Since winter is an ideal season for hiking, it's time to introduce the premier hiking trail in our region-the Florida National Scenic Trail. The trail runs 1,400 miles from the Big Cypress National Preserve to the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. In our area, the trail enters from the east along the wild Aucilla River. The Aucilla Sinks, where the river repeatedly ducks underground and resurfaces in a series of sinkholes, is one of the trail's scenic highlights.
The trail then drops down into the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge where it passes through the unspoiled Aucilla bottomlands before opening up into scenic panoramas of vast marshlands. Primitive campsites (by permit only on the refuge) are spaced throughout. One highlight is the "Cathedral of Palms," a thick canopy of sabal palms just east of Wakulla Beach Road. I'll be sure to cover this section of trail in a future blog.
North of the refuge, the trail immediately enters the 500,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest. Soon, hikers face one of their biggest challenges, depending on water levels-the nearly 25,000-acre Bradwell Bay Wilderness area. Dark swamp water and deep mud can suck off a boot, but the rewards are giant trees. Loggers somehow missed old-growth tupelo gum trees in the heart of the swamp, and just off the trail, the two largest Ogeechee tupelos in the world can be found. It's our version of the giant sequoias.
The ambitious Florida Trail was the dream of real estate broker and wildlife photographer Jim Kern. In a 2003 interview I had with him, he said the idea came to him in the early 1960s after he made a short but disastrous hike on the Appalachian Trail. "When I got back to Miami, I wondered about where you can go hiking in Florida," he said. "There weren't many places. I realized right away that there should be a footpath the length of Florida, through the wildest parts of the state-through the Ocala, Osceola and Apalachicola national forests, along the banks of the Suwannee River, and I looked for other scenic spots and public land. It came together pretty quickly in my mind."
Kern found others of like mind and formed the non-profit Florida Trail Association (FTA) in 1964. Volunteer chapters sprang up around the state, and trail blazing began in earnest on both public and private lands. When the trail was designated a national scenic trail, one of only eleven in the country, the non-profit Florida Trail Association partnered with the United States Forest Service to carry out the vision. But volunteers are still at the core of the mission, and they usually log in more 60,000 hours in a year. That's vital if the trail will remain open given Florida's long growing season.
In our area, the Apalachee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association carries on the group's mission. The group features exciting speakers on outdoor topics at their monthly meetings the second Tuesday of each month at Forest Service headquarters off John Knox Road. They also sponsor hikes on various sections of the trail. Their website features descriptions and detailed maps of specific trail sections, so it is an invaluable resource.
People who want to work on the trail are also welcome to join and share in the camaraderie and rewards of building a lasting recreational resource. Free training is offered and the group states that rapid promotions are highly possible.
So, lace up your hiking shoes and explore and support our local long-distance trail!