Weekend Backpacker: Tampa
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 bitjust 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, caracaras, 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 preserve 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 20 to 30 minutes through different biological communitiescypress swamps, marshes, sand pine scrub, flat pine woods, bay heads, and, of course, hammocks.
Take I-4 east to Haines City. Exit and follow U.S. 27 south 57 miles to Sebring. Driving time: two hours.
FOR HICKORY HAMMOCK TRAIL, south terminus: Turn off on U.S. 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 U.S. 98 on the left 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 U.S. 98 along the trail. Please sign in at the trail register when hiking the Hickory Hammock Trail. Highlands Hammock State Park contains a full-service state park campground with rates starting at about $15/night. A concession stand, The Hammock Inn, offers food, camping supplies, and rental canoes.
No campfires are permitted along the Hickory Hammock Trail. Be cautious about leaving valuables in your car, particularly at the U.S. 98 parking area. At Highlands Hammock State Park, expect to pay the Florida State Parks day-use fee (around $3.25 per car) unless you're already anteing up for camping.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
Map 35 (Section 4N) from the Florida Trail Association covers the Hickory Hammock Trail; see the website 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