Teeter-tottering above a swamp isn’t an ideal situation for some people, but adventuresome hikers who want to have a little fun on a nature trail need to experience this stretch of old-time catwalk through the cypress swamp at Highlands Hammock State Park. The approach boardwalk is broad and wheelchair-accessible, leading back to an observation platform where the old-fashioned catwalk, a balance beam of sorts, zigzags through the cypress along the creek’s edge. It’s a legacy I’m glad the park has retained, from the simpler days of Florida tourism.
Length: 0.6 mile
Lat-Long: 27.471619, -81.552473
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: none at the trailhead, but elsewhere in the park
Neither bicycles nor pets are permitted on this trail. Wheelchairs can access a portion up to the platform on Billy Bowlegs Creek.
For more information: Highlands Hammock State Park
From US 27 in Sebring, turn west on CR 634 (Hammock Drive). Follow it 2.8 miles, straight into the park entrance. This trail is about halfway along the scenic drive loop on Hammock Drive. As with all of the trails around the scenic drive at Highlands Hammock State Park, parking is limited to a handful of spaces.
As evidenced by the size of the parking area, this is the most popular trail in the park. Follow the broad wheelchair-accessible boardwalk directly into the dark cypress swamp along Little Charlie Bowlegs Creek. You’re immediately surrounded by the sensory experience of the cypress slough: midnight black water flowing almost imperceptibly between the cypress knees, the stillness of the forest, the dank sweet aroma of rotting leaves, the grunts of young alligators.
Look out into the swamp, and you see royal ferns and cinnamon ferns growing in clumps at the bases of the cypresses, and red maples dropping their leaves into the water. After 0.2 mile, the broad boardwalk ends. Now, the hike becomes an adventure.
Continue out past the platform on the original narrow catwalk with its low single rail. Take your time as you walk along these four linear planks just a couple of feet above the dark water of the creek, and don’t jump the wrong way when an alligator startles you with a sudden slap of its tail. You reach a little observation platform with a bench. Sit down and look across the creek, and you might stare right into the eyes of an alligator watching you.
The boardwalk curves to cross the creek, passing an observation platform with a bench where you can sit and look upstream. The sound of cicadas echoes through the forest, a low undercurrent like a crackling fire. A great blue skimmer hovers inches away from the red berries of a dahoon holly. The boardwalk creaks and groans as you continue through the swamp, passing another platform with a bench. Oyster mushrooms emerge from the base of a dead cypress.
When the boardwalk ends, follow the path back through the hammock to complete the loop. Passing under a large wild grapefruit tree, the trail emerges from the forest. Cross the grassy area to return to the parking area, completing the 0.6-mile circuit.