Each fall, when the days become clear and dry and the evenings becoming cool and crisp, Florida’s hiking season starts.
Our snowbird friends descend to join us on trails that are less muddy, less buggy, less hot than the rest of the year.
They visit and show us photos of hikes in the long green tunnel of the Appalachian forests, of climbs above timberline in the Colorado Rockies, of walking behind a line of shaggy yaks along a narrow muddy track in Nepal. They talk of vistas, of views, of overlooks. We look, we sigh. We resign ourselves to our state’s overall elevation gain of a few hundred feet. There are no mountains to climb, no sweeping vistas to show off. They ask us, then,
“What’s so special about Florida?”
It’s a question I pondered time and again after moving from the leafy Appalachian foothills to the sandhills of Central Florida, and I was only able to answer it by spending time on the trail. Days, weeks, months passed, the subtle change of the seasons caught in an explosion of red maple leaves along the Econlockhatchee River, a slight fall chill at sunset. I searched for that special essence from the brilliant sugar sands of Pensacola to the marshes along the St. Johns River, on day hikes and loop trails, on backpacking trips on the Florida Trail. My answer?
It’s in the details.
When you spend enough time in the woods, you notice the little things. Elevation, for instance. Granted, on the Suwannee, the “Econ,” the Aucilla, and the Sopchoppy, you’re going to notice the elevation changes. Rivers do wonderful things to our landscapes. But pay attention as you walk a “flat” trail. Only six inches of elevation change utterly alters the ecosystem. Pond pine and slash pine yield to longleaf as you plod upward, with sand pine and wild rosemary coloring the desert-like uplands. In floodplain forests, sweet bay magnolia crowd closely together to lap up seasonal marsh waters, forming bayheads. Bayheads often yield to hydric hammocks—misty jungles of ferns, cypresses, and cabbage palms. Where else in this country can you find a hydric hammock? To me, these tangled lowlands represent quintessential Florida—deep, dark, mysterious, and wild. We have our wondrous springs, gushing forth millions of gallons of fresh, clear water, and the mysterious depths of our trailside sinkholes, alive with ferns, mosses, and creatures that delight in their cool shadows. Walking across wide-open prairies, we have our own version of the “Big Sky.”
Tiny details catch my eye, all speaking of the essence of Florida. Wiregrass fades to a purple haze in the waning winter sun. The gnarled arms of young live oaks knit a canopy scarcely over my head. Deer moss clusters along the trail like seafoam. Like blobs of raspberry jam, delicate carnivorous sundew plants quiver and sparkle in the morning sun. A bright green anole plays hide and seek on the wildfire-scarred trunk of an ancient slash pine. A gopher tortoise takes a bite out of a prickly pear cactus, then strolls downs its own well-worn trail to its hole. Sandhill cranes wheel overhead in a blur of gray and black, their frames so impossibly large and colorful.
This is Florida. Before your snowbird friends depart this spring for their mountain abodes, be sure to take them on a hike and point out what’s so special about our outdoors.