This was 15 years ago. I was working full-time at the time, and so was my hiking partner. We ended up doing the loop as a series of day hikes on weekends with a few planned overnighters sprinkled in, only a couple of which I remember actually happening. It took 30 days and roughly 360 miles, as the route was laid out at the time, so we called it “The Big 360” and wrote about it for a few hiking newsletters. Parts of my experience went into Along the Florida Trail.
I haven’t heard of anyone trying to replicate our effort since. But I’ve had numerous people ask, while their planning long distance hikes on the Florida Trail, which way should I go? East or West?
Both routes count towards an end-to-end hike of the Florida Trail. And the mileage has seriously increased since I hiked it, back when the route was more of a direct point-to-point roadwalk since no footpath existed in the Ocala National Forest or the western end of the Cross Florida Greenway. It’s now 443.5 miles to do the full loop.
Here’s an honest rundown of the options, based on my personal hiking experience with both.
Following the eastern route, the Orlando section of the Florida Trail relies heavily on the St. Johns River floodplain and its tributaries, which means flooding can be an issue at Bull Creek and from Tosohatchee to Little-Big Econ. There is a 30.4 mile roadwalk between Bull Creek and Tosohatchee through Deseret Ranch, with access to water but no services. I was fortunate to hike this when the Florida Trail still ran along the SJWMD levees in Deseret Ranch, complete with a campsite near Wolf Creek and camping allowed near the rodeo grounds.
A proposed solution to get around Deseret – since they have no interest in having the trail on their land despite plans for large-scale developments – would route the Florida Trail far to the west into new subdivisions under construction and through some of Orange County’s natural lands, which don’t allow dogs. Looking at the proposed route and knowing this area well, I’m not comfortable with this solution since it would mean a lot more walking on bike paths through suburbia. At least the roadwalk through Deseret is through ranchland. Either way, it’s pavement underfoot with limited opportunities for camping.
If it’s not flooded, the sweep of public lands along the St. Johns River basin is one of my favorite places to hike. Tosohatchee, Seminole Ranch, and Bronson State Forest all have old-growth trees and dense palm hammocks. Little-Big Econ is a delight as the trail weaves along the river bluffs.
Once you’re in the Orlando metro – leaving the woods for Oviedo – you spend more than 20 miles on the Cross Seminole Trail, a paved bike path, to get through suburbia. At least one night in a motel is needed, sometimes two. With the exception of lodging – which you don’t reach on foot until Lake Mary – services are frequent and easy to reach. North of the the Wekiva River, the trail corridor heads into dry uplands. Seminole State Forest is a spectacular hiking destination and the Ocala National Forest, of course, is one of the most beautiful parts of the hike and one of the oldest pieces of the Florida Trail, high and dry through the Big Scrub past Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs. The routes meet just north of The 88 Store, west of Salt Springs.
The Western Corridor was created to connect public lands between Orlando and Tampa north to the Cross Florida Greenway. At the time the route was first proposed, the original corridor plan was to bring it up the west side of Lake Kissimmee from River Ranch through gems like Lake Kissimmee State Park and Catfish Creek State Park to get to the Van Fleet Trail. But since Howard Pardue retired from FTA, no one has championed this route with land managers, so it languishes, somewhat forgotten. A shame, since there are so many more public lands in Polk County now. Going west, you hike an extra 38.7 miles heading north, since the route jogs farther east than first planned to go west.
The Western Corridor hike starts along Canoe Creek Road from Three Lakes WMA and follows this rural road north through picturesque ranchlands for more than 20 miles before reaching the leading edge of suburbia spilling out from St. Cloud. You join sidewalks, and then a bike path, to get to Kissimmee. Motel stays are a must once you’re in this urban corridor southwest of Orlando. West of US 27, it’s rural roadwalking again, broken up with a 3.3-mile segment of the Van Fleet Trail, which is paved.
The Green Swamp is a spectacular place to hike. The Florida Trail follows the rise of the Withlacoochee River from the Green Swamp and parallels its flow north through this region. Ancient cypresses and lush hardwood forests frame your hike, which is sometimes at swamp level and sometimes on bluffs. All campsites must be reserved, but they are free. Dogs aren’t permitted. Once you get into Richloam, the trail starts working its way through pieces of the Withlacoochee State Forest. There are a few short connecting roadwalks between them which aren’t bad, and the Withlacoochee State Forest tracts are all a walk in the woods – footpath, not forest roads. From Silver Lake at Croom through the north end of the Citrus Tract, you’re in high rolling hills with no surface water sources.
Reaching Inverness, the Florida Trail joins the paved Withlacoochee State Trail and remains on paved bike trails up to the Cross Florida Greenway. Both Inverness and the very outdoorsy-minded city of Dunnellon make great overnight stops. I love hiking the Cross Florida Greenway, but I’m biased – I helped route and build the trail there. What’s unique about the Greenway is the terrain, which is the fault of a thankfully-failed public works project. It’s hilly enough for switchbacks. It’s high and dry, so no wet feet in this section. Surface water is limited, but every trailhead has a water source.
Leaving Marshall Swamp, it’s a little more than 3 miles up the road to enter the Ocala National Forest and you’re on a footpath again for the rest of the hike up to the junction, the last 22.8 miles.
There are a few tricky things about the Ocala West section, which I hiked many years later, since it didn’t exist at the time I did this loop. One is the Hulls Creek Swamp. When it’s wet, it’s dangerous. I sunk hip-deep in it and required a couple friends to help me out. When it’s dry, no problem. There’s an alternate roadwalk if you need to skip it, which you should in a wet year. Next, there are no designated campsites, so you can’t camp along this part of the trail during general gun season. There is one commercial campsite near SR 40, that’s it. Water sources are extremely limited from Eaton Creek north. Don’t skip them. The flip side is this is a gorgeous section of trail all the way through, the south end (south of Eaton Creek) rather swampy with lots of bayheads with boardwalks through them, the north end high and dry, a perfect example of the Big Scrub. I have seen both bear sign and bears along this section.