Deep in the heart of the Ocean-to-Lake Greenway, this 9.7 mile segment of the Florida Trail bridging DuPuis Reserve and Corbett WMA is one of the most wild and scenic treks in southeastern Florida. It’s necessary to backpack in from one end or the other of the Ocean-to-Lake western segment in order to experience the immersion in the Northern Everglades, a landscape where pine trees and cypress grow side by side, where colorful bromeliads dangle at face-level, and grassy savannas have grown dense with tiny cypress and colorful wildflowers. Up for the challenge? Read on.
Length: 9.7 miles
Lat-Long: 26.926554,-80.542248 to 26.853017,-80.449855
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: moderate to rugged
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
DuPuis Reserve is managed by the South Florida Water Management District. Dogs are NOT permitted.
Corbett WMA and DuPuis Reserve are managed for hunting by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and are used extensively by hunters during the fall and spring hunting seasons. It’s smart to check the FWC website before you plan your trip to ensure you’re not hiking in the middle of general gun season. If you are hiking during hunting season, even small game or turkey season, wear an orange vest or orange pack cover for safety’s sake.
This hike is in the heart of the backcountry of the Ocean-to-Lake Greenway. Access is only via the other two contiguous trail segments, FT Ocean-to-Lake, DuPuis Reserve or FT Ocean-to-Lake, Corbett WMA.
Leaving the comfort of camp can be tough in the morning, especially knowing the path ahead will be a rugged one. As you walk away from the picnic tables back to the main orange-blazed trail, turn left to follow the blazes. A slender ditch parallels in the woods to the left. After 0.3 mile you reach a major trail junction – the bottom of the 4W loop trail system of DuPuis connecting with the west end of the DuPuis/Corbett Connector trail. Ignore the mileage carved into the sign – it’s hyperinflated.
You cross a culvert, which may serve as a water source as needed (steep sides, beware of gators) and continue following the orange blazes along the connector trail into the pine-palm flatwoods. Along the first mile, the trail is very relaxed and pleasant with a very open understory of scattered cabbage palms and saw palmetto. Around 0.9 mile, the trail makes a sharp left and caroms directly to the east. Crossing a grassy track, there’s a beautiful stand of saw palmettos to the right, and the understory is broad and open to the left, with spiderwebs outlined in the morning dew
A permanent water source is a notable feature at 1.2 miles – a big, broad ditch crossed by a culvert. The trail crosses and turns right to go down a sand road, paralleling the water. As you walk along the sand road, you pass a cypress strand on the left; the prairie is a vast sweep to your right. The road transitions from sand to grass underfoot. A live oak splays its branches above the road to provide shade in a small oak hammock before the trail passes through a low spot in a wetland. It’s easy to set a pace on this long, straight stretch, so don’t get so focused on walking that you miss the trail’s abrupt turn to the left at 1.6 miles.
Narrowing down to a slight track, the trail meanders through the pine flatwoods. You can see a cypress dome off to your right in the distance. Dropping through a drainage area filled with ferns, the trail continues across a gauntlet of gatorbacks. You’re soon surrounded by a forest of dead trees, standing stumps of slash pine subjected to a fire too strong for the forest to handle. Wax myrtle, Florida myrtle, and gallberry join patches of saw palmetto amid the prairie grasses. You cross a forest road at 2 miles.
Emerging from the bones of pines past, you can see a long cypress strand paralleling on the left. St. John’s Wort shows off yellow blossoms amid the prairie. By 2.2 miles, the trail has wound its way into the heart of the pine flatwoods, with saw palmetto lining both sides of the footpath. The forest floor undulates beneath your feet, probably grassed-over hog damage. Entering another burned area at 2.7 miles, there is little to no shade and lots of hog damage. Thankfully, the unpleasantness doesn’t last long. You pass a suspended garbage can feeder used to attract deer at 2.9 miles. It’s been there since at least 2004, so it’s a notable landmark.
By 3.1 miles, you’re in a pretty forest of cabbage palms and pines, headed straight towards a cypress strand. The trail makes a slight jog to the left to pass through it. Crossing a firebreak, the trail continues through pine flatwoods that are getting wetter by the moment, with sundews growing along the footpath. The trail leads you along the edge of an older forest with tall slash pines and a very dense understory of saw palmetto. At 3.7 miles, there’s a large cypress strand off to the left and the footpath is going through spots that look like they are frequently inundated by water, with clues like floating islands of lance-leaved arrowhead stranded in the trail, sitting mournfully waiting for water to carry them away.
Crossing a firebreak at 4.2 miles, the trail continues straight ahead on a corridor through tall slash pines with a denser understory. You are soon walking through mixed cypress and pine, a co-mingling of habitats most evident by the many bromeliads at face level. Crossing the next firebreak at 4.5 miles, head straight ahead and the trail quickly makes a jog to the right, out of the cypress and up just enough elevation to add cabbage palms to the forest. You start following the track of a forest road, which the trail soon leaves, heading off to the right along a narrow treadway. The footpath hops back on the forest road briefly and then crosses it, heading off to the left.
Mind the sawgrass growing to shoulder height as the trail passes through a drainage area for a cypress strand at 4.9 miles, where then you zigzag through the strand, filled with crooked trunks cradling bromeliads. Passing through a palm hammock, the trail continues past a spot at 5.3 miles where others have camped in the past – a scar on the ground from a campfire makes it obvious. It’s a beauty spot, but not an official campsite. Beyond the next forest road crossing is another such spot, unmarred. Rejoining a forest road, you see an obvious depression off to the left that, at times, would be a canal with water. Cypresses are both uphill and downhill from the trail, with a cut draining the upper terrace into the canal. At its very end, we found water.
By 5.7 miles, you reach the sign for the designated campsite off to the left. It sits within sight of the canal that divides these two public lands, which is always a reliable water source – and a swimming hole for alligators. Don’t be tempted to splash around in it, no matter how hot it is. The trail turns to the right and follows the dike paralleling the canal, crossing it over a huge culvert built for a forest road at 5.9 miles. This is the official end of the connector trail, and you’ll find another wooden sign here, corrected to make its mileage more accurate. The culvert is also the easiest place to access the canal for water.
Once you’re on the opposite side of the canal, you’re facing the power lines between the public lands. Turn left and walk a little ways before the trail turns right to cross the gate into Corbett WMA. It’s locked, so you must crawl under it or climb over it. As you walk under the power lines, you can hear them hum. Thankfully, you reach the other side and the shade of the forest quickly. A sharp right marked as a double-blaze on a bootstrap of a cabbage palm trunk points you down a forest road through a palm hammock. Watch for sudden changes in the trail’s direction, as it’s been relocated through this area (since its inception) to get off the forest roads and into the woods – the forest roads tend to trap deep puddles of water.
You enter the first of a series of many, many cypress strands to be savored over the next hour of hiking. During our trek, they were bone-dry, exposing knees and making it easier not to trip over them. If you’re wading through these hanging gardens, you may have your attention focused on the beauty around and above you and stub your foot often. Don’t try to speed through this section: enjoy the beauty and walk safely. At 6.4 miles, you slip out of a strand and into the pine woods. Look up, and you’ll see how strangely shaped the pine tree limbs are. Here, the bromeliads are so thick they’re not sure where they belong, because they are clinging to the pine trees.
Keep alert for sudden shifts in the trail here, too. Dead-ends tempt, and in some places you think you’ll just pop out on the road, but the trail turns sharply right to parallel the road, staying in the trees. Watch for those orange blazes! Cross a forest road and a buggy track; you can see the white sands of another forest road paralleling off to the left before you re-enter the pine woods. By 6.6 miles you draw close enough to the sand road that you can see it off to the left, but you continue to parallel it through splotches of shade provided by the young sand pines. Crunching over pine cones, you emerge out on the sand road at 6.8 miles. Turn left at the fork in the road, walking through deep soft sand briefly until the trail heads to the right and back into the forest.
Slash pines tower above you at 7 miles, with a lower canopy of cabbage palms adding to the cool shade of this section of trail. Cross the sand road again. At the next forest road intersection, there are watermarks on the surrounding cypress. The trail goes off to the right, eventually working its way back to the edge of the forest road to parallel it. Passing through an area at 7.3 miles, where melaleuca – one of the most insidious invasive trees in Florida – has been chopped to bits, you cross another forest road and continue straight into the forest of pines and palms. You cross two major forest roads over the next half mile, the second one a gateway into another garden of bromeliads. This particular strand has a tremendous amount of sawgrass throughout it, which can be painful if you brush against it the wrong way. Poison ivy also pops up inside this cypress strand. The forest is diminutive, very reminiscent of the ancient bald cypress strands of Big Cypress.
Passing a large deer stand on the left at 7.7 miles, you continue past an old barbed wire fence, where the trail meets a forest road and turns sharply left. After crossing the next forest road, the trail heads out into an open savanna full of spindly, old, small bald cypress, and a cypress dome off to the right. Another deer stand is a ladder with a seat atop it, leaning against a tree, at 7.9 miles.
Continuing through the Seussian forest of wizened bald cypress, the trail reaches the next island of pine forest at 8.1 miles. Cross a forest road before you enter the pines. Here, roots and pine cones supplant the foot-catching cypress knees you’ve become accustomed to. Crossing two jeep tracks in quick succession, the trail enters a cathedral of pines by 8.5 miles, where the height of the trees around you is awe-inspiring.
After meandering through a cypress dome, the trail crosses another two-lane sand jeep track. Straight ahead, the pines thin out and you see more cypress ahead. Crossing forest roads becomes a common occurrence now, and these aren’t even the random swamp buggy tracks you’ll encounter tomorrow. The landscape yields to a thicket – once a savanna – of tiny cypresses and St. John’s wort, which is soon intruded upon by a ghost forest of charred pine trees. Rounding a copse of saw palmetto at 8.9 miles, you have cypresses to your left, cypresses up ahead, and a lot of potential widowmakers all around you. Climbing up and over a berm at 9.1 miles, you leave the savanna habitat and enter a forest of tall slash pines. Cross a forest road. Up ahead, at 9.3 miles, is a memorial on the left for a well-loved hunting dog.
By 9.5 miles, you start seeing deciduous trees around you – maples, hickory, oak, and sweetgum – a sign that water is near. And indeed, the trail pops out of this shady swath of leafy canopy into a mixed pine and oak forest, reaching a road at 9.6 miles. Cross the junction of forest roads and keep left to cross the Little Gopher Canal. This is the water source for the campsite that lies just up ahead. Passing the slope that hikers use to scoop up good, clear water from the canal, the trail makes a sharp turn onto a berm to the left and follows it into the woods, flattening out to dart between stands of saw palmetto under the very shady canopy. You reach the sign for the Little Gopher Campsite at 9.7 miles. Turn right, and you’ll find the fire ring just beyond the stand of trees. The best campsites are off to your right.