Best Hiking in Florida

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August 24, 2020
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Hikers on a trail in Florida

Florida doesn’t have the summit vistas, alpine lakes, red rock canyons or broad glacial valleys that define our nation’s other hiking hot spots. But if you’re not hitting the trail in the Sunshine State, you’re missing out. Mighty mountain landscapes are replaced with dense forests teeming with life, inky waterways that are home to alligators, […]

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Hikers on a trail in Florida

Florida doesn’t have the summit vistas, alpine lakes, red rock canyons or broad glacial valleys that define our nation’s other hiking hot spots. But if you’re not hitting the trail in the Sunshine State, you’re missing out. Mighty mountain landscapes are replaced with dense forests teeming with life, inky waterways that are home to alligators, historic hardwood stands and, best of all, white sand beaches. Sprinkle that with (comparatively) minimal crowds, little jostling for permits and a flipped hiking season that sees the state hit its stride as the snow flies elsewhere, and Florida’s appeal for hikers starts to shine.

Mash land in Florida

One note: Due to COVID-19, be prepared to encounter reduced services and altered hours of operation at parks. Always check before you go.

Snake Bight – Rowdy Bend Loop

  • Location: Everglades National Park
  • Length: 7.8-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Best For: Bird watchers
  • Dogs: Not allowed

As the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, Everglades National Park is home to countless rare and endangered species, including crocodiles, manatees and panthers. It’s also a bucket-list destination for bird watchers. One of the best ways to seek out avian life is by looping together the Snake Bight and Rowdy Bend Trails. (Don’t worry, a “bight” is a synonym for a bay, though alligators can often be spotted in the canal that parallels the beginning of the route.) Bring a pair of binoculars: The loop meanders through a mix of tropical forest, coastal prairie and mahogany woods, each home to its own bird species such as wood storks, spoonbills and egrets. At the end of the Snake Bight Trail, a boardwalk juts into the water where, if it’s winter, you might spy greater flamingos.

Note: The Snake Bight Trail portion is open but isn’t currently being maintained as park officials evaluate critical habitat for the Cape Sable thoroughwort, a flower in the sunflower family.

Rowdy Bend Trail

Photo Courtesy: Everglades National Park

Clubhouse Beach Out and Back

  • Location: Everglades National Park
  • Length: 15-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Best For: Ocean-front camping
  • Dogs: Not allowed

When people say the Everglades are massive, they aren’t joking: The 1.5-million-acre national park is chock-full of distinct ecosystems; limiting yourself to only one hike would do the park—and you—a disservice. Step away from the swamps and toward the rolling ocean by following the Coastal Prairie Trail, a crushed-coral road along the park’s southern edge that was once used by cotton farmers and fishermen. The route winds past sawgrass prairie, hardwood hammocks (shady tropical forests) and mangroves, to Clubhouse Beach. The white sand and clear, shallow water of the beach are the perfect place to hang out for an afternoon or, if you grab a wilderness camping permit, the night. In a state dominated by packed beaches and vacation resorts, this untouched stretch is a backpacker’s gem.

Note: The Coastal Prairie Trail is open but isn’t currently being maintained as park officials evaluate critical habitat for the Cape Sable thoroughwort, a flower in the sunflower family.

Coastal Prairie Trail

Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park

  • Location: Gainesville
  • Length: 1.3-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Best For: A miniature jungle excursion
  • Dogs: Allowed on-leash

This 64-acre state park near Gainesville may be tiny, but it packs a punch. The park protects its namesake, a 120-foot-deep sinkhole that plunges into north Florida’s sandy terrain and pine forests. A staple of Florida’s geology, these sinkholes develop when slightly acidic rainwater dissolves the limestone bedrock, and the rock eventually collapses. Visitors can walk nearly around the 500-foot-wide sinkhole, peering into its depths and exploring up-close the unique geology and miniature jungle that calls the bottom home. (At the moment, an unusable bridge at the park prevents a full loop hike, but you can still do an out-and-back jaunt.) This erstwhile lollipop loop follows a boardwalk past waterfalls and creeks. Be sure to listen for the songs of tree frogs and birds emanating from the shady Millhopper itself as you walk above this sunken forest.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Loop

  • Location: Gainesville
  • Length: 8-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Best For: Seeing … buffalo?
  • Dogs: Designated areas only

Among the palmetto groves and loblolly pines of this state park outside Gainesville, hikers might catch a glimpse of some totally unexpected megafauna: Wild horses and plains bison—reintroduced from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in the 1970s—roam freely alongside deer and alligators. In some areas of the park the terrain opens to plains and marshy wetlands, and lakes allow fishing and paddling. Touch a few of those different regions by looping the Lake, Jackson’s Gap and Chacala trails as they sneak around the southern rim of the 22,000-acre preserve. Or, if you want to finish your trek with a view, drive to the visitor’s center and hike the 0.3-mile Wacahoota Trail to an observation tower, which offers an expansive vista across the entire park.

O’Leno State Park Out and Back

  • Location: O’Leno State Park
  • Length: 15-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Best For: A hike along a disappearing river
  • Dogs: On-leash

While the suspension bridge over the sizable Santa Fe River is a fun part of this out-and-back hike through O’Leno State Park, it’s a little unnecessary; the river disappears entirely into the Santa Fe River Sink just a short distance away. From there the water travels silently underground, sporadically emerging in the form of flooded sinkhole lakes until, 3 miles downstream, it finally reappears at River Rise Preserve State Park, a circular pool in the forest, and flows on to the Suwannee River. Connect the Dogwood, River, Sweetwater and Paraner’s Branch trails to trace the route of the vanished river from the Sink to the Rise, viewing sinkholes, hardwood forests and unique geology along the way.

Big Bend Scenic Byway and Beach Loop

  • Location: Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park
  • Length: 9.3-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Best For: Sand-in-your-toes hiking
  • Dogs: Not allowed

This is the Florida the ads always sold you: sandy dunes and undeveloped beaches, crashing waves, crystal clear water teeming with dolphins, rays and fish. Hike to the easternmost tip of this barrier island guarding Apalachicola Bay. Follow sandy doubletrack from the Sugar Hill Visitor’s Center through grassy dunes, keeping your eyes peeled for snakes, crabs and a collection of shore birds. Drop a line at the eastern point for flounder, redfish and sea trout before looping back along the Gulf of Mexico, beaches on the island’s south side, dipping your toes in the surf along the way. NOTE: Parts of the park are temporarily off-limits to vehicle traffic as the region recovers from damage sustained during Hurricane Michael.

Naval Live Oaks Loop

  • Location: Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Length: 6.8-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Best For: Gulf Coast history
  • Dogs: On-leash

During the Age of Sail, massive live oaks were critical for shipbuilding, which was why this area of Florida’s Panhandle was the first and only federal tree farm designated specifically to produce this valuable timber. Today, the bounty is the hiking trails that meander through the hardwoods and the occasional garden to views of Santa Rosa Sound—with plenty of history along the way. Circle the perimeter of the Naval Live Oaks area on the Brown’s Pond, Andrew Jackson, Old Quarry, Old Borrow Pit, Beaver Pond and Brackenridge trails. Pass the location of one of the first roads connecting East and West Florida as well as a beaver pond surrounded by several different plant communities, and several exhibits explaining the majestic live oak tree and its importance to shipping.

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