ultimate in outdoor adventures in the Sunshine State. Most people have heard of the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, but the Florida Trail is less known and much less used than its counterparts. The 1,300 mile Florida National Scenic Trail begins in the Everglades and ends at the Alabama state line. It’s not for the faint of heart. Most of the trail is through swamp water, dense vegetation, along highways, or very much off the beaten path.
Wesley started section-hiking the Florida Trail about 10 years ago. He hiked through Big Cypress and the Everglades solo while surrounded by gators and snakes. I was not interested in such adventures. I’d drop him off and make the 4-5 hour drive back home. Then, I would pick him back up at designated time and place in a few days. On each of these trips, Wesley hiked about 30-50 total miles north of where he started.
Planning is a Must-Do
There are few access points to the trail so you need to plan out your trip in advance. You have to either backpack for several days or do short out-and-back trips. Initially, he did several backpacking trips of 3-4 days but now he’s doing more 1-day trips. I’m also joining him more now that he is in the Central Florida region.
I agreed to do some of the out-and-back sections with him that (hopefully) did not involve wading through snake-infested water. One of those sections is through the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. We’ve run several trail races in the area and it’s gorgeous and relatively dry.
Planning Our Hike on the East Tract
Hiking the Florida Trail on the Green Swamp East Tract took us 2 days separated several months apart. The entire section is 15 miles but we decided to take only one car and do two out-and-back trips.
Day 1 on the East Tract
For the first trip, we parked at a legitimate trailhead (they are few and far between) at Rock Ridge Road. We hiked 10 miles round trip using the blue day trail loop off of the Florida Trail to go back to the parking lot. This was a relatively easy section of the trail but it was extremely overgrown and covered in spiderwebs. More about that later!
Day 2 on the East Tract
For the second trip, we parked at another trailhead at the beginning of the West Tract called the McNeil entrance. This requires walking down the highway berm for a half mile before getting back on the trail. We hiked back to where we turned around on the first trip and then backtracked out the same way. This was a 20-mile challenging hike .
Perhaps the best thing about Hiking the Florida Trail is its remoteness. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we would have ever traveled to the areas we have been. This particular section of the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve included. Even though we have run on trails in the area, the Florida Trail is even more off the beaten path. This is truly wild and natural Old Florida.
Hiking the Florida Trail – Day 1 on the Green Swamp East Tract
Hiking the Florida Trail from the Rock Ridge Road entrance begins on a forest service dirt road. Sometimes this road is open to cars and you can park closer to the actual trailhead. The weekend we hiked, the road was closed to cars due to a prescribed burn. Thankfully it was on another section of the wilderness preserve (not the Florida Trail). It was a little smoky but nothing harmful or dangerous.
What to Expect
We had to park outside the gate and walk two miles up the road before getting to the official trail. For this trip hiking on the Florida Trail, we went to Mott Hammock and took the blue day loop back.
When hiking the Florida Trail, you can expect lots of dense forest, palms and knee-high grass. If you’re lucky, there will be bridges over some of the swampy sections like below.
Hiking the Florida Trail was fairly easy and wide in this section. It wasn’t until we turned around and took the blue day loop back to the car that we encountered challenges. It was obvious that the day loop had not had any day visitors for quite some time!
We walked for over 2 miles constantly ducking massive spiders that had spun webs the entire width of the trail. It was also clearly mating season with many of the webs containing an entire spider family with babies.
We didn’t want to break up the webs–they were really beautiful–so we were constantly crawling under them. All of the spiders were at eye-height so we could at least see them before we got to them. The webs were 5-6 feet in length and 7-8 feet wide and they were spaced about every 3-4 feet. For over 2 miles. Seriously. It was a spider obstacle course!
This spider is about the size of a fist with legs extending another few inches. The web extended the entire width of the trail which you can see is very wide in this section.
This spider is the size of a small monkey. No kidding.
A Day of Memories
After we made it out of spider alley, we were back on the dirt road and heading to the car. We laugh about how some of our worst experiences are the ones we remember the best. I will definitely never forget those spiders! Hiking the Florida Trail in this section was like a horror movie. However, the most memorable part of all happened as we were driving away and saw a Florida gray fox running across a field. It was so beautiful!
Hiking the Florida Trail – Day 2 on the Green Swamp East Tract
A few months later we tackled the next section of the Green Swamp East Tract. This was an out-and-back trip of nearly 20 miles that took us 7 hours. Portions of this section were beautiful and peaceful while other sections were horrible.
As I said above, we parked at the McNeil West Tract entrance and walked a half mile on the highway berm to get back on East Tract. Our plan was to walk back to the point where we turned around on our first trip in order to complete the entire East Tract.
Once we found the trail entrance off of the highway, we were greeted with a beautiful grass path in a pine forest. This is when hiking the Florida Trail is at its best. It was a chilly morning with bright sunshine to start our long day on the trail.
Beware of the Vines
The beautiful wide path quickly turned into a nightmare. This section was definitely one of the most challenging hikes we have completed in Florida. In many sections, the vegetation has completely overtaken the trail and you just need to make your best guess. There are lots of orange markers on the trees but in a few areas the vegetation is so thick it’s difficult to see anything. We did a lot of backtracking this day just trying to stay on the trail.
The section below is the official trail. You can see a bright orange marker on a tree trunk ahead. Hauling yourself over the downed trees is one hurdle but the bigger issue here are the vines. You could not move without the vines reaching out and grabbing you. They wrapped around your feet with every single step and would also wrap around my upper body. We had to unwrap ourselves from the vines just to pick up a single foot and move one step. We had to repeat this process for every step for about a 1/2 mile. It took forever just to get through this small section of hiking the Florida Trail.
Once we survived the vines, we were hiking the Florida Trail through palm trees and over a few bridges. The trail was visible and cleared in this area making for some nice hiking.
An unexpected find while hiking the Florida Trail was this sign for the remains of an old logging wagon. It’s a short walk off of the Florida Trail on a path into the forest to find the remains.
After returning to the trail, we walked on a forest service road for 2 miles before getting back on a nice forest path to Mott Hammock. This was our stopping point on the previous trip. Today, it was our turnaround point.
We took a short break before turning around to head back to the car. Unfortunately, we had to go back through the vine portion of the trail and deal with that again. Hiking the Florida Trail through the East Tract took a few hours longer than we expected. We planned about 5 hours, but it took us 7 hours. The obstacles and difficulty with the trail made this a really long day.
Now that we are done with the East Tract, we need to make our plans for tackling the West Tract. We know to expect the unexpected and allow for extra time. Have you hiked the Florida Trail? Please share your tips and stories in the comments!