Take a walk on the wet side! Built by Boy Scouts, this slosh through Picayune Strand State Forest celebrates the preservation of a segment of the Big Cypress Swamp that was once a part of the biggest real estate scam in Florida. As befits a swamp, the trail is partially under water in all but the dry spring months, so you’ll be wading through the cypress sloughs on your way to the campsite, which is near the intersection of the two loops. You may see colorful pine lilies poke out of the grass under the pines and a variety of orchids bloom in the canopy of cypress trees throughout the strand.
Length: Nested loops of 2.2 and 3.5 miles
Trailhead: 26.095287, -81.634100
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: troublesome to irritating
This hike is in a very remote area and is best visited with a companion. During the wet season, you may find the trail up to waist-deep in places. The return route is not clearly signposted; be alert for landmarks, or use a map and compass. Mosquitoes can be fierce. Hunting is permitted in the forest during certain seasons; wear blaze orange if you hike the trail during hunting season.
From I-75 exit 101 take CR 951 (Collier Blvd) south 4.8 miles to Sabal Palm Rd. Turn left and follow the road, which becomes dirt. After 3.4 miles, keep alert on the right for a driveway leading back to the trailhead parking and kiosk.
Orange metal hiker markers and silver arrow symbols point the way up the trail, which starts off in the pine flatwoods. This is a young slash pine forest, with an understory of wax myrtle and saw palmettos. In fall, look for the showy red pine lily, one of the most dazzling flowers of the pine flatwoods. At 0.1 mile, you pass the first campsite—simply a picnic bench set in a clearing. As the trail meets faint side paths and firebreaks, large arrows point you down the correct path. Dropping down into the cypress slough, you’re surrounded by the young pond cypresses characteristic of the Big Cypress Swamp.
Passing the next firebreak going off to the right at 0.4 mile, you immediately come up to another one coming in from the left. Take a look at your surroundings and remember them, as the firebreak from the left is the end of Loop A. The trail rises up into slash pines and melaleuca, nice open flatwoods with a grassy understory and scattered clumps of saw palmetto, with patches of marsh ferns at the bases of trees. At 0.7 mile, the trail reaches a T intersection with a jeep road. Turn left to continue along the loop.
As you walk along the edge of another cypress slough, you see the pink blossoms of marsh mallow poking out of the tall grass. Despite the name “Sabal Palm Hiking Trail,” you don’t see the first sabal palm – another name for cabbage palm – until nearly a mile into the hike. Pickerelweed grows along the edges of the trail, which may be particularly wet through this section as you walk down through a mix of cypresses and pines.
The second campsite sits at the junction of Loop A and Loop B, at 1.1 miles. It includes a barbecue grill as well as a picnic table. This is your decision point. For a longer hike – not recommended if the trail has been flooded thus far – turn right to follow Loop B counterclockwise through the cypress strand, adding 1.3 miles to your hike. Keeping to the shorter hike, turn left. The trail enters a stand of towering slash pines, rising up into the forest, with underbrush crowding close on both sides. The narrow corridor is an old tram road used to access the cypress swamp for logging during the 1940s and 1950s, when cypresses towering more than a hundred feet tall once covered this land.
At 1.3 miles, the trail reaches Wiggins Field Road, one of the many old subdivision roads built for the former South Golden Gate Estates. Continue straight along the hard-packed limestone until you reach a small green sign that says “Sabal Palm Hiking Trail” and an arrow to the left. Turn left and return to the footpath, which now follows a firebreak through the wet flatwoods. Although the trail runs relatively straight, it goes through several brief but sharp sets of right and left turns to adjust its course, and it is in this section that the flatwoods drain into the trail at all times of year, especially after a rain. Wade carefully. As the trail enters a cypress stand, you see the bright red berries of dahoon holly, a splash of color against the otherwise green and brown forest. Morning glory vines dangle from the trees as you follow the arrows around another sharp turn, venturing deeper into the cypress swamp.
Although it’s difficult to distinguish you’ve completed the loop, at 1.8 miles you reach a rough T intersection with a hiker marker posted on a tree off to the left. Turn right to exit the trail. You pass a firebreak going off to the left. Continue down the trail. There are no markers facing you in this direction, but the footpath should be obvious. Rising back up into the pine flatwoods, you pass the picnic table at the first campsite. Within a few moments, you reach the end of the trail at the kiosk, completing your 2.2-mile hike.