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Begins: Jan 3, 2021
Date: Tue, Mar 16th, 2021
Start: Oasis Visitor Center
End: Fort Pickens
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Florida Trail Summary
Buck-30’s Florida Trail Thru-Hike Thoughts
During the winter of 2020 Heather and I thru-hiked the Florida Trail (FT). This was my 10th of the 11 National Scenic Trails and one that’s been on the schedule for many years and I just never got around to it mainly because the only time I actually work is the accounting busy season of January to March and that’s pretty much the only good time to hike the Florida Trail. I struggle with what to say about the FT. Many years ago 2 hikers friends who had hiked a ton of trails both described the trail to me like this: The best parts of the FT are some of the best and most unique hiking you’ll ever do in America. And the worst parts of the FT are basically the worst hiking you’ll ever do.
About halfway through the hike I was thinking, huh, this is actually better than they described, but by the time I got to the end I pretty much agreed with my friends. I have great memories of the good stuff and I have terrible memories of the bad stuff! I didn’t keep a daily public journal, I just wasn’t into it and felt like complaining about the noise and the trash would get annoying on a daily basis. But I still like to write up my thoughts so here goes……
-I will say that I’ll always remember the swamp walking. The big cypress trees are one of the coolest trees around and a new favorite of mine. The first 30 miles through the Everglades/Big Cypress are some of the coolest miles I’ve ever hiked.
-For many miles of trail the bird life is some of the best in the country. Especially down south. Loved it.
-The south outside of the swamps also is really awesome at times. The saw palmetto areas and the oak hammocks are really special.
-The wildlife is pretty cool and unique although I feel like we saw less than most people. In addition to the birds, seeing alligators is common and very cool. There’s really nothing to be afraid of about alligators, they generally just slip into the water when they see you or just kinda sit there and do nothing. I’d be cautious about crouching down when you get your water but I wouldn’t actually be afraid. There are wild hogs which are a nuisance actually and are hunted bit time. We never saw a python and was glad an 18’ one didn’t eat me.
-I really liked the canal walking down south. I had heard about these endless straight miles of canals but these were some of my favorite miles of the trip. The birdlife is the best around the canals, there are gators and there is plenty of mostly legal camping.
-Probably the best thing you could say about the FT is it’s about the only good place to long distance hike in the winter so it has that going for it!
The Bad and The Ugly:
Hmm, where to start……
-The Dogs. The dogs on the FT are fucking ridiculous. I’ve never hiked a trail before where I was legitimately scared of being attacked by a pit bull or many pit bulls. You might think of Florida as like a bunch of old Jewish people but Florida is actually mostly a bunch of white trash rednecks that let their wild dogs roam loose and don’t give a shit if they bite you. Based on the comments in Guthook every year at least 1 or more hikers are bit by a dog. It happened this year too and we were lucky it happened before we got there and the dogs were actually seized by the county and put down. We even heard stories about dogs aggressively charging hikers while the owners were out in their yard doing nothing to help. So it’s not just the dogs, it’s also the people. I would definitely carry pepper spray and if I hiked again I might carry bear spray! I would highly recommend having trekking poles to have some line of defense and weapon if needed. We read all this bullshit about being calm and not making eye contact blah blah. Well the hiker who was bit had no poles and was doing all that and guess what? The pit bull bit him while he was trying to be nice.
-The Trash: Florida is seriously the trashiest state I’ve ever been in. Especially compared to what its potential is. The trail goes through a lot of remote areas of mobile homes with trash piled up everywhere. I’m not exactly trying to be mean about people who don’t have a lot, but it’s hard not to notice trailers that have heaps of trash, 10 broken down cars and pit bulls chasing you down the road. It’s also literally the trashiest state I’ve ever been too. The roadsides are just littered with garbage. Every culvert had piles of backed up trash and even the nice swamps bordering roads had floating trash in it as the rains push the trash into the swamps too. There was a funny hiker on Guthook whose user name was “florida_is_trash” and would add comments occasionally like, this ditch is a really good place to dump your trash today”.
-The Infamous Roadwalks. I’d say about halfway into the hike I was questioning how bad the roadwalks really were. I had heard so much about them and we both were like, eh, not so bad. We’ve done lots of roadwalking on the North Country Trail and Ice Ago Trail so we are used to covering road miles and not really complaining about it. But by the time I finished I was pretty over the Florida Trail roadwalks. The Panhandle had a lot more 4 lane divided highway road miles than I imagined and it just got tiring. Too busy, too much noise. And the shoulders weren’t that great. They looked decent sized until you realized it was a 4 lane highway going 70 mph and cars who change lanes love to drift a little into the shoulder. Also, the majority of the rest of the Florida paved roadwalks had no shoulders. Literally no shoulder. The road went right up to the grass verge. I’ve never hiked a trail with so many road miles with no shoulder at all, I guess cause it doesn’t snow they don’t need shoulders? And Florida being the 3rd most populous state in the country has a LOT of cars on the roads. These little roads on Google maps that don’t have shoulders were more annoying that the 4 lane divided highways. You basically had to pay attention 100% of the time, who knows when someone might make a mistake and run you over. Frequently we would walk on the grass if it was short and flat enough so that was nice when we could. I never felt like I was in any danger like you might read. I just had to pay attention which gets annoying on a several hour roadwalk. Usually I would want to get more on dirt roads but dirt roads were frequently where the pit bulls would attack you! Can’t win on the FT.
-The Noise. The FT was by far the noisiest trail I’ve ever been on and the worst camping I’ve ever had to do due to the noise. I guess some people won’t care about this at all. Heather didn’t seem to care; a couple other past hikers didn’t seem to care. For me, I come out to the trails for peace and quiet. One of my favorite things is to pitch my tent and have complete silence for 12 hours while no one can bother me. Literally impossible on the Florida Trail. It’s really hard to camp away from roads; the state is crisscrossed with state highways. And even when you do camp a few miles away, because Florida is so flat, noise travels a very long way and would bother me/make for a poor night’s sleep. And that’s not even mentioning the several times you will probably sleep close to an interstate. You cross I-75 and I-10 like 4 times each and at times it seems like the FT just loves to parallel these interstates all day long! 2 nights we listened to a Raceway from miles away as people sped round and round the track late into the night. Even with ear plugs etc. this was just annoying to me, but like I said it seems a lot of people don’t care about this. It was also really noisy during the day at times too. Just lots of road noise all over the place. And down south the airboats are insanely loud; you can hear them for like 10 miles it seems.
-The Hunting. If you time your hike right then this actually isn’t an issue at all. Starting in the south in early January and heading north you should have no hunting issues at all. But if you try to hike like November/December or if you go SoBo in January you will be in deer rifle season in a lot of the state and man, I would not do that. It’s not that I’m exactly worried about getting shot although that’s always a possibility. It’s more that hunters just rule this state. It’s unreal; it’s like every white male over age 8 goes out and kills animals on an annual basis. Especially hogs. They love to hunt hogs with dogs. Personally, this seems like a shitty and barbaric practice but what do I know. One of the big problems too is that when you are in the National Forest during hunting season you are required to stay at the hunter campsites and are not allowed to disperse camp. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to camp with a bunch of drunk hunters all night. I also just wouldn’t want to see people on the trail all day hunting. Outside of hunting season the trail has almost no one on it which is nice.
-The National Forests. This is a weird one. Given all the roadwalking issues with the FT I really was looking forward to the National Forests of northern Florida and the Panhandle but they ended up being a bit disappointing. They are basically homogenous long leaf pine forests that have been logged over and over and are planted almost entirely in pine plantation style. The long leaf pine is a great pine tree. It’s just less great when it’s planted in endless rows and just a totally unnatural state. They do make for good camping at times!
Camping is really, really hard on the FT at times. I mean, if you don’t mind illegally camping along a busy paved roadwalk or stealth camping in a small town with no motel or camping under an interstate bridge then you’ll be fine! But if you prefer to legally camp and have it maybe semi-quiet then it’s pretty tough. Especially the legal part. It’s one of those trails where there is a lot of roadwalking so camping is generally not legal along roads and then even a lot of the public land has camping restrictions, although we tend to care less about those. Heather is super into legal camping so she planned out most of our campsites way in advance so we could try and hike the miles we wanted to hike and still legally camp. It worked ok. It wasn’t easy to plan out.
Given how urban the FT seems at times, resupply is surprisingly not amazing. There are very few really good towns with a cheap motel and most things within walking distance and there are some long stretches with minimal resupply where you might send a box or 2. We only sent one box the entire trip, to River Ranch. But the one savoir or the FT is Dollar General. If you haven’t noticed DG is taking over the country and they have popped up everywhere along the FT. Resupply at the DG is actually pretty good although after doing it over and over and over it got to be monotonous. At least it’s pretty cheap. But I’m not a huge fan, they have mostly shitty non-perishable food, they build outside of towns for cheap land and then put small local places out of business. And with no produce and minimal dairy and bread it’s a crappy option for locals. I feel like in the long run DG is bad for society but I guess good for thru-hikers. It made me feel better when I had a massive urgent stomach ache and because DG is cheap and doesn’t have a bathroom I ran around the back of the building and had explosive diarrhea against the back wall. It literally and figuratively felt amazing.
The FLT also does have a ton of gas stations which are always a big go to for resupply. Or hot dogs and 44oz sodas. It can get tirinf resupplying out of gas stations too but they were always great for a stop. The big chains have also gotten really good over the years, lots of hot food and cheap big gulps.
Initially I though the permit process was going to be a nightmare, there is a list on the FT website that is pages long. But reading closer most of those are if you want to camp in certain places. The only 2 permits you really need are the Seminole Reservation down south and Eglin AFB up north. Both have been made a lot easier to deal with now and are not a problem. I will comment that Eglin to me was a big disappointment. For weeks around when we were in that area they closed most of the FT in the eastern side of the base all week and only opened it on the weekend. We didn’t really know this so our timing was off and we had to do a 20 mile busy roadwalk around which was disappointing. Many people told us to illegally hike through but that seemed not cool through a military base and was eventually confirmed by Sandra, the guidebook author and basically master of all things FT who posted to Facebook that illegally walking through the base is not good and people have been caught before. There is this rumor/myth that FT hikers are exempt from the closures but it’s just not true. It’s annoying to have a large trail section that frequently closes the entire week, but I guess there’s not a lot of other options. Otherwise Eglin is quite nice when we walked through the western side which is always open to FT hikers.
I was actually worried that by starting January 3 we would see a ton of hikers and barely be able to camp in certain places. I was not correct. We barely ever saw anyone even though there were probably 75 thru hikers this year or more and this is a very popular time to start. There are also a lot of trail angels around and if you need something usually posting to the Facebook groups will get you success. Of course, this seems to be abused with people constantly asking for things but that’s hiking life these days.
It’s all about Guthook these days on the FT. It’s also the best Guthook I’ve ever seen because of Sandra and John, the original guidebook authors. Basically their entire guidebook has been meticulously dumped into waypoints along the route which tons of good info not just on current conditions but history and fun facts. And you wouldn’t believe how much the FT changes year to year, practically day to day at times. I don’t know how Sandra and John keep up with everything, they are truly amazing. If you get lost with Guthook on the FT then well, you are probably an idiot.
There’s a lot of water on the FT and most of it is pretty bad! Well, first you gotta not care about having brown water which are just natural tannins and totally fine. But even beyond that it’s usually just not great. Canals and rivers frequently have a poor earthy or grassy type taste. Swamps might have trash in them cause you know, Florida is trashy! My favorite were cypress swamps. I don’t know what it is but cypress basically only grow in amazing water! Or maybe they actually filter out and create the good water. But even along a nasty roadwalk, there would be a small cypress swamp and the 2’ of water would be awesome! We don’t treat our water but I definitely wouldn’t recommend that to others.
East or West?
There are 2 places where the FT goes massively east or massively west on 2 different routes and you have to choose one. The first is Lake Okeechobee. This is a giant lake/reservoir and the source of decades of abuse and taming by the Army Corps and the root of all the water and nature issues in the Everglades. It was totally f-ed up by a hurricane I think and the Army Corp is on a massive years long and billions of dollars project to fix it. So they’ve closed long portions of the dike along the Lake which is the FT. And their website map sucks and isn’t updated so you’ll have to check current comments on Guthooks and ask what people know on Facebook. You basically want to go whichever way has more dike open. This year that was by far the most on the East side, like 90% open. The west side was mostly closed although most hikers still went that way since apparently there are more tacos that way.
The second choice is east or west around Orlando. This is like a 300 mile split, crazy. Almost everyone goes east around Orlando, I think mainly because it’s about 30 miles shorter and the west side starts with a 68 mile roadwalk. My understanding though is both routes have similar paved road miles, it’s just the west side gets it mostly done in one giant walk and the east side breaks it up into a couple 30 milers or so. We went west which no one really does mostly because my parents live on the west side. I can’t say either way is better or worse, probably whatever you want or I guess east since most people go east. The 68 mile roadwalk sucked but it was made better by kinda skirting Disney and in the offseason we got $ 50 motel rooms for 2 nights of roadwalking which made things a bit nicer. And they were pretty nice motel rooms too. There was lots of good trail later on after the roadwalk but nothing that would make me tell you to definitely go this way.
You’ll read this a lot and it’s true, the FT is very hot and also very cold. Crazy. It can easily be in the 90s and humid one week and the next week it could dip down into the high 20s. And maybe cold rain. So be prepared for it all! I hate that advice but it’s kinda true.
Although Florida is flat most people will actually find the FT hard. Weird right? All that roadwalking, the heat, humidity and then cold nights and rain and the roadwalking. It’s the roadwalking that gets most people. I wonder how many people legitimately complete the Florida Trail each year. I’d say a majority of hikers skip a lot of the roadwalks. I’d say HYOH but we honestly, that’s just an excuse for people who want to skip. I know, I know, I’m an ass. So who knows how many people finish the trail each year, it’s gotten quite popular it seems. Probably a couple dozen I’d say this year hiked the whole thing. Oh, and your feet. Your feet will be very wet for many, many days. Hopefully you like wet feet and don’t get foot issues.
Also, one pretty interesting thing is whether you will have a wet or dry year. We had a record breaking wet year. The Everglades were at all times high and 30 straight miles of shin to waist deep water. We also had incredible flooding in the Panhandle which caused a lot of issues in the swamps. Other years can actually be really dry and you might be very thirsty! There were a lot of Guthook comments that were from exactly one year ago that said “bone dry” while we were knee to thigh deep for miles. Super weird.
I didn’t do much research for the FT other than figuring out resupply. And I don’t watch YouTube so I missed out on all that but this is a very good write up from Larryboy and gives you a more optimistic sense of the FT, especially about the camping!
So Should I Hike the Florida Trail?
Sure, definitely go hike the Florida Trail. I’m certainly glad I did. Memories, good or bad are still memories and the stories of being chased by white trash pit bulls will live with me forever. I’m not sure I’d really hike it again but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hiking once. There are some really great sections of the FT. I just wish it was quieter to be honest, that was my big issue. For Heather it was the pit bulls and the many miles of 4 lane divided highways in the Panhandle (me too on this last one).
The Florida Trail is one of eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States currently running 1,000 miles, with a total of 1,300 miles planned, from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola Beach. Learn more: www.floridatrail.org
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