Encompassing a virtual jungle of ancient oak hammocks and floodplain forests to the west of Lake Jackson, Highlands Hammock State Park is Sebring’s crown jewel and a Florida State Park that you won’t want to miss. Nine nature trails ramble through a variety of habitats, but the core of the park – massive oaks and fern-lined creeks – is crisscrossed and looped by a network of five short trails that are a must-walk. Home to Florida’s only Civilian Conservation Corps Museum and one of Florida’s oldest state parks, it’s also the home of the sour orange milkshake, a treat you’ll find at the Hammock Inn across from the museum.
Length: 2.9 miles
Type: loops and round-trips
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the Hammock Inn
Additional trails in the park include the Ancient Hammock Trail, Young Hammock Trail, Cypress Swamp Trail, and Altvater Trail, which starts at the campground. Arrive early: the Hammock Inn typically closes by 2.
From US 27 heading south through Sebring, turn west on CR 634 / Hammock Drive, which heads straight into the park. Stop and pay your state park admission fee. Continue down the road to start the scenic drive. Just after you turn right onto the one-way loop, look for a parking spot on your right at the “Hickory Trail” sign and park here.
There are two trail systems radiating from this parking spot, and rather than head out on the obvious one in front of you – the better to save treats for later -- cross the road. You are beneath the deep shade of an oak hammock, with massive bromeliads dangling overhead like chandeliers. Reaching a boardwalk, you walk into a wonderland of ferns, reaching a T intersection at a pond. Turn right.
The boardwalk ends, and you’re on a narrow path between the sword fern. At the bridge, turn left and cross it to start the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail, which heads into a floodplain forest dense with elms, hickory, and cabbage palm. Reaching the next boardwalk, you’re in the stillness of a primeval swamp. The boardwalk zigzags and reaches a junction at a bench. Continue straight, and you end up at an observation platform after 0.3 mile. Enjoy the view and the serenity of the swamp.
Turn around and retrace your steps back to the last junction with the bench. Turn left. The boardwalk ends, dropping you into a stand of tall cabbage palms and hickories. Sword ferns carpet the forest floor. Emerging at the Lieber Memorial trailhead along Hammock Drive, turn right to continue along this loop. At the bridge, cross it and continue straight ahead, following the high ground as it curves around the edge of the swamp. After 0.7 mile, you emerge at the Fern Garden trailhead along Hammock Drive. Turn left to follow the boardwalk along the loop. It provides an excellent view of the pond, glittery in water spangles, where an alligator drifts along the far shore. Pickerelweed pops with its purple blooms. You reach the first trail junction, ending this loop. Turn right and follow the Hickory Trail back through the shade to the parking area on Hammock Drive.
Cross the road and continue along the trail past your car to start the Hickory Trail in earnest, in the deep shade of an ancient oak hammock, its canopy high above. Dragonflies flutter between the American beautyberry. Cinnamon fern, sword fern, stands of wild coffee, and marlberry line the footpath. In this lush, humid environment, needle palm thrives. This is a trail that invites you to crane your neck upward in amazement at the height of the cabbage palms above.
After a few minutes, you reach an enormous oak tree, its interior hollowed out so greatly that you can stand inside of it. A bouquet of sword ferns dangles from a knot in the tree trunk above. This is one heck of a tree, but it’s not the biggest oak in this forest. That one lies ahead. Yet this is a forest of the ancients. The next massive oak catches a spindly cabbage palm in its crooked embrace.
At 1.1 mile, you reach a decision point where the Big Oak Trail and the Hickory Trail meet. The Hickory Trail spills out into a large open area to your right, a clearing where a pioneer family planted an orange grove in the 1800s. Head down the Big Oak Trail. The sign ahead warns “Slippery When Wet” as you approach one of the original CCC-era boardwalks, where a single rail helps you keep your balance as you walk the narrow catwalk over this fern-filled marsh. Yes, it tilts, too. The sensation is that of crossing a very long log – and it’s best that you don’t meet someone coming the other way.
At the far end of the boardwalk is a T intersection, and immediately to the right is what is left of the now-dead Big Oak, such a gnarled mass of tree with a base textured like elephant skin. The sign at its base claims the tree is 36 feet in circumference and at least 1,000 years old. It took me 33 paces to walk around its base. Look at it and thank Margaret Roebling, widow of John Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, who bought this land in the late 1920s to protect the forest from being cut down for a farm. Highlands Hammock opened to the public in 1931, and became one of Florida’s first four state parks in 1935.
Turn right to pass the bench and follow the trail under the shady canopy, emerging at Hammock Drive. This floodplain forest is full of wild citrus trees naturalized here from the pioneer-era orange grove. The trail curves to the left, and poison ivy creeps up close to the sides of the footpath. The swamp yields to a hardwood hammock filled with ferns, and then to pine flatwoods as you emerge behind a building at the end of the trail – the Hammock Inn, built by the CCC – at 1.9 miles. Arrive before 2 PM and you’ll have the delight of ordering a wild orange milkshake, wild orange pie, or wild orange ice cream, all made with citrus from the park. Across the parking area is the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which preserves the memory of the thousands of men who worked in Florida’s public lands during the 1930s to carve trails and build structures for public access and enjoyment.
Leaving this area, head back to the “Wild Orange Grove Trail” sign and continue back the way you came through the hammocks, crossing Hammock Drive to continue along the Big Oak Trail. Standing at the base of the Big Oak once more, turn right to walk the loop. The trees are enormous throughout this hammock— not just oaks, but hickory, sweetgum, and red maple trees as well. The trail curves left past another oak with a hollow in it big enough to serve as a bear’s den. When you reach the boardwalk, you’ve finished the loop. Turn right and play balance beam again across the catwalk. Walking beneath the grapefruit trees on the far side, you reach the final trail junction. Turn right. Continue beneath the ancient oaks to emerge at the parking area after 2.9 miles.