Picture of children walking down a dirt road in Highlands Hammock State Park

Children walk down one of the nine hiking trails in Highlands Hammock State Park.

Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

When you don’t retrace your steps, every bend in a trail reveals something new. And in Florida’s biologically diverse natural environment, that means even a short, mile-long loop trail could deliver an astounding array of flora and fauna. Wherever your travels take you, there’s a loop trail nearby waiting to be discovered.

Ancient Hammock Trail, Highlands Hammock State Park

Ancient Hammock, the longest of the Hammock State Park’s nine hiking trails, meanders through the oldest part of the hammock and is a plant-lover’s paradise. “Visitors walking this trail take a journey back through time to primitive Florida,” says park services specialist Carla Kappmeyer-Sherwin. “Huge trees, thick beds of epiphytic ferns, abundant air plants, and downed logs bearing beautiful bracket fungi characterize this trail.” Plan on at least 35 minutes to complete the hike, longer if you scan the woods for fairy rings, naturally occurring circles of mushrooms.

Rapids Trail, Hillsborough River State Park, Thonotosassa

The payoff on this 1.2-mile loop is a Florida rarity: Class II rapids created by outcrops of Suwannee limestone in the Hillsborough River. “The trail is a quiet respite from the developed world as the sounds of birds and the swiftly moving rapids take over,” says Hillsborough park services specialist Alex Kinder. The heavily forested trail gets buggy and muddy from late spring through early fall, so plan to visit from November through April. Pick up a self-guided nature walk map at the trailhead or park office to identify plants and trees and to know where to look for otters.

Barrier Dune Nature Trail, Grayton Beach State Park, Santa Rosa Beach

There’s so much to love in this 40-minute loop at Grayton: the magical, oak canopy “hobbit hole” entrance into the wind-shaped maritime hammock; rolling sand dunes that look like snow-covered hills; sugar-white beaches dissolving into emerald Gulf waters; and the rare opportunity to walk along the edge of a biologically diverse coastal dune lake, the hundred-acre Western Lake, home to both saltwater and freshwater fish.

TRAVEL TIP

Best Bet: Camp and hike at Highlands Hammock State Park during the winter to join in Wednesday night potlucks, Thursday morning coffee and biscuits, and Thursday night soup or spaghetti suppers organized by the park’s volunteer campground hosts.

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