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Ancient oaks caress the soul at Highlands Hammock State Park

Many of the live oaks in Highlands Hammock State Park date back nearly a thousand years, having escaped the axes of European seaman who saw these majestic trees as a vast resource for shipbuilding.

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.

Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites and cabins at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.

highlands hammock state park highlands hammock loop Ancient oaks caress the soul at Highlands Hammock State Park
The Loop Drive offers a scenic introduction to Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Highlands Hammock State Park 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.

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Fern garden at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Florida State Parks photo by Dorothy Harris)

Highlands Hammock State Park 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.

Read this Florida Rambler story about the CCC museum and the role of the CCC in building Florida’s parks. The museum is open Friday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Hiking and biking in Highlands Hammock State Park

There is no shortage of nature trails within Highlands Hammock 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.

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Cypress Swamp Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Greg Urbano)

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.

Highlands Hammock Big Oak Trail
Big Oak Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

I had injured my leg the day before I arrived and was hobbling, but I couldn’t help being 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.

highlands hammock state park highlands hammock trails Ancient oaks caress the soul at Highlands Hammock State Park
Access trails from the Loop Drive in Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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 at Highlands Hammock State Park

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.

Campground at Highlands Hammock State Park
Campground is shady at Highlands Hammock State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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 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 $7 per night for utilities and 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. Call 1-800-326-3521. Pets OK.

No WiFi in the campground or anywhere in the park. Wi-Fi is available at the Sebring Public Library (863-402-6716), 319 West Center Avenue in downtown Sebring. WiFi is also available at Starbucks (863-382-3498), 1768 US-27 North, and Panera Bread (863-402-5477), 1760 US-27 North.

Wilderness campsites in Highlands Hammock State Park

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.

Map of Highland Hammock State Park
Map of Highland Hammock State Park

What’s near Highlands Hammock State Park

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 Hammock.

winter scrub preserve florida scrub jay
Florida scrub jay at Lake June in Winter Scrub Preserve. (Florida State Parks photo by Jim Upchurch)

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.

Highlands Hammocks State Park, 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring, Florida 33872; (863) 386-6094; 159 campsites. $18-$29 per night plus $6.70 per booking (Includes $7 daily utility fee for the main campground. Reservations accepted up to 11 months in advance. Call (800) 326-3521. Highlands Hammock State Park is off US 27 on SR 634 (Hammock Road), four miles west of Sebring.

More Things to Do near Highlands Hammock State Park

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Lois Post

Friday 22nd of July 2022

Thank you for introducing readers to Highlands Hammock State Park! When I first arrived from the beautiful hills of Southeastern Ohio, I was dubious about moving here until I entered its otherworldly wonderfulness! Years later, when I owned a little resort motel on the Gulf coast, I would insist that our foreign guests see Highlands Hammock, and return to Miami airport via US 27. I received many notes thanking me for encouraging them to see “the other Florida.” ❣️

Brenda Pearson

Friday 25th of March 2022

It is wonderful to read this article about the Highlands and Sebring area of florida. I always preferred central florida to the other beachy parts stayed in Labelle for al few years and very familiar with hammocks ,lake June etc. Don't know what they are missing , no trip to Florida is complete without a visit to the several hammocks in Florida .

AnnMarie Lynch

Monday 14th of December 2020

Is the oldest oak tree in Highlands Hammock State Park still standing upright? I had read years ago that a storm had damaged it. Thank you.

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