With a few cold fronts under its belt and more on the way, South Florida is embarking on prime hiking season. Gone are the biting insects, searing heat and torrential downpours of summer and early fall. Now through early May is the best time to explore the region’s sub-tropical wilderness. Here are a few recommendations for pleasurable day hikes where, in addition to breathtaking scenery, you might see wildlife ranging from rare butterflies to black bears.
• Florida Trail through the Big Cypress National Preserve: The portion of the Florida Trail that extends north from the preserve’s Oasis Visitor Center — located on Tamiami Trail about five miles east of the intersection of S.R. 29 — is drying out quickly after months of knee-deep and deeper water covering the path. Park your car, fill out a back country permit form (free), break out your walking stick and head out on the trail for as long as you want. It’s still pretty wet, and you have to watch your footing amid holey limestone — and you’re also likely to encounter hunters on swamp buggies enjoying the opening of general gun season, which runs through Jan. 1. But no one has been shot on the trail, and you’ll pass through breathtaking pine rocklands, cypress domes and open prairies that serve as homes for numerous birds, alligators and black bears. The gators and bears are normally pretty shy, and they tend to flee at the sight of you.
It’s really hard to get lost; volunteers from the Florida Trail Association have covered the path with orange blazes and signs marking the intersection with swamp buggy trails. If you’re nervous about getting out on your own, Big Cypress rangers will begin leading guided walks on Nov. 24.
• Anywhere in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: Florida’s largest (but maybe least-known) state park offers numerous day hiking opportunities, ranging from a 2,000-foot boardwalk to hip-deep swamp slogs. The breadth of flora and fauna you might encounter is almost incalculable: not only is the 75,000-acre Fakahatchee the orchid and bromeliad capital of the world; it is also home to black bear and some rare wildlife species, including the Everglades mink and Eastern indigo snake.
Less adventurous hikers can see gators, a bald eagle nest and numerous kinds of birds from the safety of the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk on the north side of U.S. 41 seven miles west of S.R. 29. But heading out on your own off the Janes Memorial Scenic Drive off S.R. 29 near Copeland is a lot more exciting. That’s where you are most likely to see up close some 44 species of native orchids (plus a few exotics that landed here from Africa) and 14 native bromeliads. Follow numerous tramways intersecting the Janes that stay high and dry all year long, or wade out into the swamp shaded by a canopy of bald cypress and royal palm. Hikers have reported spotting bear, otter, deer and gators in a single day trip.
For guided adventures, check out the Friends of Fakahatchee website (friendsoffakahatchee.org).
• Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, about four miles past the Coe Visitor Center on SR 9336 in Homestead: This 0.8-mile loop boardwalk probably packs more wildlife viewing opportunities into a short hike than any other manmade trail of its kind anywhere in South Florida. It is so popular with wildlife photographers that hikers have to step around them seven days a week during the winter months.