Backpacking the Westernmost Section of the Florida Trail: A 32-Mile Trip Along a National Seashore

You’ll spot plenty of native species at the scenic St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge.
You’ll spot plenty of native species at the scenic St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. Orville Allen
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By the time cool October winds begin to blow across mountainous landscapes, hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trail are scrambling to wrap up their seasons. But across the country, another long-distance trail is marking the start of its season: the Florida Trail.

Signs of beach life just off the Florida Trail.
    Morgan Rice
Signs of beach life just off the Florida Trail. Morgan Rice

Spanning 1,300 miles from Pensacola to its southern trailhead west of Miami, this winding and often swampy route is a hidden gem virtually in the backyards of many Floridians. As part of a national seashore encompassing cypress groves, marshlands, longleaf pines, and oaks, the trail offers a Florida outdoor experience that’s often overshadowed the state’s reputation as a beachy paradise with its sandy white shores and crystal-clear waters. But adventurous types who choose to trek this landscape often find the solitude and wilderness of the Florida Trail well worth stepping off the sand. And they’re right—as one of only 11 scenic trails in the United States, this quiet, varied route offers an excellent outdoors excursion.

You'll spot plenty of native species at the scenic St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge.
You'll spot plenty of native species at the scenic St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. Orville Allen

The westernmost section of the Florida Trail is located in the Panhandle region, stretching from Fort Pickens along the Gulf Islands National Island Seashore in Pensacola Beach to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge near Wakulla. Bogs of endangered pitcher plants, the pristine Blackwater River, and the Gulf of Mexico itself are all highlights along this section. Long-distance hikers may also cross through Eglin Air Force Base—at 724 square miles, it’s one of the world’s largest Air Force bases—so permits are required for this stretch. Black bears, alligators, bald eagles, and even sea turtles can be found in the westernmost region among magnolias and salt marshes. The landscape is surprising in its diversity, with seashore quickly giving way to towering pines and woodland creatures.

The 1,300-mile trail starts at historic Fort Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore and it’s the only segment of a National Scenic Trail to follow an ocean beach. Named for the Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens, Fort Pickens was completed in 1834 as one of many military bases to fortify Pensacola Harbor. It was one of only a handful of southern forts that remained in Union control throughout the Civil War.

The trail continues through the location of an early Spanish settlement in the region, dating back to 1722. The trail travels back and forth between the shorelines and dunes of the island, and hikers will see plenty of plant and animal life that are unique to this section of the trail.

Traveling through Pensacola Beach, the trail becomes more urban, taking advantage of bike and walking paths in the city. But the trail becomes more scenic once again when you enter a new 3.7-mile stretch of preserved coastal dunes on Santa Rosa Island.

This early, easy section of the trail is great for day hikes. For multi-day hikers, there are plenty of coastal towns to choose from to find a place to spend the night and perhaps take a break from the hiking for a beach day.

The Florida Trail’s westernmost region is dubbed the “hilly” section, as it is home tosteep ravines, narrow footpaths, and the highest points on the trail. And while seasoned hikers will find the sea-level elevation of the state blissful compared to, say, the jagged peaks of the Tetons, Florida’s bogs, winding landscape, and creatures you don’t want to mess with add plenty of challenges for even veteran adventurers.

Birding enthusiasts will appreciate the westernmost section of the Florida Trail, which crosses the Great Florida Birding Trail in St. Mark’s and makes it prime territory for watching birds and other wildlife. Drowsy snakes, shy bears, and other more curious critters are apt to cross your path as you move along the trail; the serenity of the area draws more than just peace-seeking humans. A camera is as advised in addition to the insect repellant.

The Panhandle portion of the Florida Trail also offers the opportunity for several day hikes, including the popular Garcon Point Trail, a loop, and a stretch of land in the eastern Apalachicola region known locally as “The Cathedral.” The majority of the hikes throughout the westernmost region are dry unless there has been heavy rainfall.

A Tupelo swamp in the Apalachicola National Forest.
A Tupelo swamp in the Apalachicola National Forest. Justin Meissen

Hikers can also choose from plenty of detours along the westernmost trail. Multiple snorkeling spots along the National Island Seashore offer a prime view of marine life, and a detour to Wakulla Springs offers a welcome reprieve after a long trek. Cities like Pensacola and Tallahassee lie within minutes from the Florida Trail, too; in fact, most Floridians live within an hour of the trail itself. That this untamed path manages to exist so close to the hustle and bustle of civilization makes it even more impressive.

Preparing for a hike along the Florida Trail is unlike preparing for a trek into the Grand Canyon or across the Rockies, starting with gear: the lightest of jackets, thickest of boots, and heaviest amount of water you can carry are all advised. Florida heat can still be suppressive even during fall and winter, especially the farther south you go, and it sometimes seems that summer gives right away to a mild, soggy winter. The central and southern regions of the state are almost guaranteed to be warm year-round, with temperatures in Big Cypress National Preserve occasionally dropping into the mid-70s. The humidity can be brutal, particularly for those accustomed to drier, more temperate climates, but towering cypress, oak, and pine trees offer plenty of shade along large chunks of the westernmost trail.

Fort Pickens Beach is just one of many spectacular gulf beaches accessible by the Florida Trail.
Fort Pickens Beach is just one of many spectacular gulf beaches accessible by the Florida Trail. Natalie Maynor

As are most things in life, this trail is a trade-off: Take away the worries of avalanches and snow-ins and toss in the pesters of the insect variety. Especially in warmer temperatures, bugs can be everything from a minor annoyance to a major aggravation. If you’re planning on any overnight treks, a tent with no-see-um mesh is paramount.

Prior to their trip, hikers (especially those planning longer excursions) should contact a volunteer with the Florida Trail Association. Each chapter has resources to assist anyone with the desire to hike a few miles or hike straight through. Maps are available online from multiple outlets, and hikers should remember to follow the orange blazes.

Sunset at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Sunset at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. NPCA Photos

With a few adjustments to fit the nature of this incredible trail, hikers can expect to experience nature unlike anywhere else in the continental U.S. Slather on the repellent, pack plenty of water, and hit the westernmost Florida Trail for a few hours or a few days, and you’re sure to leave with a new appreciation for the often-overlooked opportunities for adventure that the state has to offer.

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