On a paddling trip in 2009, Van Tran encountered heavily-loaded hikers trekking along the shore—Florida Trail thru-hikers. In shared campsites on that same trip she heard their stories of hidden wilds and vowed to see them herself. Later that year she did her first FT overnight. And in 2017, many trail miles later, she joined the Florida Trail Association, where she now works as Community Outreach Manager.
1. Bring on the Biodiversity
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge has a bit of everything when it comes to North Florida ecosystems: turkey oak, longleaf pine, old growth hardwood forests, cypress swamps, magnolia groves, and a sweeping expanse of coastal salt marshes. All these ecosystems are home to an equally dizzying array of wildlife, including alligators, white-tailed deer, otters, and over 300 species of birds. The 49 miles of the FT that pass through the refuge give hikers a chance to experience all of these different wilderness environments without the commitment of a long-term thru-hike. Tackle 12.6 miles of the wildlife refuge on a loop from the trailhead on CR 59, about 4.7 miles south of the turnoff from US 98.
From the trailhead, hike east along the FT (follow the orange blazes) for 6.3 miles past estuaries, tidal creeks, and lowlands. Then, take a left at the junction onto an unnamed refuge trail to head back west, continuing another 4.1 miles through pines to a junction at mile 10.4, where a left turn followed by a right at the next intersection will take you back to the starting point. Drinking water is available at the visitor center, but there are no good water sources in the refuge itself.
2. Wetland Wilderness
Big Cypress National Preserve
When most people think of the Everglades, they jump immediately to the national park. But just next-door sits the lesser-known Big Cypress National Preserve, with 729,000 acres of wetlands, cypress domes (a type of swamp), and (in June and July) ghost orchids.
For a quick weekend trip, start at the Oasis Visitor Center, then hike 6.9 miles north on the FT past vast cypress domes to the aptly named 7-Mile Campsite, in a clearing among the cypresses (filter your water from a nearby cypress dome). There’s only one intersection on the way in, at mile 2.9; continue straight past the junction. Head west from your campsite the next morning onto a 6.2-mile loop trail. When you reach the intersection again, go right to return to your starting point and complete a 16-mile lollipop-loop. Be sure to wear water-friendly shoes, Tran advises: even in the winter dry season, you’ll likely have to do some wading. Alligators and venomous snakes also call Big Cypress home, but aren’t aggressive if you give them a wide berth. Don’t forget to look up for more friendly neighbors: the 16 species of bromeliads (airplants) in Big Cypress.
3. River Walk
Suwannee River Section
The first section of trail Tran hiked remains her favorite. On the banks of the Suwannee River, hikers wind through blufftop saw palmetto with views of the dark, tannic water before descending down to sandy beaches.
Experience the best of this section on a 30-mile, three-day trip starting at the Swift Creek Campsite. From there, hike beside exposed limestone as you make your way 10.6 miles through oak forest to the Crooked Branch Campsite, a wide clearing beside pale cliffs. Day two is a 13.8-mile trek to Holton Creek River Camp, home to primitive cabins (free, reserve at 800-868-9914). There is a tent-camping area next-door if the cabins are full. The next morning, hop back on the FT to complete the final 5.5 miles to Gibson Park.
4. A Long Walk on the Beach
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Find oceanfront solitude along the white sand dunes of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, home to the northern terminus of the FT. Located along an undeveloped barrier island, this 7.5-mile stretch abuts the turquoise water of the Gulf of Mexico and is home to a vast array of coastal wildlife, including more than 300 species of birds.
From the trail’s northern terminus at Fort Pickens (constructed in 1834 to protect Pensacola Bay), head east along the beach for a 14-mile out-and-back to the Park West entrance. There may not be much elevation change, but be warned: hiking through the fine sand can be taxing, too.
Season Dry season is October to May Permit Hiking and backcountry camping permits required for Big Cypress (free)
Editor’s Note: The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge section was updated on 1/16 after inaccuracies in the description were brought to our attention. The refuge only has small areas of longleaf pines, not the expansive forest originally described. BACKPACKER regrets the error.