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Hiking Florida's Interior
Copyright: Joyce Rankin - Interactive Outdoors, Inc.
Hiking Florida's Interior
Description - In 1964, James Kern, a wildlife photographer and real estate broker envisioned the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST) while the hiking the Appalachian Trail. To generate support for the project, Kern created the Florida Trail Association. The Association and the USDA Forest Service have developed and now maintain this trail through cooperative partnerships with various local, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and trail volunteers. When completed the trail will cover 1,300 miles. Today, 85% of the trail is completed with 550 certified miles.

Attractions - Florida's western panhandle is an area diverse in flora and fauna and is still relatively undeveloped. The northern terminus of the trail lies within Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rose Island. Here, the journey either begins or ends at Fort Pickens, an area rich in history. Following the trail to the east, explorers are treated to the only section of the Florida National Scenic Trail that follows the nationally renowned white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. East of Gulf Islands National Seashore, the search continues for appropriate trail locations to link the western panhandle with the Apalachicola National Forest. Pine Log State Forest contains the only completed trail section within the trail-planning corridor in northwestern Florida.

The Florida National Scenic Trail in the Big Bend Region extends from the Apalachicola River to the Suwannee River, crossing both ranger districts in Apalachicola National Forest. Here, the hiker will find beautiful wildflowers, orchids, pine flatwoods and cypress swamps. This segment of the trail begins on State Highway 12 approximately 10 miles south of Bristol and runs east to the Porter Lake Recreation Area near the Ochlockonee River. Hiking in the heart of Apalachicola National Forest through the Bradwell Bay Wilderness Area often means wading in waist-deep water. This 23,000-acre area is one of the East's largest designated wildernesses. Bradwell Bay is noted for titi thickets, deep gum swamps, and virgin pine and cypress forests. The trail exits at State Highway 319 at Medart. There are several designated trailheads in Apalachicola including Camel Lake, Medart, Jewel Tower, Porter Lake, Bradwell Bay at Forest Route 329, Leon Sinks Geological Area, Fort Gadsden Historical Site, Munson Hills (bikes permitted), and Vinzant Trail (horses permitted).

Continuing east leads the hiker through 34 miles of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge's protected wilderness on a roadbed from an abandoned turn-of-the-century railroad. This segment of trail is widely recognized as harboring one of the best varieties of native plants and wildlife. The bird checklist includes more than 300 species. Six primitive campsites are available to thru-hikers only. Sites may be found at Marsh Point, Wakulla Field, River Hammock, East River, Ring Dike and Pinhook River. User permits are required for primitive camping. The town of St. Marks is an important juncture for two reasons. It is good place to resupply and enjoy an inexpensive seafood meal, but more important, it is the location where hikers must arrange for crossing the St. Marks River. This segment is the longest continuous section of certified trail. It ends at Aucilla Wildlife Management Area, where the mysterious Aucilla River appears and then disappears below the limestone surface along the trail.

Traveling east from the Aucilla, the trail follows the northern reaches of San Pedro Bay on logging roads, crossing lands owned by private timber companies. At the Suwannee River, the terrain changes from flat, dirt roads to high sandhills, limestone bluffs, sandbanks, cypress swamps, and spring-fed tributaries.

Two trailheads into the Osceola National Forest are offered. At the western end lies Stephen Foster State Folk Cultural Center. At the southeastern edge sits Olustee Battlefield State Historic Site. Both are interesting places in their own right. Olustee tourists can visit the location of the largest battle fought in Florida during the Civil War. Each February, a re-enactment takes place on these grounds. A small museum relives the history daily. Beginning at the Folk Center, hikers will be treated to several miles of trail along the steepest banks of the Suwannee River. Hikers will get a view of Florida's only whitewater rapids at Big Shoals at 8.5 miles. The trail enters the National Forest at approximately 14 miles and continues to follow power lines and old timber roads. Remnants of past forestry practices in Florida exist in many places along the trail. Several areas are blazed on old railroad trams used around the turn of the last century for the timber industry. Tram beds are easily recognized as elevated ridges on which ties of cypress and pine may still be found. Traveling through a forest of pine flatwoods and cypress, the trail endures a number of creek crossings. These were once challenging, especially during the wet season. Recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service have resulted in more than 20 boardwalks. Spring wildflowers, resident endangered species, several small scenic ponds, and Ocean Pond are the highlights of this flat journey. Possible wildlife sightings include white-tailed deer, gopher tortoise, wild turkey, red-cockaded woodpecker, and gray bat. Plant identification includes spoonflower, rosebud orchid, and pondspice.

South of the Osceola National Forest, the trail winds through picturesque ravines and crosses a colonial rice plantation before it enters the Ocala National Forest. In Ocala, hikers will find 67 miles of scenic trail passing about 50 natural ponds through cypress and gum swamps on winding boardwalks. In other areas, the trail traverses rolling open longleaf pine forests and scattered clumps of dwarf live oaks. The primary access points within Ocala are the Clearwater Lake Recreation Area on State Highway 42, Alexander Springs on County Route 445, Farles Lake on Forest Route 595-I, Juniper Springs on State Highway 40, Hopkins Prairie on Forest Route 86, Grass Pond on Forest Route 88C near Lake Kerr, Lake DeLancy on Forest Route 75-2, and at the Rodman Recreation Area on Lake Ocklawaha. Year-round hiking occurs but hot, humid summers with frequent rainstorms usually keep visitors away. Fall through spring are the most pleasant times in Ocala where users are treated to a glimpse of one of the largest remaining sand pine forests in the world.

In the State's heavily populated central region, extending from north of Orlando to the north shore of Lake Okeechobee, the trail passes mostly through public lands. It skirts the Orlando area and picks up along the Kissimmee River. This beautiful section runs along the riverbanks and passes through live oak and sabal palm hammocks, sand pine forests, and open prairies. A second western route will give travelers the option of traveling along the old Cross Florida Barge Canal Lands, through the Withlacoochee State Forest and the Green Swamp, and along one of the State's rails-to-trails projects.

Around Lake Okeechobee, the trail follows levees and water-control structures constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to control flooding and drain the northern Everglades. Endangered species, such as the Florida panther and the Everglades kite, may occasionally be seen in this area. The southern terminus, Big Cypress National Preserve, explorers a mix of cypress swamp and sawgrass marsh dotted with tropical hammocks of sabal palms, orchids and air plants. It is a pristine example of a subtropical swamp. This particular segment is 31 miles, offering two primitive campsites on the trail, occasional drinking fountains, and several nearby private campgrounds. The southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail may be found eight miles south of the Oasis Ranger Station found along U.S. Highway 41, at Loop Road or State Route 94.

Recreation - Certified segments of the trail are marked with the FNST logo. Markers are supplemented with orange blazes and wooden signs providing distance and directional information. Designated by Congress to be a footpath, several segments permit horseback riding and mountain biking. Fee payments or permits are required for use of some FNST segments and overnight facilities. Fees are charged for camping in many developed federal, state, and county campgrounds. Facilities for backpack camping vary; some authorities permitting camping anywhere along the trail while others having designated sites. Hikers will find interpretive centers that explain Florida's natural history and geology. These centers are located at Big Cypress National Preserve, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and several national forests and state parks. Fishing along the trail is permitted with the required Florida fishing license. The trail passes through public and private lands that are legally open during hunting seasons. Some trail segments close during hunting. If hiking during hunting season, it is highly recommended that you wear blaze orange. There are many considerations to hiking the Florida National Scenic Trail. Good planning is essential.

Climate - Florida's weather is dominated by the water that surrounds it. The Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Gulf of Mexico in the west provide a stabilizing force that maintains the mild climate. Northern Florida is considered subtropical, although it does receive some snow. This area is drier than the rest of the state. Southern areas of the state, definitely the Keys, lie within a tropical climate. Humidity is high, a characteristic of the climate, although the temperatures usually don't extend past 90 degrees F.

On the average the state receives 50 to 65 inches of rain. Summer is the rainy season, which extends into October in the south. Hurricane season begins in late August. Some hurricanes can bring up to 25 inches of rain. An average of two hurricanes per season reach the Florida peninsula. Most often these storms reach the Atlantic Coast rather than the Gulf Coast.

Location - Upon completion, the Florida National Scenic Trail will travel between the Gulf Island Seashore near Pensacola to Big Cypress National Preserve near Miami and Naples.

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More Information

Contact Information:
Florida National Scenic Trail, c/o Florida Trail Association, P.O. Box 13708 , Gainesville, FL, 32604, Phone: 800-343-1882

Additional Information:
Florida - Florida's subtropical and tropical climate make this an excellent getaway from northern winters. The state boasts numerous natural areas that include lakes, swamps, beaches, forests and islands.
Florida National Forests & Parks - Florida's National Forests and National Parks contain a unique diversity of plants and animals, and numerous developed recreational facilities. Four National Forests and eleven National Park lands are located throughout the state.


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