As soon as we drove into this “land of shade” I relaxed and felt connected. At was as is if the giant oak, pines, and palmettos whispered,
“You’re here now, you can breathe again. Just sit back, relax and take it all in.”
When you visit Sebring in Florida, this State Park is your opportunity to nurture yourself in nature away from the crowds.
So, we did. Starting with a tram tour of Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida’s first state park where we learned a lot about the parks’ history and unique qualities that earned its protection rights.
This is Old Florida: untouched and ancient, a place where you’ll find yourself surrounded by thousand old oak trees as you move along under shaded canopies of cypress and hardwood swamps, marshes, and evergreen flatwoods.
There’s plenty of opportunity for alligator spotting and bird watching in the park. You may get lucky and see deer, a black bear, or even the elusive Florida Panther.
Highlands Hammock is a small enough park that you can see a lot in just a few hours, but more than enough for you to stretch it out a little longer.
What is a Hammock?
While it’s not of the swinging kind, hammock does invoke an image of relaxation and revitalization. It comes from the Native American word, “hamaca’ which means “a shady place”.
Today, hammock is used in Florida to describe forest habitats that are typically higher in elevation and are characterized by hardwood forests of broad-leaved evergreens.
Tropical hardwood hammocks occur in south Florida and along the Florida coastlines where danger from frost is rare and tropical trees and shrubs common to the Caribbean islands (West Indian origin) can survive.
Tram Tour of Highlands Hammock State Park
A great introduction to this incredible Florida State Park is the narrated tram tour. This full-accessible tram passes slowly through four major ecosystems that include hydric hammock, cypress swamp, pine flatwoods and baygall.
Our informative guide, Ed stopped along the way to teach us the meaning of words such as hammock, epiphytes, and pods pointing out real life examples as we went. This perfectly aligned with our schoolcation mission.
Days later, Savannah was able to explain how the sex of an alligator baby is determined depending on where their egg lays in the nest.
Not only did it teach me but sparked my curiosity to a question I can’t quite grasp an answer to. I guess we put it down to the unexplained Mother Nature.
Why do male alligators feel the need to procreate if they just want to eat all their babies due to fear of competition for resources?
All good tours should have you ending in the pursuit of more knowledge!
Our tram tour took us down a back dusty road along the park’s borders. The pine, oak and hardwood trees gave way to more cypress trees, The palms and palmettos steady companions to all throughout the park.
This less thick area is where a black bear and Florida panther were recently spotted on the park cam! We didn’t see these rare animals, but we did see the hog traps set up to help eradicate the out-of-control hog problem.
We also learned about one special species in Highlands Hammock, the gopher tortoise. This section of the park has trees dependent on fire for regrowth, so controlled burning is done.
After one fire burning, about 300 species of animals were found hiding in the huge underground hole of the gopher tortoise – animals that normally don’t get along like snake and mice, huddled together in the safety of the hole with a silent truce not to hurt one another.
There’s a Disney movie waiting for that story!
Our tour then followed a creek at the back of the park’s borders.
This is where we were introduced to several of the parks’ crocodiles, including George the ferocious male patrolling the creek looking to see what babies he could eat and Paddy, Deborah and a few other of the fierce protecting mothers watching over their babies.
The tour lasted 90-minutes and was worth doing if you want to kick back and have someone educate and point out the most interesting features.
Now you’ll know what you want to go back and explore more in-depth.
- Our tram tour was hosted by Highland Hammocks State Park
Cypress Swamp Trail
The most popular trail in Highlands Hammock State Park is the Cypress Swamp Trail.
Well, I should say walk. The longest trail in Highlands Hammock is only just over half a mile, and this area of Florida is pancake flat.
An elevated boardwalk takes you through the ancient land where herons and ibis poke around in the mud for food, and when water is high, alligators may be looking for them.
This is an easy trail whose purpose is to transport you into an ancient land of towering cypress trees, ferns, and dripping Spanish moss.
Other Hiking Trails at Highlands Hammock State Park
Hiking in Highlands Hammock State Park is easy, especially with kids of any age.
The hiking trails run through hydric hammock, cypress swamp, hardwood swamp and pine flatwood. Eight out of the nine trails are off the main loop drive and range in distance from 975 feet to over 3,000 feet.
Several of the trails connect via a bridge or catwalk.
Ranger Laura recommended the following walks for me to come back and do when I do my bike loop ride.
It was going to be during our visit to Sebring, but I realized last minute I was not insured to drive the rental car so could not escape for a blissful solo hour adventure.
Alexander Blair Big Oak Trail.
This 975ft trail will take you to the “Big Oak” giant live oak with a girth of 36 feet. Sadly, the Big Oak died years ago, but its gnarled lower trunk can be seen.
Ancient Hammock Trail to Fern Garden Trail
Said to be one of the prettiest trails, the Ancient Hammock Trail shows off the glory of towering cabbage palms and live oaks centuries old.
You can connect this to the Fern Garden Trail, which runs through the fern-edged swamp. Alligators may be seen from the boardwalk here.
Wild Orange Trail
This is a good one to do if you are picnicking as the loop connects to the picnic area. It also offers a unique perspective for its wild orange trees.
Citrus Groves, while not native to this area, are allowed to continue to grow in Highlands Hammock as they provide so many jobs to those in the local communities.
They started in this region, after those on the ships from England and Europe were given citrus seeds to throw down along their port stops to grow oranges for future passengers immigrating and to help overcome the scurvy issue.
Bike the Highlands Hammock Loop
I very much want to return to Highland Hammocks State Park to cycle the shady 3.1 loop road and hike some of the many trails that lead off it.
People also roller blade it and we saw a few keen runners clocking up their miles.
You can hire bikes form the Hammock Inn Concession near the visitor center. Adventure lovers will enjoy the six mile off road trail, fat tire bikes are recommended.
Bikes are not allowed on hiking trails, but there are racks to park your bike at the start of the trails.
Other things to note:
- There are geocaches throughout the park for families who love geocaching.
- You can also bring your own horse through parts of the park.
- Highlands Hammock State Park was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
- History buffs will enjoy the Florida’s Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, housed in a historical building near the visitor center which teaches the history of the park and the Crops role in it.
In 1934, a local CCC camp began working on a botanical garden project adjacent to Highlands Hammock Park.
When Florida’s state park system was established in 1935, Highlands Hammock became one of the state’s first parks. It is one of eight original CCC parks in Florida.
Camping at Highlands Hammock
Campsites in Highlands Hammock vary from sunny, partial sun to fully shaded ranging in length from 20 – 50 ft.
They have picnic tables and fire rings.
The family campground offers water and electric hookups, a dump station, access to restrooms with shower facilities, laundry, and dishwashing areas.
You can access primitive campsites in open pine flatwoods. They have picnic tables and fire rings but no electricity or running water.