One of our favorite hikes at Highlands Hammock State Park, the Fern Garden Trail leads you around and through the swampy heart of the hammock.
There are hints that this was part of the area planned and cultivated in the 1930s to be the Florida Botanical Garden and Arboretum, which quickly pivoted to plans for one of Florida’s first state parks.
Sword ferns, not native to Florida, were obviously carefully cultivated along sections of the footpath, and now densely swarm through the forest.
A series of stepping stones also lead across a marshy pond, just like you’d expect to see in a garden.
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Length: 0.3 mile loop
Trailhead: 27.4703, -81.5432
Address: 5931 Hammock Rd, Sebring
Fees: $6 per vehicle
Restroom: At the picnic area and concession
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM to sunset. No bicycles or pets, please. Boardwalks may be slippery. Mosquito repellent is a must.
Other than difficulty in crossing a short stretch of gravel from the parking area which can be rough to traverse, the boardwalk portion of the trail is accessible.
The trail can also be accessed via the Hickory Trail or the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail in addition to its own trailhead, and is a short walk down the park road from the Ancient Hammock Trail.
Follow US 27 south from Avon Park or north from Lake Placid to Hammock Rd (CR 634) in Sebring, at a traffic light with prominent signage. Turn west and follow the road into the park. The entrance station is on the passenger’s side, and a bike path parallels the road to the park.
Once inside the gates, keep going and you’ll reach the one-way counterclockwise driving loop. The Fern Garden Trail is a little over three-quarters around the three mile drive, on the left not far past the Ancient Hammock Trail.
Start your hike at the Fern Garden trailhead, where the boardwalk begins its traverse of the swamp. A bench is built into it here, but you won’t want to linger without bug spray.
Shaded by black gum, sweetgum, and red maple, the swamp glows. Royal ferns grow along its edge, while various patches of aquatic plants, including lizardtail and spadeweed, form dense patches.
Tiny water spangles, an aquatic fern, cover the dark surface of the swamp. The taller plants are giant leather ferns, looking just like they sound, and alligator flag, which is reminiscent of banana leaves.
With all these shades of green, the swamp emanates an eerie green glow, with the yellow blooms of primrose willow and the purple blossoms of pickerelweed adding color contrast.
A large amount of alligator flag under the tree canopy signals deeper water as the trail circles the edge of a flag pond.
You quickly reach the junction with the Hickory Trail, with a bench built into the boardwalk just beyond it. Continue straight ahead past it.
The swamp becomes shallower, so more lizardtail and ferns rise from the water. Trees grow more densely together in the floodplain forest.
As the boardwalk ends, it drops you off on a narrow path flanked with sword ferns, winding between the cabbage palms.
Before you reach the bridge, turn left. The other side of the bridge is the interconnection point with the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail, which you can add on to this hike.
The narrow fern-lined path burrows deeply into the hammock, where wild citrus grows among the cabbage palms and live oaks.
At the next fork, check out your options before you make a choice. To the left, the trail crosses a wetland on stepping stones. To the right, it sticks to the high ground to pass in front of a bench.
An alligator and her offspring call this swamp home, so look over the water carefully if you decide to use the stepping stones.
Both sections of trail come back together, and you skirt a large swamp covered in water spangles before emerging back at the Fern Garden Trail trailhead along Hammock Drive, finishing this 0.3 mile hike.
Learn more about Highlands Hammock State Park
See our photos of the Fern Garden Trail
More trails to explore in this park
Three interconnected nature trails on the east side of Highlands Hammock – Wild Orange Grove, Big Oak, and Hickory – provide a gentle introduction to this wild place
Burrowing deeper into the swamps than the adjoining Fern Garden Trail, the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail spans from an enormous oak to a wonderland of wet
Walk beneath immense oaks and pines on the Young Hammock Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park, a half-mile nature trail that showcases the succession of habitats
Teeter-tottering above a swamp, experience a stretch of old-time catwalk through the cypress swamp on the Cypress Boardwalk at Highlands Hammock State Park
At Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring, the Ancient Hammock Trail shows off the glory of towering cabbage palms and live oaks centuries old