The Florida National Scenic Trail is approximately 1,400 total miles extending from Big Cypress National Preserve in south-central Florida to Gulf Islands National Seashore south of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle. It gained official status in 1983 under the National Trails System Act of 1968, and traverses a wide variety of land designations, both public and private: from national and state forests, state parks and wilderness management areas to private timber plantations, the Seminole Indian Reservation, and even a US Air Force Base. Around 300 miles of the trail are on roads, and this is one of the only National Scenic Trails that actually passes through a metropolitan area (Orlando). It’s also one of the only National Scenic Trails where you can choose your own adventure: there are designated routes to the east and west sides of Lake Okeechobee, and eastern and western route options in central Florida.
The FT crosses a wide variety of ecosystems, from the swamps of Big Cypress to prairies in Ocala National Forest to the shoreline of the Panhandle, this trail has got it all. Well, almost all – with a top trail elevation of just over 270′ there is little to be gained or lost along its length. It is a fundamentally flat trail, but there are several very difficult and challenging sections nonetheless (think wading through mud-slick sometimes thigh-high waters in the swamps, miles and miles without cover or potable water sources, the challenges of finding a suitable spot to camp in populated areas). The variety of plant and wildlife along its length is amazing, and many are endemic, endangered, or rare: air plants, long-leaf pines, alligators, panthers, black bear, dozens of bird species. A multitude of access points makes the trail easily accessible; it is within an hour’s reach from almost every resident of Florida. This trail is gaining popularity as a thru-hiking destination as well, and is especially attractive because the prime season to hike it is in the winter, when most other long-distance trails are snowed in.
I had my first taste of the FT in May 2017, when I got to hike the first few southern miles as an out & back with awesome local guides Swamp Ape and El Prez. In between the beauty I saw of the trail, and making acquaintance with numerous people in the incredibly helpful and supportive FT community, I decided to kick off my year of long-trail hikes honoring the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968 (which made the designation of all of our National Scenic Trails possible) with the Florida Trail in January 2018.
Permit requirements vary depending on location. The Florida Trail Association is the best source for general information regarding the trail. The FTA and Friends of the Florida Trail are also both dedicated to getting the trail off of roads and onto designated non-motorized pathways, which is a wonderful goal!
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