Earlier this week, I had an email from Chris, a Central Florida father who wants to take his son on his first backpacking trip. In part, his email said:
My son and I are looking for our first hike and camp (one overnight trip). We live in Orlando, FL and I so far Lake Louisa State Park with their primitive hike/camp sections, are the best I can come up with. Other than this state park, my son and I are looking for a starting trip which might include a hike/camp overnight trip, varying nature scenes, a good camping site, swimming optional as we would like to do this in March, maybe good star gazing, near water, and/or fire ring?
I checked with Chris, and it sounded like his son is young enough that a short starter backpacking trip of about 3 miles to camp is in order. While there are a lot of options for backpacking in Central Florida, hitting those high points for a first-timer – ease of hike, high interest level, good campsite, fire ring – is important! I’ve come up with a handful of options to help Chris, and other parents out there, have a great first-time out with the kids. In no particular order…
1. Geneva Wilderness Area
Although it requires a permit, this Seminole County natural land preserve offers one of the easiest places to ease into backpacking, with the campsite (offering a privy, potable water, and benches) less than a mile in.
2. Lake Kissimmee State Park
Lake Kissimmee offers the best of all worlds. There’s a traditional campground if you don’t feel like backpacking, and two different, very beautiful loop trails (Buster Island Loop and North Loop / Gobbler Ridge Trails) to hike, each with its own primitive campsite under the live oaks. No water or privy at camp, but fire rings and picnic tables make it fun. I’ve spotted lots of wildlife here. More than anywhere else I’ve hiked, in fact!
3. Little Manatee River Hiking Trail
South of Tampa, this is one of my favorites in Central Florida due to the diversity of habitats you see along the 6.5-mile loop. The backpacking campsite, while primitive, is very pretty, and you can take a paddling trip down the river after you finish your hike.
4. Fort Drum Marsh
A kind of offbeat place for hiking, this conservation area has two places to camp, both on islands – one surrounded by a dredged pond, the other by the marshes that are the headwaters of the St. Johns River. Fire rings and benches are the amenities. Hunting is permitted, so check ahead to avoid conflicts.
5. Flat Island Preserve
This island in the Okahumpa Marsh has funky fungi and gigantic trees. The loop is only 3.7 miles, and this is a popular place to take beginning backpackers. You can borrow a canoe and explore the marsh after your hike, too. Fire ring, benches, and a pitcher pump at the campsite. Permit required, but it’s free.
6. Hal Scott Preserve
Another pretty primitive campsite with benches and fire ring sits along a 5 mile loop that takes you through several significant habitats, including vast, open prairie with pitcher plant bogs.
If you subscribe to Backpacker magazine, there is a nice section in the current issue on hiking with the family. Check it out for some excellent background on dos and don’ts for various ages, and have fun out there!