For a stroll through one of the most primordial but accessible virgin forests in Florida, take a ride to Sebring to explore Highlands Hammock State Park. A grande dame of the park system, this Civilian Conservation Corps-era park boasts quite a few nature trails, but it’s the Ancient Hammock Trail that best shows off the glory of what’s been preserved in this public place. With towering cabbage palms and live oaks up to a thousand years old and more, this is a most fascinating and immersive forest, especially along this short loop amid the gentle giants of the woods.
Length: 0.6 mile
Lat-Long: 27.470057, -81.548639
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: none at the trailhead, but elsewhere in the park
Bicycles are allowed on this trail, but pets are not. The trail can also be accessed by walking across the road from the southwestern end of the Fern Loop and walking east a short distance along the road.
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 the last one along the one-way scenic Hammock Drive drive, 2.2 miles from the beginning. Pull off to the right and park to access to trailhead. As with all of the trails around the scenic drive at Highlands Hammock State Park, parking is limited to a handful of spaces.
Follow the footpath into the dark forest, a virgin hammock of incredibly old live oak and laurel oak. Some of the cabbage palms sport oddly fluted bases, like pottery. Sunlight barely filters through the thick canopy. After crossing the bridge, pause to read the “Prayer of the Woods” on a tree trunk on the left
At the T intersection, turn left, walking into the lush understory of needle palms and marlberry, where thick patches of sword fern thrive in the deep shade. Two pileated woodpeckers perform an unusual dance as they work their way around a cabbage palm trunk.
The trail sits high in the hammock, above a well-established old floodplain. Ancient oaks form the canopy, a true climax forest; numerous fallen trees attest to the age and size of these grand giants. The trail curves past the hulk of one fallen tree, now home to a riotous explosion of sword ferns. Even the wild citrus trees are huge. You pass a bench at 0.2 mile. The farther along you walk, the larger the trees become. A barred owl launches from a high branch, ruffling oak trees as it swoops beneath the canopy. A tall double-trunked oak rises from a sea of needle palms. You hear the constant ker-plop of hickory nuts falling to the forest floor.
As the trail curves to the right, it passes under an arch formed by a cabbage palm leaning over trail. Reaching a bench, the trail makes sharp right to skirt a fallen grand old oak. Another fallen and rotting oak provides a bed for strap ferns and sword ferns. The fiery blooms of coral bean stand out against the dark forest understory. Continue past another fallen oak, and you come back to the beginning of the loop at 0.5 mile. Cross the bridge, completing your hike at the parking area after 0.6 mile.