State park near Sebring offers oodles of shade
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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.
Many 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 by the dense forest and its canopy, the lush nature trails reaching deep into the park’s varied habitats, and the paved, densely shaded loop drive for bicycling.
More adventurous cyclists opt for the challenge presented by six miles of off-road trails.
For equestrians, an 11-mile trail has been carved out of the park’s fire roads, and an equestrian camping area has four sites. More are being planned.
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 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 Florida State Parks were developed under the program.
Highlands Hammock 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.
Hiking and biking
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 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.
You’ll find the trailheads, including the Cypress Swamp Trail, accessible 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.
Park along the road at trailheads.
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 six miles of off-road trails for bicycles.
The family campground
Just past the entrance to the park, veer off the main road towards the campground, which lies in a forest of live oaks, whose interwoven branches created a sweeping canopy.
Huddled underneath that canopy are the family campground’s 114 RV & tent sites and 11 tent-only 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. Still, the setting was beautiful.
Each site in the family campground has water and electric hookups, rest rooms with showers, and one building has a drive-up laundry. Almost every site is covered in shade, though some allow enough sky for an RV’s satellite dish to peak through the canopy.
Deer and other wildlife frequently visit the campground, as you might expect in a forest.
Sites are $22 per night (2020), plus a nonrefundable reservation fee of $6.70 per booking. Electricity and water is included. As with all state parks, reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance online, or call 1-800-326-3521. Pets OK.
There are 16 wilderness tent sites to which you can drive. Each site has a fire ring, picnic table and a single pit toilet serving all. Some of these primitive sites will accommodate tent trailers.
These primitive sites are $18 per night plus the $6.70 reservation fee per booking.
Equestrians can book four campsites (RV or tent) without hookups in the horse camp. An expanded horse camp is planned.
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.
What’s near Highlands Hammock
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 seen near the lake.
There are several trails here, as well as areas where you can carry your kayak or canoe lakeside, enjoy excellent fishing or just a pleasant paddle. Outside the park, there are several public ramps for larger boats.
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Highlands Hammocks State Park, 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring, Florida 33872; (863) 386-6094; 159 campsites. $18-$22 per night plus $6.70 per booking. Reserve sites up to 11 months in advance online or call (800) 326-3521. Highlands Hammock State Park is off US 27 on SR 634 (Hammock Road), four miles west of Sebring.