It was mid Saturday morning when we reached the trailhead at the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. My brother and I had been planning this trip for a few months, and I was excited to be back on the trail after a long week at work. We found a parking area a short distance from the trailhead, loaded up our packs, and headed north on the Florida Trail.
The Florida National Scenic Trail meanders 1,400 miles from Big Cypress in South Florida to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore in the panhandle, offering great hiking throughout the state. My brother and I both grew up on the Florida Trail, or the FT as it is often called. From family hikes to overnight trips with our Boy Scout troop, we have explored many sections in north and central Florida. This weekend, we wanted to try one of the hardest and southern-most sections: Loop Road to Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve.
True adventures always start with a warning. Ours was clearly printed on the trail section map:
“Wading should be expected, even with average rainfall. Expect waist-deep water between loop road and I-75. There are few landmarks in this section. Watch for sharp rocks, solution holes, and ruts. Footing can be tricky. DO NOT underestimate this section of trail.”
After the first hour of wading through calf-deep water, it was clear we were going to be wading all weekend. This section of trail starts off in an open cypress swamp comprised of small cypress trees covered in epiphytes (air plants, bromeliads, and orchids) with sawgrass beds that occasionally opened up to vast prairies, making for spectacular pictures.
The water was surprisingly crystal-clear and foot placement is easy for the first person, but a bit tricky for anyone who followed after the sediment was mixed up. Limestone bedrock lies just below the thin layer of sediment, which made for tricky footing as it erodes in circular solution holes, usually about the size of your foot and camouflaged by the sediment. Carrying a good, sturdy, wooden hiking stick is a must to prevent injury.
Pro tip: Leave trekking poles as home; they are more likely to break here than help you navigate slippery, submerged rock.
Florida may not have the topography of the West, but after wading an hour I found myself in a wild, remote corner of the world. All I could hear was the wind whispering across the sawgrass and the slosh of each footstep as I made my way down the trail. If you have ever hiked into a wilderness area, you know there comes a moment when you realize, “I am out here alone – miles from another human – in utter solitude.” This was the first time I had experienced this feeling in a long time, and I missed it.
As we continued wading along the trail, I was impressed with the clouds–light and puffy, floating effortlessly across the sky.
We approached Frog Hammock, one of the two campsites on this section of trail. I was a few yards back when I saw my brother come to an abrupt halt. Right next to the trail was a six-foot alligator lying in the water. We quickly backed up and gave it plenty of room as we passed by. Talk about a trail hazard!
At Frog Hammock Camp we tried to find as much dry land as we could to sit down for a snack. We chatted with three boy scouts out for a day hike with their scoutmaster, and got a good laugh as one of them was sharpening his knife just in case he saw another gator.
We continued north, keeping a rough idea of our travel time with the mile markers that have been placed to aid in navigation, since there are few reference points. We had been averaging a 1.5 mph pace–far slower than my average cruising speed of 3 mph–and were using more of our upper legs as we pushed through the water.
Robert’s Strand was the next camp, and our destination for the night.
A strand is an elongated cypress dome with deeper water that remains year-round. The continuous water helps keep the temperature warm, even on colder winter nights, allowing for 36 species of orchids and many other tropical plants to grow. As we entered Robert’s Strand, the cypress trees and ferns were taller, and the water deep. Due to the deep water, we had to backtrack a few times to find the trail, as everything started to look the same.
We hacked our way through the jungle to find our resting stop for the night. The Robert’s Strand campsite was a pile of dirt about three feet above the current water level, and just big enough for a two-person tent, room to cook, and a small fire.
After spending all day in the water, I was ready to enjoy dry clothes, so we set up camp and made dinner. Around dusk, the mosquitoes started to come out in full forc,e so we made a smokey fire to keep them at bay, then called it an early night.
The next morning, we set out northbound again with one goal: to reach Oasis. I started the day leading the way through knee-deep water as we left Robert’s Strand. I put my hiking stick down, and 4 inches in front of it I saw the white inside of an alligator’s mouth! An uncontrollable scream, and I am sure a long list of expletives, burst from my mouth, and I quickly and carefully backed up to a safe distance. After I checked myself (and my pants), we found a safe route around the fully-submerged seven-foot gator who was hanging out on the bottom of the trail.
After two days of wading through water and muck, I am not ashamed to admit I was kind of happy to see the road and Oasis Visitor center. The trail was rough, but well-worth it. I was able to find solitude in adventure, and spend time with a great hiking partner and brother. I will definitely have to go out on another swamp march in Big Cypress National Preserve… I can’t wait to be back out on the trail!