The Florida Trail began back in 1966 when one hiking enthusiast saw a need, had a dream, and dismissed all naysayers. Jim Kern got tired of driving to other states to hike and saw a real need for a place to enjoy his outdoor pursuit in his home state. He set out on a 160 mile hike which took him 12 days to complete, and while Forest Service officials thought he was crazy, the publicity he received from his mission and the responses from hikers from around the state is what ultimately led to the formation of the Florida Trail Association. Jim Kern’s original goal was to build 500 miles of continuous hiking trails. Fast forward 44 years later and the Florida Trail is now 1000 miles of hiking trails with a goal of increasing it to 1500 miles! Now the Forest Service doesn’t think he is crazy like they did in 1966, but instead are the administering agency for the Trail.
The trail begins at Big Cypress National Reserve (between Naples and Miami) and continues to Gulf Islands National near Pensacola Beach running through the spine of the state, which covers the least developed parts of Florida. While it is mostly a hiking trail, there are parts of the trail open to bicycles and horses. Although there are 1000 miles of trails completed, these 1000 miles are not contiguous. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike the 1000 miles but may need to go on highway shoulders for short periods of time. As Kent Wimmer, the Interim Executive Director of the Florida Trail Association, told me, there are “pieces in the middle missing largely in part to those tracts of land being owned by private individuals.” The Association is actively seeking to gain access to these tracts not necessarily by purchasing them but through conservation easements. Mr. Wimmer said that many easements have been donated by private land owners, and when asked about liability issues, he said that the state provides all liability protection for the land owner. Certainly not a bad deal if you are a large landowner, own land you are not living on or visiting frequently, or simply want to share what you have with others. The Florida Trail….just another way to invest, conserve, and enjoy.