Most people don’t think of Florida when they think of amazing hikes. The sunshine state is also, perhaps, not what hikers think of when they think of difficult hikes. True, Florida is mostly at sea level, so there’s not a ton of elevation gain and loss, and the air is quite thick and rich with oxygen. And true, it boasts temperate weather most of the year. But let me assure you, I completed the most difficult hike of my life, right here in Florida a few weeks ago.
Birds, and other fauna abound in the Big Cypress, a massive part of the Everglades ecosystem.
Ellen and I try to winter in Florida every year, like every other 65+ person in the U.S, because of course, we both appreciate the weather. She loves the Gulf beaches, and I love the abundance of critters, and challenging landscapes to photograph.
This year, I decided to make it a goal to section hike the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST or simply FT), a 1300 mile span of the entire state. I wanted to explore this diverse and beautiful state, and to get my hiking and wilderness fix, in spite of the season. I figured to do it quite passively, with no real end date in sight. We only spend a few months every few winters here, so I wanted to approach the task realistically. I wish I had read this article by Outside first, but alas, I only found it after while researching some info for this post.
If your hiking NOBO (northbound) on the Florida Trail, you start at the southern terminus, at the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve. This is known as the most remote, most dangerous 31 mile section of the entire 1300 miles. Great way to “get your feet wet.” I would come to find that expression translates literally in this case.
It is recommended to take three days to do this section, so of course I decided to make it an overnighter. The first day I planned to do 17 miles from the start at US 41, and the second day, 14 miles, with Ellen picking me up at the end of my section, I-75 (Alligator Alley), at 5PM.
February is considered the “dry season,” however, I only found about 3-4 miles out of the 31 to be actual dry land. The rest of the hike, I was in 6-18 inches of water and muck.
The Big Cypress section of the FT is known as one of, if not the hardest hike in the U.S.
This is prime alligator and snake country. And with temps reaching 87 degrees during the day, it is not uncommon to come across reptiles in Big Cypress, even in February. Many dangerous and some venomous.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are just one of the venomous snakes commonly found throughout Big Cypress.
Thankfully, I only came in close contact with a water moccasin once. But the opportunities abound.
The orange blazes marked on the cypress and pines help to keep the hiker on trail, when the trail is not always so visible.
It is a truly haunting and beautiful landscape though. Vast cypress strands with bromeliads create hanging gardens to slosh beneath. Your eyes are constantly tilting down, watching the murky waters for danger, then glaring up to make sure you still see the orange blazes, on many stretches, the only indicators of your trail. To top it off, there is almost no shade on the entire hike.
Only a few miles in this realization hits… your exposure to the blazing sun is profound and inescapable. Even in winter.
The cypress swamps are beautiful gardens teeming with amazing plants and animals.
Lovely wildflowers dot the swampy landscape, even in winter.
After deciding to stop several times the first day well short of my 17 mile goal, I came across two guys hiking SOBO (southbound). They told me that if I could make it the 3-4 more miles to 13 Mile Camp (confusing, because if hiking NOBO, it’s actually 17 miles in) I would find dry land on which to comfortably camp and a large trail maintenance group that was giving out water.
I had underestimated how much water to bring, so this info came to me as the best motivator possible. Of course I brought my filter, but I can assure you I only wanted to drink the water I was sloshing though as a last resort. So I pushed on.
I reached 13 Mile Camp with a few hours of sunlight to spare. I started my hike a bit late that day at 10AM, and reached the 17 mile mark at 4:30PM. I won’t lie, I was completely exhausted. My feet were sore from the constant post-holing up and down through deep mud. My shoes never got dry on the entire hike.
But I made it.
It is not at all uncommon to stumble upon alligators on this section of the Florida Trail.
The trail crew could not have been nicer. They were camped only a quarter of a mile or so away. They gave me as much water as I wanted, and so I alleviated the symptoms of dehydration I was already showing. I stumbled back to my lonely camp and crashed. The anxiety for tomorrow, and the warnings for what lie ahead from the trail crew swirled in my thoughts. I had told them I made it this far in one day and that I planned to do the rest of this section tomorrow, and I saw the looks they gave one another. Their lack of confidence in me was palatable.
Trekking poles are a must if backpacking the Big Cypress section.
When I got reception for a moment the next morning, I called Ellen to tell her to plan on not picking me up today… I would need another night out and a half day to complete this section. I felt a bit defeated.
I’m comfortable tackling 15-20 miles at high elevations, carrying 50 lbs on my back. Here, I was at sea level, carrying only 35-40 lbs. How was it that Florida was kicking my butt already?
Yet, I pressed on. One step at a time.
That’s the “mantra” I use when a hike seems too difficult for me… “one step at a time, Andrew. Just one. Step. At. A. Time.” It’s become a lovely metaphor for life for me. When trials come, disaster hits, despair takes hold… “one step at a time, Andrew. Just one. Step. At. A. Time.”
I know it’s cliche, but hiking/ backpacking really is an uncanny metaphor for life. You have your mountaintops and moments where you are overwhelmed by all of the beauty, and then the long, seemingly never-ending uphill slog, when you feel like you can’t take it anymore. And all you have to do is put one proverbial foot in front of the other. And then again. And again. Until, eventually, you reach the mountaintop again, and take your rest.
The birds of Big Cypress are plentiful and fascinating.
Sunrise and sunset in Big Cypress are worth all of the pain and misery.
Birds (and water) are the only constant companions on this lonely section of trail.
Day two was a test of will. It was definitely more challenging than day one. The submerged swamp sections grew longer and more maze-like, the water deeper, the mud more viscus. I nearly fell several times, which could have been incredibly defeating. If you are considering hiking this section, and I do realize that’s unlikely after reading this post, may I suggest trekking poles. I would even venture to say that this hike wouldn’t be possible without them.
Even through several miles of being slowed to one mile per hour, I was actually making good time. I couldn’t believe it. My “one step at a time” mantra was working.
I got reception and hurried to call Ellen. I was already going to run out of water again if I stayed another night, and I was beginning to see the possibility of finishing as planned on day two. My will to finish was kicking in. The mosquitos, wet feet, and difficult steps were enough at this point to propel me forward to unending fresh water, my bed, and an escape from the bugs.
Starting at 8AM, I was able to make it to the finish line ahead of schedule, at 4:30PM.
I hit the pavement of the I-75 rest area, tossed my pack to the ground and immediately ripped my soaked, muddy shoes and socks off. It was one of the best feelings to know that I accomplished what I set out to do. Ellen pulled up with the pups only a half hour later, with a victory beer in a beachy coozie.
So I’m sure you are asking yourself “why?” Rightfully so. Ellen asked me several times before and after. And I think the best answer I could muster was that sometimes the hard things, the things that haunt our dreams and cause us to worry… the things that we fear, the unknown… these are the things we must confront. For confidence in ourselves and our abilities, but also to force ourselves to rely on God for strength and protection. Tasks that just seem too tall for us to take on, are the best places for us to dig deep within ourselves to find strength we didn’t know we even had. And more than this, to look outside ourselves for help when we realize we don’t actually have the strength to go on.
The current level of comfort in our age betrays us.
When I get the “why” question, I often think of JFK’s speech about going to the moon. And I find it apropos as people look at me like I’m crazy when I place myself in challenging and difficult, and sometimes even dangerous situations.
How else can you measure a man, if not to put him to the test?
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” ~ JFK, 1962
When asked immediately after finishing by a tourist pulling up, “how was it?” I told him I wouldn’t recommend it.
But now, several days later, I actually might consider doing it again. And I actually would recommend it… only to the resilient… with eyes wide open.