SEBRING – Old-growth live oaks dripping with air plants and Spanish moss dominate the landscape throughout much of the 9,000-acre Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida’s original state parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
Some of the live oaks in this virgin forest date back nearly a thousand years, having escaped the axes of European seaman who saw much of our state as a vast resource from which to harvest timber to build ships for hauling gold back to their homelands.
I was blown away on a recent visit by the dense forest and its canopy, the lush nature trails that reach deep into the park’s various habitats, and the paved, heavily shaded loop drive for bicycling. More adventurous cyclists opt for the challenge of the park’s six miles of off-road trails.
And an 11-mile equestrian trail has been carved out of the park’s fire roads, and an equestrian camping area is currently under construction.
Highlands Hammock was a signature project for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and the CCC Museum in the center of the park is a testament to the young men who took advantage of the federal jobs-creation program to help build this park, sending most of their money home to support their families.
In many respects, the CCC was actually responsible for the creation of the Florida State Park system in 1935, allowing the state to take advantage of federal labor and funding to improve conservation lands. In all, eight state parks were developed under the program, as well as
As for Highlands Hammock, it was actually born four years earlier when Sebring resident Margaret Shippen Roebling fell in love with the old forest and helped finance the acquisition of several parcels of land to create a botanical garden that opened in 1931. The dream of local residents was to see it grow further into a national park.
The CCC set up the first of its 86 Florida camps in Sebring in 1933, and work in the park began on roads, bridges, the concession building and a visitor center.
I have often driven past this park while traveling cross-state through Sebring, but I never took the time to stop and smell the nature here. This time, I made it a special mission to visit on my way back home from Central Florida a few weeks ago.
Just past the entrance to the park, I veered off the main road towards the campground. Before me sprawled a small forest of live oaks, dozens of trees whose interwoven branches created a sweeping canopy. Huddled underneath are the campground’s 159 sites.
The campground is beautiful, and quite large, although the sites themselves are small and seemed close together. There weren’t many campers when I visited, so as a practical matter, it didn’t look too crowded and everyone had ample distance between them.
But I could see where, on a busy weekend, you could probably feel the squeeze. I should note that the campground was lacking in low growth for privacy. I still thought the setting was beautiful.
Each site in the family campground has water and electric hookups, rest rooms with showers, and one building has a laundry that you can drive up to. Almost every site is covered in shade, although there are some that will allow an RV’s satellite dish to peak through the canopy.
Deer frequently visit the campground, although I didn’t see any when I visited in mid-afternoon. With a dense wooded forest surrounding the campground on three sides and a grass prairie opening out on a fourth side, I could definitely see the potential for abundant wildlife in the neighborhood.
Sites are $22 per night, plus tax, and reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance online through ReserveAmerica.com, or calling 1-800-326-3521. (Reservations in the family campground will not be accepted by the rangers on site.)
Aside from the main campground, there are six wilderness tents sites you can drive to, each with fire rings, picnic tables and a pit toilet. There is also a primitive group camp for organized groups, and a camping area has been set aside for youth groups near the entrance. Call the park at (863) 386-6094 to inquire about those facilities.
Pets are welcome in the main campground and throughout the park, except on boardwalk trails where alligators roam.
There is no shortage of nature trails within Highlands Hammocks State Park, many of which intersect into a network through the forest, showing off the various habitats that flourish in this ancient, yet always-in-transition hardwood forest.
The Ancient Hammock Trail, for example, is a 35-minute walk through the oldest section of the forest, where you see a wide variety of plants and trees. By contrast, the Young Hammock Trail is a 30-minute hike that walks you through a changing forest and stages of renewal that can take hundreds of years.
The Richard Lieber Memorial Trail is a 25-minute hike through a hardwood swamp, one of three boardwalk trails in the park. At the entrance to this trail is a 1,000-year-old Live oak, the oldest living thing in the park.
Possibly the most popular trail in the park, another boardwalk where pets are not allowed, is the Cypress Swamp Trail. This is one of the original trails with an original bridge built by the CCA in the 1930s. This is considered a premium trail to observe alligators and birdlife.
I had injured my leg the day before I arrived and was hobbling, but I couldn’t help but be drawn into many of these trails by their sheer beauty, which you can see in many of the photographs that accompany this article.
You can encounter most of these hiking trails, including the Cypress Swamp Trail, from the scenic three-mile Loop Drive, which starts in an old citrus grove first carved out of the forest by pioneers in the late 1800s and later abandoned. You can park your car along the road at trailheads, although I suggest the best way to explore this area is by bicycle.
The Loop Drive is a beautiful setting for a bicycle ride, thickly lined with live oaks, hickory trees and native palms. There are bicycle racks at most trailheads (bikes are prohibited on the nature trails themselves).
The park also has 6 miles of off-road trails, mainly unpaved access roads, for bicycles.
Visitors can venture into wilder parts of the park without hiking by taking tram tours.
For the 2017-18 winter season, weekend tours include a 1 p.m. tour and a 3 p.m. tour on Saturdays and Sundays. Beginning Tuesday, Nov. 21, the tram will run on weekdays Tuesday through Friday at 1 p.m. Tickets are sold at the Hammock Inn concession only. Tickets are $5 per adult and $3 for children between the ages of 6 to 12 years. Children aged 5 and younger are free. Visitors are advised to purchase tickets early on the morning of the tour as trams tend to sell out quickly during the busy winter season.
The schedule may vary so visitors should call the ranger station at 863-386-6094 to verify the tram schedule.
Highlands Hammock’s sister park, Lake June In the Winter, is a 20-minute drive. Additional hiking opportunities are available, although these trails are not as shaded as those in Highlands Hammocks.
In fact, they call the lake’s sand scrub habitat “Florida’s desert,” and not without cause.
Yet this barren habitat is home to some of Florida’s rarest plants and animals, including the Florida scrub jay, the scrub lizard and the bobcat. Ospreys and bald eagles are frequently sighted near the lake.
There are several trails here, as well as areas where you can carry your kayak or canoe lakeside and enjoy excellent fishing or just a pleasant paddle. Outside the park, there are several public ramps for larger boats.
Highlands Hammocks State Park, 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring, Florida 33872; (863) 386-6094; 159 campsites in a shady live oak hammock. $22 plus tax. For reservations, visit ReserveAmerica online, or call (800) 326-3521. Highlands Hammock State Park is off US 27 on SR 634 (also known as Hammock Road), four miles west of Sebring. Lake June-In-Winter Scrub State Park is about 12 miles south of Sebring, off U.S. 27.