Weekend Backpacker: Orlando
Out here in the wide prairie around Sebring, hammocks provide points of interest that break up the otherwise flat, grassy landscape. These unique biological islands form when the elevation rises a little bit just enough to lift the roots of hardwood trees out of the perpetual damp of the prairie. Cabbage palms cluster together in hammocks, and live oaks grow to enormous sizes. Box turtles, king snakes, and anoles love the dry hammock environment; armadillos root around in the leaves searching for grubs.
Two hikes in the Sebring area let you savor the hammock environment. The eight-mile-long Hickory Hammock Trail, part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, runs along the scenic Kissimmee River floodplain across a series of oak and palm hammocks, giving you high points from which to observe waterfowl sandhill cranes, caracara, herons, and egrets frequent the floodplain. Foxes and bobcats have been spotted along the trail, as well as deer and alligators.
Nearby Highlands Hammock State Park, established in 1935 to protect a virgin hardwood forest from development, is one of Florida's original state parks. With more than 8,000 acres and a variety of natural communities, it's easy to spend a day wandering the park's ten day-hiking trails, each meandering for 2030 minutes through different biological communities cypress swamps, marshes, sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, bayheads, and, of course, hammocks.
From Orlando: Take I-4 west to Haines City. Exit and follow US 27 south 57 miles to Sebring. Driving time: 1.5 hours.
For Hickory Hammock Trail, south terminus: Turn off on US 98 east; follow through the small town of Lorida. Turn left on Bluff Hammock Road to reach the northern trailhead. The southern trailhead is five more miles down along US 98 on the left-hand side of the road.
For Highlands Hammock State Park: Turn off on SR 634 west; follow SR 634 four miles to the Highlands Hammock State Park entrance.
No permits are required for camping. There is one established primitive campsite six miles south of the northern terminus; two miles north of US 98 along the trail. Please sign in at the trail registers when hiking the Hickory Hammock Trail. Highlands Hammock State Park contains a full-service state park campground with rates starting around $15/night. A concession stand, the Hammock Inn, offers food, camping supplies, and rental canoes.
Map 35 (Section 4N) from the Florida Trail Association covers the Hickory Hammock Trail; check their Web site for an order form. When checking in at the ranger station at Highlands Hammock State Park, be sure to get a copy of the map detailing the park's trails.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication