Wintertime is hiking time in South Florida

OKEECHOBEE — With the cooler winter temperatures, lower humidity and lessened chances of afternoon downpours, December through March is the best time to go for a hike in South Florida.

For residents and visitors to the Okeechobee area, a number of improved trails are available in Okeechobee, Glades and Highlands counties.

The Florida National Scenic Trail follows the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail around the lake on the top of the dike and then follows the Kissimmee River north on the Glades County side of the river.

Entry gate and trail sign.

Unfortunately, much of the trail around the lake and along the river are now closed due to the construction projects that are taking place on the dike, and along the course of the river, north of the lake. Near Fort Bassinger, on U.S. 98, just north of County Road 721, is a trail head of the Great Florida Scenic Trail.

The trail from here, generally follows the edge of the Kissimmee River flood plane to the northwest into Highlands County. Following U.S. 98 northwest, there are multiple trail heads identified with new signage and access roads.

This is a trail through the trees.

I recently sampled a small part of the trail, leaving from the trail head at Hickory Hammock and traveling through the Hickory Hammock Wildlife Management Area, which is adjacent to the Kissimmee River Public Use Area.

The Hickory Hammock trail head is found a half mile northwest of the U.S. 98 bridge over the Istokpoga Canal on the north side of the road and is signed as such. There is parking for plenty of cars, a shade structure with tables and information signage is found there as well.

Important: There are NOT any public facilities of any kind, or water available at this site. If you stop at the Istokpoga Canal Boat Ramp park, a half mile before Hickory Hammock, there are facilities available there.

Entering the gate, between the parking lot and the Wildlife Management Area, the trail is easy to see, and it appears to be well maintained.

Here is evidence of trail maintenance.

Understand, this is a hiking trail, not a sidewalk and as such the path can be rough and full of roots and ruts and hikers need to be careful of their footing.

I find it helps to have a hiking stick or staff of some kind with me to provide a third point of contact with the ground. Unlike similar hiking paths in other parts of the country, this path is pretty well flat, as the terrain here tends to be, so there are few hills and even fewer mountains to deal with.

Direction signs and white blaze on the tree.

Indeed, the portion of the trail that I sampled crossed a mostly sandy flat, full of mature oak and palm trees, and was heavily shaded in places.

Just about a quarter of a mile from the parking lot I came upon a signpost with arrowed signs and distances shown to other trail heads and points of interest. It was there that I found there was an established camping area some 2.1 miles farther on and the parking lot was .2 miles behind me. So, the campsite became my goal for the day, figuring the round trip was about four and a half miles.

The trail is very well marked with white blazes painted on trees, and in most places is well enough traveled to make it easy to follow. From time to time I would come upon a decision point, where the next trail marking blaze was not apparent, but by moving forward another few yards in what I guessed to be the correct direction, a marker would come into view. I was hiking in the afternoon, and when I left my vehicle it said it was about 82 degrees, but with the breeze that day, and the deep shade provided by the trees in the hammock, it was really quite pleasant. As I was NOT carrying an overnight load, but only camera and some water, I could move along at a brisk pace, and in a little over an hour, I came upon a sign directing me to the campsite.

Campsite with table and firepit on the Hickory Hammock trail head.

There I found an open area in the hammock, surrounded by large mature oak trees, and in the opening a picnic table, benches and an established fire pit with an attached grill. A very nice place for an overnight stay, and still quite near the parking area.

Also at that camping area was a mailbox on a post with the flag up, and a Florida Trail marker. This is common along hiking trails and camp sites, to have a mailbox as a waterproof place to keep a guest book. Unlike others I have seen over the years, this mailbox contained not only a guest book, but had been filled with other camp necessities like matches, bug spray, a small flashlight, some batteries, toilet paper, dish soap and some more things in the back that I didn’t dig out. It was like a small convenience store, the only thing missing was a bottle of water.

Mailbox with goodies inside.

Trail guest book from the mailbox.

I took a moment to add an entry into the guest book, and read several others.

The last people to stay at the campsite and sign the book were there the weekend before Thanksgiving. Having stopped and refreshed with the ice water I was carrying, I took some photos and was on my way back to the parking area. Again, the trail was well marked on the way back, and coming from the opposite direction from earlier, it all looked new. I watched for the white blazes on the trees and only really lost the trail one time, where it crossed a two-track road, but recalling that the trial crossed the track several times, I stuck with it and found the trail at the next crossing.

The entire round trip, to the campsite and back took about two and a half hours of steady walking, and was most enjoyable as the trail moves well away from the U.S. 98 corridor and you quickly lose the sound of the trucks that frequent that road and are soon engulfed with the sounds of nature.

The terrain is mostly sandy and dry this time of the year, and I encountered very few bugs. But, later in the evening they may become a problem.

Campsite sign, water 2 miles farther on.

Remember there is no water available at the campsite. Indeed, the sign directing to the camp site had a smaller sign directing that water was some 2 miles farther on, down a side trail.

Another thing to consider is that this trail is contained in a wildlife management area that allows hunting. I didn’t see any hunters when I was there, but I also made sure to wear brightly colored clothing so as not to be confused with a deer or turkey. Check local hunting regulations if you are not aware of when the season is, and be considerate of hunters in the woods if it is season by wearing bright colors and moving quietly.

So, it’s the season, take time to go out and hike!

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