Blaze Local Trails with Confidence

Local offshoots of the Florida National Scenic Trail provide the perfect terrain for outdoor enthusiasts of all skill levels

254
Scene from the stunning Florida Trail. Photo by Alex Freeze
Scene from the stunning Florida Trail. Photo by Alex Freeze

Anyone who has ever succumbed to wanderlust has likely heard of (or stepped foot on) the country’s two most traversed National Scenic Trails: the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast and its East Coast counterpart, the Appalachian Trail. But Floridians don’t need to travel nearly as far to go for an exhilarating hike in the woods.

“Almost every Floridian is within an hour of the Florida Trail, yet no one knows we’re here,” says Jenna Taylor, program manager for the Florida Trail Association’s (FTA) central and south regions. “While we don’t have peaks, we have such beautiful sweeping views that are just as spectacular.”

One of only three National Scenic Trails contained in one state (along with the Arizona Trail and the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin), the Florida Trail spans roughly 1,500 miles from the southern terminus in Big Cypress National Preserve to Gulf Islands National Seashore in the panhandle. Officially designated a National Scenic Trail in 1983, the Florida Trail allows nature enthusiasts to explore our state’s most remote and undisturbed areas, through cypress swamps and pine flatwoods, in search of ghost orchids, migratory birds, and the elusive Florida panther.

Hike20 2021 on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo courtesy Hannah Campbell
Hike20 2021 on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo courtesy Hannah Campbell

“We’re fighting a losing battle against developers, and remembering that we have these spaces is so important,” says Taylor, who, along with the U.S. Forest Service and a team of volunteers from local FTA chapters, maintains a portion of the trail and its offshoots (called spur trails) for recreational use.

While the 113-mile stretch around Lake Okeechobee is the only official section of the Florida Trail located in Palm Beach and Martin counties, several of its spur trails are much closer. Jonathan Dickinson State Park is home to the Green and White Trails, named for their corresponding trail markers. These trails bring day hikers over ancient sand dunes and through palmetto and oak hammocks and are maintained by the FTA’s Loxahatchee chapter (the Tropical Trekkers chapter maintains other spur trails throughout Martin and St. Lucie counties).

“I always caution new hikers that Florida is not just flat—there’s definitely a lot of diversity in the terrain—so they need to be prepared for that,” says Taylor, who also notes that the Florida Trail and its offshoots will likely be wet during hiking season from
October to March. “The sooner you learn to embrace it and walk right through the water, the better,” she adds.

The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail is one of the Florida National Scenic Trail’s spur trails. Photo by Alex Freeze
The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail is one of the Florida National Scenic Trail’s spur trails. Photo by Alex Freeze

Hikers who are ready to get their feet wet should consider traversing the Florida Trail’s local hidden gem: the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail (OTLHT). This 61-mile spur trail is marked with orange blazes and runs from Hobe Sound Beach to Lake Okeechobee, taking hikers through ecosystems that change roughly every mile. While there are several opportunities to hike short sections, FTA Loxahatchee chapter chair Janet Miller recommends backpacking (or “through-hiking”) the trail over several days.

“You don’t realize it until you’re out there, but there are so many beautiful wildflowers; there’s always something blooming,” says Miller, who has been volunteering with the Loxahatchee chapter since 2011 and is one of several volunteers who mow, blaze, and other- wise maintain the trail. “When you see the cypress trees and the bromeliads in bloom, it’s really unique and beautiful. The sound, the smell… There’s just something about it.”

Backpackers have several options for through-hiking the OTLHT. Experienced hikers can visit loxfltrail.org for a trail map and information on camping permits, prescribed burn closures, and hunting season dates. Beginners can either use the Loxahatchee chapter’s Meetup page to sign up for a volunteer-led group trip (hiking and backpacking trips are free for anyone wanting to attend, though FTA membership is encouraged) or register for Hike2O, an annual backpacking trip cohosted by the FTA and Loggerhead Marinelife Center.

Micco Bluff on the Florida Trail. Photo by Van Tran
Micco Bluff on the Florida Trail. Photo by Van Tran

“There will always be people who need and want to connect to the ocean in different ways,” says Hannah Campbell, an FTA volunteer activity leader and president of Loggerhead’s edu-cation division. “We thought a really cool opportunity to do that would be to take them on a hike and introduce them to the coastal ecosystems that are intrinsically connected to the ocean.”

Now in its fourth year, the 33-mile Hike20 trek covers roughly half of the OTLHT over three days and requires participants to have their own backpack, tent, water-filtration system, and food. Nightly conservation talks led by Campbell and other Loggerhead staff and FTA trail leaders round out the long weekend, which takes place March 3-5 this year.

“We’ve created a space where participants can feel comfortable that they’re in good hands with trained and experienced people and that they’re not going to be ridiculed or shamed for having questions,” says Campbell. “It’s a good introduction to incorporate camping and backpacking into their lifestyle so they can reach some of these more inaccessible natural areas.”

Ghost orchid
Ghost orchid

Unlike other FTA-led hikes, Hike2O is a fundraiser for Loggerhead’s Oceans of Opportunity initiative, which grants scholarship funding and support services to underserved and underrepresented students in Palm Beach and Martin counties. “It’s not just about the people who participate, it’s also about building that legacy for the next generation and creating the opportunity to engage with their ecosystem and the ocean in a meaningful way,” Campbell says.

Campbell has hiked with the FTA since childhood and loves encouraging people to test their skills and learn more about their state’s public lands on a nearby trail. “I am definitely the person who is advocating that there is legitimate and beautiful hiking in Florida,” she says, adding that taking a naturalist course or reading about local flora and fauna before any hike is a good idea.

“A lot of people are drawn to the OTLHT because they like the challenge,” she says. “It’s a physical challenge, it’s an emotional challenge, it’s an adventure—but the fringe benefit to all of those things is building a positive relationship with adults in nature. Wild Florida can seem uninspiring to the untrained eye, but its ecosystems are incredibly unique and full of life if you look closely.”

Visit loxfltrail.org or trekkers.floridatrail.org to become an FTA member or register for a hiking or backpacking trip; to learn more about Hike20, visit marinelife.org/hike. 

CamelBak Rim Runner X 22 Hydration Pack, $100, REI, Palm Beach Gardens, rei.com
CamelBak Rim Runner X 22 Hydration Pack, $100, REI, Palm Beach Gardens, rei.com

Gear Up

Be prepared for wet terrain, unrelenting sunshine, and insects with these guide-recommended essentials

A small backpack or hydration pack (like a CamelBak) can carry essentials like water and snacks during day hikes; a 50-liter pack will give you plenty of room for multiday hikes. A common recommendation is to carry no more than 20 percent of your body weight—that’s roughly 30 pounds for a 150-pound hiker.

Trail runners allow excess water to drain during wet hikes and prevent blisters (regular sneakers will work in a pinch). Avoid boots or other footwear with waterproofing materials like Gore-Tex, which can trap water and moisture.

Jenna Taylor on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo courtesy of Jenna Taylor
Jenna Taylor on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo courtesy of Jenna Taylor

Trekking poles keep you from tripping over roots and rocks and provide better balance so you can look ahead, rather than at your feet. Wrap some duct tape around each pole so you have it on hand for things like tent repairs.

Durable wool socks (like Darn Tough socks) regulate body temperature to keep your feet from sweating, add cushioning, and prevent blisters. Add medical-grade sports tape to your first-aid kit to cover hot spots on long hikes.

A reusable water bottle or bladder is critical for day trips. Two liters should suffice for a two-to three-hour hike. For longer hikes, a water-filtration system (Iike the Sawyer Squeeze) allows you to filter water directly from backcountry sources. Add an electrolyte powder to your filtered water to enhance the taste and replenish nutrients lost through sweat.

Sunscreen and bug spray with DEET should be applied before any hiking trip, even in overcast or dry conditions. A hat and neck buff add further protection from bugs and sun exposure.

A sleeping pad adds much-needed support when sleeping on the ground. Cut an accordion-style sleeping pad down to fit your specific height to save space and weight in your pack.

An area map or trail app will keep you on track when blazes aren’t visible. The FarOut app includes the Florida Trail and the OTLHT. Don’t forget a portable phone charger!

Kiana Emilcar and Mark Cook walk through the Loxahatchee Slough on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo by Alex Freeze
Kiana Emilcar and Mark Cook walk through the Loxahatchee Slough on the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail. Photo by Alex Freeze

Find Your Trail

The best local hikes by skill level

Beginner

Nearly impossible to get lost, dry terrain, restrooms and water fountains available

Riverbend Park, Jupiter: This 665-acre regional park offers 15 miles of well-marked nature trails spanning pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, oak hammocks, and wet prairies. Look out for white-tailed deer, river otters, alligators, and wild turkeys as you hike along the Loxahatchee River.

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, Hobe Sound: This family-friendly sand trail at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge traverses through hilly scrub dunes, a palm hammock, and a mangrove forest to the Indian River Lagoon. Watch for yellow-crowned night herons, osprey, and least terns along the .7-mile loop. (An all-terrain wheelchair is available for trail use at the nature center.)

Petravice Family Preserve, Fort Pierce: Originally slated for a townhome development, the Petravice family preserved this 35-acre space as public land in 2022. A wide and flat 1.5-mile loop trail leads to a bridge over the north fork of the St. Lucie River and connects to Captain Hammond’s Hammock Preserve.

Spanish moss in a Southern live oak tree hammock.
Spanish moss in a Southern live oak tree hammock.

Intermediate

Bring a trail map, option to camp overnight

DuPuis Wildlife and Environmental Area, Palm Beach and Martin counties: This 21,875-acre natural area is interspersed with ponds, wet prairies, cypress domes, pine flatwoods, and marsh. Choose from four hiking loops ranging from 5 to 15 miles. Campsites are available (Miller recommends Loop 4 for an overnight trip). Visit myfwc.com to check seasonal hunting dates and obtain permits for group camping.

Kitching Creek Trail, Hobe Sound: This out-and-back Jonathan Dickinson State Park trail winds through roughly 5 miles of pine flatwoods and along creeks to a primitive campsite with room for several tents. Call the ranger station in advance to obtain a backcountry permit and pick up a trail map upon arrival. (Beginner option: The Hobe Mountain Trail is a .4-mile boardwalk leading through sand pine scrub to an observation tower with 360-degree views of the park and the Atlantic Ocean.)

Sana Ahmed on the OTLHT. Photo courtesy of Hannah Campbell
Sana Ahmed on the OTLHT. Photo courtesy of Hannah Campbell

Advanced

Prepare for an hours-long day hike through varied terrain

Steven J. Fousek Preserve, Port St. Lucie: While this 494-acre park offers trails for all skill levels, a 10-mile hike through Paleo, Hackberry, and Teague Preserves will give you the best opportunity to see hickory, Florida elm, sugarberry, live oak, and several species of birds and other native wildlife. Access a map of the entire trail system at the kiosk in Paleo Hammock.

Cypress Creek Natural Area, Jupiter: Spanning both sides of Indiantown Road, this hike winds through more than 2,000 acres of hydric hammocks, dome swamps, and more. Miller recommends this trail to hikers who want to be in a wooded area but notes that some of the trails are not well-marked. Be prepared with bug spray, sunscreen, food, water, and a map.

Participants of the 2021 Hike20 trek. Photo courtesy Hannah Campbell
Participants of the 2021 Hike20 trek. Photo courtesy Hannah Campbell

Leave No Trace!

The Florida Trail Association abides by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’ seven guiding principles and encourages local outdoor enthusiasts to do the same. Please do your part to support and protect nature.

1. Plan ahead and prepare. Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Durable surfaces include maintained trails and designated campsites, gravel, sand, or dry grasses. Camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.

3. Dispose of waste properly. Inspect your campsite for trash or spilled food. Pack all leftover food, toilet paper, and litter. Utilize toilet facilities whenever possible. Otherwise, dig a 6- to 8-inch deep cathole at least 200 feet away from water, camp, and trails.

4. Leave what you find. Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you found them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.

5. Minimize campfire impacts. Use a lightweight stove or established fire rings for cooking and keep fires small. Use only dead wood from the ground that can be broken by hand. Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

6. Respect wildlife. Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow, approach, or feed animals. Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.

7. Be considerate of other visitors. Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail. Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

Facebook Comments