Updated: Jan 4
Known as being one of the oldest state parks in Florida, Highlands Hammock State Park is a must visit hiking destination. The park contains a vast variety of ecosystems across its 9,000 acres, including old-growth hammocks and cypress swamps. In this hammock we found towering palm trees and live oaks with Spanish moss cascading from their branches. Dense trees make it difficult for light to filter down to the forest floor, which is covered with lush ferns and tiny palms. Nine different nature trails take hikers through dense jungle-like foliage. Derek and I were able to use the park’s extensive system of hiking trails to trek to the heart of the jungle, and get a taste of Florida wilderness full of citrus, swamps, and alligators!
Along with hiking, the state park also offers bike rentals, a museum, and a guided tram ride. Bicyclists can enjoy the 3.1 mile Loop Drive and the other bike trails that link to the county’s multi-use paths cutting through Sebring. Bike trail maps can be found at the Ranger Station. Those interested in staying inside the state park can take a one-hour guided tram tour. Tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday at 11 am and 1 pm for an additional ticket fee, not included in the $6 per vehicle park entrance fee. On this visit we weren’t able to fit a tram ride into our schedule, but the tour comes highly recommended and tickets can be difficult to get. Visitors are able to reach the more remote areas of the park, while learning about park history and ecology and seeing abundant wildlife.
Wild Orange Trail - 2,929 feet - 30 minutes
After stopping at the Ranger Station to pay our entrance fee and grab a park map, we easily found parking near the Orange Grove picnic area. This spot was apparently home to an early Florida pioneer who cleared the area with an ax and planted orange trees around his cabin. Deer tend to be seen in this location around dusk. From the picnic area Derek and I headed toward the Wild Orange Trail. Immediately I was distracted by large palms and leaping lizards. Anoles were literally jump from palm tree to palm tree and rustling around. After spending quite some time taking pictures and watching the lizards we eventually looked up to realize that there were citrus trees everywhere! Giant oranges swayed on the branches above us as we hiked over bridges and through hardwood swamps. After a short walk we came upon a clearing with the Hammock Inn Concession and CCC Museum.
Civilian Conservation Corps Museum
At the Hammock Inn Concession visitors can buy their tram tickets or camping supplies. Sour orange pie and ice cream are delicacies offered at the concession, made from some of the citrus grown and picked at Highlands Hammock. Derek and I also found a 10,000 year old fossil of a giant tortoise tucked away in a corner. This beautiful specimen was unearthed in the 1930’s from within the state park boundaries.
Early on in our visit, Derek and I stopped at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum. The CCC was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided manual labor jobs, related to conservation of natural resources. From 1933 to 1942 young men ages 18-25 signed up for this voluntary work relief program during a time very difficult to get work. With the Great Depression affecting the entire country, over 3 million young men labored with the Civilian Conservation Corps. These men were doing backbreaking work to build some of the most beautiful parks around our nation, all for around $30 a month ($25 of which would be sent home to support their families). Museum artifacts offered us a glimpse into the rich life at CCC Camps, and photos of early Highlands Hammock State Park construction. Derek and I were both in awe at what the CCC was able to accomplish during its heyday, and thankful to the corporation for many state and federal landmarks. Thank you members of the CCC!
Alexander Blair Big Oak Trail - 975 feet - 15 minutes
Eager to get back to more of Highlands Hammock State Park trails, we doubled back on Wild Orange Trail until we reached the trailhead for Alexandria Blair Big Oak Trail. The shortest of the nine state park trails is home to one of the largest trees in the park. A short distance around the loop from the trailhead sits the big oak tree. It’s gnarled stump grows upward, the root system ensnaring anything that sits close for too long. Thousand-year-old bark of the tree swirls and pools together like the ripples of a fast moving river. Ferns grown rapidly around the base of the old tree, measures 36 feet around.
Hickory Trail - 2,200 feet - 30 minutes
From the Big Oak Trail loop Derek and I jumped onto Hickory Trail. This is the only trail in the park that crosses over the loop drive, and connects the Big Oak Trail and the Fern Garden Trail. As we hiked, lush foliage and citrus surrounded us, as well as large pignut hickory trees. We even found one tree stunted by fire, creating a hollow black space large enough for us to stand inside the tree. Continuing further along the trail we found a narrow catwalk bridge that transported us across swampy forest floor to the beginning of Fern Garden Trail.
Fern Garden Trail - 1,641 feet - 20 minutes
Derek and I had heard the Fern Garden Trail was going to be our best chance of seeing an alligator in the park, and we couldn’t wait. Derek has been on the hunt to see an alligator in the wild since we left Pennsylvania with no luck. At this point we had only seen plenty of posted signs that alligators may be in an area, but no majestic beasts. We took the gorgeous and sunny boardwalk trail through hardwood swamp area and kept our eyes on the lookout for a gator. Sadly, we didn’t spot any of our reptilian friends. Perhaps earlier in the day, when the full sunshine was out, we would have seen ourselves a gator. However, what seemed like hundreds of birds swooped and called all around us. We followed the boardwalk to a dead end, where Derek and I decided to take a short break and enjoy the live music.
Cypress Swamp Trail - 2,355 feet - 30 minutes
Once we reached the main Loop Drive again, Derek and I walked back to our parked car and drove to the Cypress Swamp Trail parking area. Signage at the trailhead suggests that visitors can see alligators, birds, and snakes if they look carefully at their surroundings and walk quietly. We hopped onto a large boardwalk and slinked further into the dense vegetation. Cypress swamp borders a black water stream that reflect the tall trees, Spanish moss, and clouds in the sky. Boardwalk platforms turned into a jagged-lined catwalk as we pushed further into the swamp. The thin four plank wide pathway allowed us to access the natural community of the Charlie Bowlegs Creek that runs through the west side of Highlands Hammock State Park. The elevated boardwalk along the Cypress Swamp Trail offers views of ibis, herons, alligators, and turtles. Unknowingly, Derek and I stumbled into our favorite trail of the day. Quietly making our way across the catwalk we weren’t seeing much wildlife at first. Then looking across the water to our right, we saw our prize, Florida’s state reptile in all its prehistoric glory! Passing eight-feet in length, the sizable alligator lay motionless among floating water lilies. Its knobbed and armored scales glinted in the golden afternoon sun, and we stood in awe at the elegant statuesque creature only 25 feet away. Finally we had seen an alligator in its natural habitat!
Ancient Hammock Trail - 3,005 feet - 35 minutes
We decided to celebrate the gator sighting by squeezing in one more trail before the park closed at sunset, and headed over toward Ancient Hammock Trail. This is the longest hiking trail in the park, and took us through some of the oldest sections of the hammock. Derek and I enjoyed the wide variety of plants and trees along the trail; at this trailhead I am convinced we saw grapefruit growing! We also explored a bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Near the bridge we stopped to read a copy of “The Prayer of the Woods,” a prayer invoking mindfulness, used in the Portuguese forest preservations for more than 1,000 years.
The Prayer of the Woods
I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun, and my fruits are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you journey on.
I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat.
I am the handle of your hoe, the door of your homestead, the wood of your cradle, and the shell of your coffin.
I am the bread of kindness and the flower of beauty. 'Ye who pass by, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.
Highlands Hammock State Park Trails
Derek and I were thrilled with our experience at Highlands Hammock State Park. This must visit hiking destination was full of natural wonders, along nine different nature trails. We were able to trek through thick jungle-like foliage to get a sense of primitive heartland Florida environment, and learn about park history and ecology. While hiking we saw a huge variety of wildlife, including birds and camouflaged alligators. Derek and I were able to trek into the heart of the Florida jungle. We can’t wait to go back to check out the rest of Highlands Hammock State Park trails, take a tram tour, and see where our next $6 adventure takes us!