Florida’s national hiking trail is at crossroads

Carving out the Florida National Scenic Trail began in 1966, and now the hiking path from the Everglades to the western Panhandle visits springs, manatees, wetlands, alligators, white beach, turquoise ocean and bird life not seen in more famous wilderness walks.

But the 1,300-mile adventure also has 300 miles of gaps, where hikers are now routed away from nature to trek along highways. Those gaps are going to be harder to complete than the 1,000 miles blazed so far.

Its builders, who fear Florida’s growth, already at 20 million residents and 100 million visitors annually, will claim wild spaces and make the trail impossible to finish.

Carlos Schomaker, Florida Trail Association president, said as the state grows more crowded, the trail will be an essential escape for “everybody from hardcore backpackers to a family with kids.” “It’s probably more important today than back when it started that this trail exists,” Schomaker said.

Of many highlights are the Big Cypress National Preserve, the giant Lake Okeechobee’s soaring dike, prairies and longleaf pine forests. Near Orlando are the inky Econlockhatchee River and springs of the Ocala National Forest.

In North Florida is the bluff-lined Suwannee River, a ribbon of black swamp water bleeding into crystalline spring water. Farther on is Aucilla Sinks, where the Aucilla River repeatedly sinks into and rises out of the ground. The trail ends at Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola.

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