Hiking Southward: Adventures from Florida's Panhandle to Big Cypress

By Jesse “The Boston Mule” Cody

Although I'd heard about it, and not always in glowing terms, the Florida Trail had never made it onto my bucket list of hikes. Why should it? Who thinks of hiking in Florida? But there I was, committed to hiking 5,000 miles in 2023, looking for a suitable trail to conquer in January and February. My options were slim. Florida was it – my only reasonable option.

My good buddy Mateo, courtesy of our kind sponsor Zpacks out of Melbourne, Florida, thought it would be a stroke of genius for me to head down to the Sunshine State. Yeah, because Florida's just the ultimate hiking destination, right? I couldn't resist teasing him, saying, "Oh, you mean the Gator State, don't you, Mateo?", he shot back, insisting it's the incredible Sunshine State. I'll leave you to sense the level of banter and sarcasm between us.

It wasn’t long after mustering up my resolve, prodded by a bit of convincing, that I found myself on the white sandy shores of Pensacola. Gazing across the vast expanse of beach, adorned with its tourist attractions, towering apartments, and stilted homes, I pondered what adventures this new "natural" setting would offer. Could tent stakes even hold in what seemed like finely ground, speckled rock shards masquerading as sand?

Unlike the sheltered, wooded trails I've grown accustomed to on most of America's great hiking routes, navigating the sinking sandy steps was a slow and laborious process as I embarked on the first leg of my year-long, 5,000-mile journey. Maybe this was just a taste of what the rumors had warned about regarding the Florida Trail – long, monotonous stretches under the blazing sun, leading you deeper into the abyss of Florida's wilderness.

During my research, I learned that after trekking along the beaches and absorbing the rhythmic sounds of the waves alongside distant shipping container horns, I'd transition from those vacation-worthy shores into the woodlands, starting with a crossing through Eglin Air Force Base. Entering this realm felt like stepping into familiar territory, yet tinged with a hint of skepticism fueled by the ominous rumors of what lay ahead.

"Is that a missile shell? Welcome to the base! Watch your step..." Despite the abrupt transition, as I ventured beyond the military installations, the natural allure of the base's surroundings gradually won me over. Towering pine forests embraced me, reminiscent of the landscapes I knew well. The forest floor teemed with life, a vibrant canvas painted in hues of fluorescent greenish-gray by the deer moss carpeting the ground.

As the days progressed, each brought its own set of surprises, often involving a lengthy road walk to reconnect with the genuine wilderness scenery. Encounters with KFC and McDonald's were a far cry from my usual experiences of getting in touch with nature. These arduous stretches of pavement, with the roar of engines just a stone's throw away, presented a different kind of challenge from the ones I was accustomed to facing on the many long-distance trails I've tackled.

The Florida Trail truly feels like a mental chess match, constantly balancing between paved paths of frustration and the captivating ecosystems that lie beyond. Joined by Mateo and my newfound companion, Trystan, for a section of the trail, offered a welcomed break from my usual partner, solitude. We immersed ourselves in Florida's breathtaking beauty: a blend of majestic pines and expansive Flatwoods. It felt like stepping into entirely new terrain every few hours, keeping me constantly engaged and delighted by Florida's diverse ecosystems. That's one thing you have to hand to Florida – it never fails to keep you on your toes with its ecosystem delights.

Miles seem to fly by on the flat terrain of Florida. But no matter the trail or path, conquering climbs remains a “challenge” I'm all too familiar with. Back home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my backyard hikes typically involve tackling 1,000-foot elevation gains. So, when I reached the Florida Trail's "mighty" peak of 272 feet, you can imagine the overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Well, more like the need for a breather and a good chuckle at the irony of it all. But hey, every trail has its own unique challenges, right?

As the miles flew by, time on the trail seemed to accelerate. Before I knew it, I was making a right turn and bidding farewell to Florida's panhandle. It was time for another section hike accompanied by friends and fellow outdoor enthusiasts brought together through my connection with Zpacks. Mateo, Joe (the mastermind behind Zpacks), Shane, Kevin, Mischief, Courtney, and a few others joined me for a few days, bringing along laughter, smiles, engaging conversations, and, of course, some incredible trail magic in the form of grilled treats and ice-cold sodas (big shoutout to Steven!).

As we set up camp, with a colorful array of Zpack Plex Solos and Duplexes, along with Arc Haul and Sub Nero backpacks scattered throughout the camping area, a curious camper not part of our group approached us and asked, "Are you guys a professional team sponsored by Zpacks?" I could almost feel the pride emanating from Joe and Mateo at that moment. In response, I chuckled and said, "There's nothing professional about us. I'm just lucky to have an amazing group of supportive friends helping me navigate through the challenges of Florida's rugged, long trail."

As my journey continued southward, my days of enjoying the company of fellow hikers were drawing to a close. Now, my sights were set on Big Cypress, with the path ahead fraught with its own challenges. There were still stretches of relentless road walking, encounters with wildlife in the form of aggressive dogs looking for trouble, and ominous warning signs that read, "NO TRESPASSING OR YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SITE. TRY US!" It was an unnerving sight that gave me pause.

I quickly learned the hard way that even when I was supposedly on "trail," I was still marching too close to someone's territory. A few warning shots overhead served as a stark reminder to keep my wits about me and remain vigilant, even amidst the supposed safety of the trail. Having a gun fired in my direction was definitely a first for me, and as I hiked on, my heart racing and adrenaline pumping, I couldn't help but check my pants to make sure I hadn't... well, you know. I fervently hoped that this terrifying experience would be my last encounter with gunshots on the trail.

Despite the fear and adrenaline, this harrowing experience only fueled my determination rather than deterring me. I shrugged off the encounter as part of the adventure, reasoning that if I could handle being under fire, I could handle anything the trail threw at me. With a renewed sense of invincibility, I pressed on, eager to see what other challenges lay ahead.

One might expect that my close encounters with bullets would give me pause and perhaps even prompt me to consider ending the hike. But not me! I thrive on living life on the edge. What's a little gunfire in the grand scheme of things, right? You won't scare me off that easily, Florida! What could possibly be worse than being shot at?

Alligators... Alligators can be worse. Heading south along the trail, the swamps, marshes, and wetlands seemed to multiply, thriving with life thanks to the moisture. The flatwoods truly breathed new life into everything around me.

Encounters with wild pigs, bobcats, woodpeckers, and even a black bear, along with a variety of snakes of all shapes and sizes, and the ultimate sighting – the Florida panther, the holy grail of wildlife on the Florida Trail – served as profound lessons in respecting the land that wasn't mine to claim. Like most, I was just a guest here, and with that came a duty to honor and cherish my surroundings.

Leaving no trace but footprints, being grateful for the time granted in this untamed wilderness, and showing love for it was all part of the pact. In return for understanding my place in this unique realm, I found respect and a deep connection, even in the presence of ancient creatures like the alligator.

With all of nature's cacophony surrounding me, I discovered that nights were when I indeed found peace. Despite the wildlife putting on a full-blown concert in the darkness, it created a beautiful symphony that accompanied my gaze into the starry skies. I kept the mesh doors zipped tight to keep the mosquitoes at bay, finding solace in the therapeutic hum of their presence, which oddly helped me rest. As long as those little buggers weren't sinking their teeth into me, we were on peaceful terms.

The rhythm of my days fell back into that relentless trek as I navigated the canals skirting Lake Okeechobee. Breaking out a hiking umbrella felt like a rite of passage – something I'd never considered before, but out here, it's essential. The sun bears down with a merciless heat that clings to you at every turn.

And then, there were the gators – those creatures I had half-joked, half-dreaded encountering in droves were now standard. They lined the banks, soaking up the sun, eyes half-closed yet fully aware, as if waiting for an unwitting snack to venture too close. They seemed to cast curious glances at the hiker with the overstuffed pack trudging by. "Got any snacks in there?" I imagined them pondering. At least, that's what it felt like they were thinking.

As I approached the final leg of this 1,100-mile odyssey, the solitude of the trail demanded new ways to engage my mind, much like the many journeys before. Without fellow hikers to share in the laughter and conversation, I found it crucial to immerse myself in the breathtaking diversity of ecosystems around me and delve into the rich tapestry of history woven through this land. Much like my beloved New Mexico, Florida is steeped in Native American heritage. The presence and legacy of the Miccosukee Tribe permeate the area, while the trail itself winds through territories historically belonging to the Seminole people.

I let the weight of this rich history guide my reflections, contemplating my journey through the Pine Flatwoods adorned with towering slash and longleaf pines, supported by a lush understory of palmettos and grasses. My thoughts drifted to the hardwood hammocks, their unique swampy charm captivating my senses. In these diverse habitats, wildlife thrived abundantly—countless birds filled the air with their melodious calls, while the rhythmic tapping of woodpeckers echoed in the background. I couldn't help but wonder about those who had traversed these lands before me, and how they had made these wilderness realms their own.

As I approached the end of my journey, the vast expanse of Big Cypress National Preserve beckoned me forward. These final days stood as the ultimate test, a culmination of all the challenges I had encountered along the way.

From navigating the lengthy stretches of bustling roads, where I clung to the shoulder under the curious gazes of passing drivers, likely pondering, "What on earth is this person doing walking along the freeway?" To enduring rigorous treks through muck, mud, and swampy waters, where I confronted the serpentine coils of snakes and the sprawling legs of spiders—giants among their kind—lurking in the Florida swamps. These formidable creatures far surpassed the urban wildlife of rats and roaches in both size and intrigue that I was more accustomed to.

Then, there were those unforgettable nights, distinctly marked by the unwelcome intrusion of wild pigs into my camp. Their aggressive demeanor served as a stark reminder of the less-than-hospitable aspects of wilderness survival. Such experiences underlined the unpredictable and often harsh realities of engaging with nature on its terms.

Now, in these final days, my adventure mirrored that of an Everglades expedition, marked by moments of wading knee-deep in crystal-clear waters, contrasted sharply by times where I found myself sinking into foot-deep muds that slowed my progress to a crawl. This phase of my journey was a true testament to the resilience and perseverance cultivated throughout my travels, encapsulating the essence of my adventure through the natural world's beauty and challenges.

This is Big Cypress – challenging, but I can sense I'm nearing the end of my journey. Soon, I'll be "home," with the promise of a warm shower, lounging poolside at my uncle Ken and David's place on the ocean’s edge, indulging in fresh seafood, and, of course, savoring an ice-cold IPA.

Though the freshwater marshes and rivers present their obstacles, I refuse to let them deter me. Even with water moccasins swimming past from all directions, I press on toward the southern terminus, embracing the rugged beauty of this unique “wilderness”.

On my final night in camp, lying in my duplex tent, I found myself pondering the Florida Trail – a trail that few consider when compiling their hiking bucket lists. As I reflected on my journey, I couldn't deny the sense of relief at nearing its end. There were moments when frustration boiled over, and I screamed into the vast expanse of the sky, questioning my decision to embark on this adventure. Was it truly a long trail, or simply a series of shorter trails connected by tedious, frustrating road walks? Was it worth it to tackle a trail that still seemed to have a long way to go before achieving the status of a complete long trail of America?

In the midst of hardship, giving an overwhelming thumbs-up to the experience is challenging. But as with most things in life, clarity often comes with time for reflection. Looking back on my journey, I couldn't deny the unique beauty of the Florida Trail and the myriad encounters with its diverse wildlife. It certainly lives up to its title of being a scenic trail... in moderation.

For all the moments of frustration and loathing, I came to understand the value of a challenge like no other. We walk the path laid before us and accept it for what it is, despite the hardships. More importantly, in hindsight, I realized that these challenges served as invaluable lessons, preparing me for the obstacles that lay ahead in the unknown future.

Reaching the Florida Trail's southern terminus was a proud moment in my life. I remember jokingly saying, "Well, I can always say I hiked the Florida Trail," with my trademark sarcasm, not fully grasping the significance behind those words.

As I continued journeying across America in 2023, the trials of the Florida Trail became my touchstone. When confronted with adversity, I'd reassure myself, "If you could handle the Florida Trail, you can handle this." It wasn't merely about enduring; it was about resilience, patience, and determination. The Florida Trail taught me that obstacles, though arduous, yield invaluable lessons. Armed with these insights, I confronted each challenge with renewed vigor and resolve, facing the path ahead with unwavering determination. In essence, the Florida Trail wasn't just a trail; it was a crucible of experiences – a reminder that every trial is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

And as I reflect on my adventures, I can't help but chuckle at the unexpected twists and turns of the Florida Trail. Who knew that a seemingly unassuming trail could pack such a punch? It's proof that sometimes, the most surprising journeys lead to the most profound discoveries. So here's to the Florida Trail – a trail that defied expectations and left me with a newfound appreciation for the unexpected. Who knew, indeed? But I still hate it a little bit. Just a little bit.