Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Occasional Trails: Florida National Scenic Trail

  • Name : Florida National Scenic Trail
  • Location : Florida
  • Length (miles) : Trail system: 1800, thru trail: 1562, roadwalk: 360.
  • Best season : All: October through April. Thru-hikers: January through May.
  • Features : Diverse ecosystems. Marl mud and deep water sections. Dike hiking. Sand and scrub areas. Winter temperature ranges of 20 to 80 degrees F, with short days. Panthers, black bears, alligators, pit vipers, coral snakes, mosquitoes, raccoons, squirrels, armadillos, fire ants, ticks. Squatter camps, meth labs, and various armed loonies in the Ocala National Forest
  • Permits : Required. Membership in the Florida Trail Association is a legal requirement for private, reservation, and military areas.
  • Info at : Florida Trail Association Florida Department of Environmental Protection
As with many trails, this was one person's idea. Jim Kern, in the early 1960s, decided that he wanted Florida to have its own long trail, so he founded the Florida Trail Association (FTA), in 1966. Now the statewide system has 1800 miles. Even so, this is a work in progress.

The Florida National Scenic Trail is only part of the Florida Trail System which includes various loops and side trails in state parks and forests, wildlife management areas, water management areas, and other public and private lands.

Think of it as a trail kit.

So permitting for thru-hikes is unique. You must be an FTA member. They arrange permissions for you, in writing, which you absolutely need. The Seminole Indian Reservation has a monthly hiker quota. Eglin Air Force Base requires an FTA letter verifying your thru-hiker status (and they are not easily humored).

You also need to cross private land. Routes and permissions change constantly. The FTA maps, guidebook, and cooperation are essential.

The northern terminus of this trail is in the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola and the southern terminus is in Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples, but if you decide against a long trip there are dozens of trailheads and day hikes to choose from.

Most thru-hikers start in the south, in January, and go north. They avoid hunting seasons and the worst bugs. This is important because mosquitoes are top predators and winter hikers can skip "full-coverage bug suits".

Hunting seasons. Some areas prohibit camping then, and, well, one recommended clothing item is a safety orange poncho (or orange pack cover). Hint: both rain and bullets can be annoying.

One reassuring feature is that the entire route is marked, though most Floridians, even those living along the trail, do not know that it exists, so if you do need directions you might get only a blank stare.

Resupply isn't generally a problem though the Apalachicola National Forest has an 83-mile stretch where you are on your own.

Compared to other trails: No mountains or huge vistas but you will be ankle deep in spots, even deeper in wet years. "Folks who get bitten by gators are generally swimming near dawn or dusk when the gator can't distinguish that the foot it is biting is attached to something much bigger." OK then!

Drought years may leave you panting for anything wet enough to swallow.

So winter is hiking season, and though generally pleasant, temperatures can quickly zip below freezing, on the coattails of raging rains. And all winter hiking days are short.

Fun parts: Big Cypress has an abundant supply of marl mud and deep water. Bradwell Bay: miles of swamp forest. South Florida dikes are lumpy to walk on. Parts of the Ocala National Forest have unhealthy quantities of soft sand and meth labs.

For footwear you can try running shoes, or light boots, or sandals, but should avoid anything that can be sucked off your feet. Toe protection is good too.

But even a six inch elevation change can move you from one ecosystem to another, so there's always something to see. Like many, many kinds of flowers and trees not found elsewhere. And lots of fascinating and mostly well behaved critters.

You could (if you are very lucky) get a glimpse of a vanishingly rare Florida panther, or an (even rarer) hiking alligator. Or, rarest of all, another thru-hiker.

Clyde Butcher Photo Journal
Clyde Butcher photography