Hiking the dense, virgin forest of Highlands Hammock State Park, I couldn’t help but stop and hug one of the live oak trees. My arms barely wrapped a quarter of the way around the grand oak. Even so, I felt a calming and rejuvenating connection to the tree and my surroundings. There are many wonderful features in this Sebring park and here are my 10 reasons to visit and love Highlands Hammock State Park.
1. One of Florida’s First State Parks
Frederick Haynes Newell, first Director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, published a letter in the Sebring American in March 1928. It stated, “It is my belief that you should make special efforts to see to it that this beauty spot is preserved and made known to your winter visitors as well as the citizens of your state.”
In 1930, the area was considered for a national park but was considered too small.
Sidebar: as of March 28, 2021, the smallest national park is Gateway Arch National Park at 192.83 acres.
In March 1931, the 1,280-acre park opened. Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp began working on a garden project next to the park in 1934. A year later, the Florida State Park system was established. Highlands Hammock is one of the state’s first state parks and one of the original eight CCC parks in Florida. Today, the park encompasses 9,000 acres.
2. A Dendrophile’s Paradise
Whether you’re a dendrologist, dendrophile, lover of trees, nemophilist, or tree hugger, I’m going out on a limb saying you’ll love Highlands Hammock State Park! You’ll find palm, cypress, and orange trees, and massive live oaks. Remember to look down and around to see bumpy roots and look up to see treetops reaching for the sky. At the beginning of the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail, see the 1,000 year old live oak. It’s the oldest living thing in the park, according to history books. On the Alexander Blair Big Oak Trail, one oak tree is also about 1,000 years old and measures 36 feet around!
If you’re one who hugs tree, or maybe you’d like to start, there are plenty of opportunities to do so here. Hugging trees is a thing and when I do it, I feel more grounded and connected to nature. Go ahead and wrap your limbs around a girthy trunk and give it a tight squeeze. You’ll feel the ruggedness and inhale the earthy scent of bark, a natural elixir good for the soul.
3. Nine Hiking Trails, Each Offering a Different Experience
Highlands Hammock State Park has nine hiking trails and they can all be explored in a single day. Or, pitch a tent and spend a night or two camping and enjoy the trails at a slower pace. Trails range in length from 975 feet to over 3,000 feet and each offers a different experience. Some have boardwalks leading over water and through dense, lush, virgin forests while other are traditional, flat natural trails.
4. National Register of Historic Places Designation
In 2018, then Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced the designation of Highlands Hammock State Park on the National Register of Historic Places. In a press release he stated, “This National Register listing recognizes Highlands Hammock State Park as one of the foundational properties of the state parks system. Originally developed by the Roebling family and later expanded to include the Florida Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, this park set a pattern for park design and management throughout Florida.”
5. Strutting the Catwalk
The Cypress Swamp Trail catwalk has been around since the 1930s and is Highlands Hammock State Park’s signature trail. The single-rail, narrow boardwalk trail zigzags over and through the swamp next to grand cypress trees, their knobby knees, and over tar-black water. Listen closely to hear birds singing, insects chirping, and an occasional splash in the water from a turtle, wading bird, or maybe an alligator.
If you’re unsure of your balance, walking the trail isn’t a good idea and it’s not wheelchair accessible. Wide platforms allow others to pass so you can enjoy a leisurely walk. Be sure to hang onto your phone, camera, sunglasses, car keys, and anything else that may fall into the water. You won’t want to fish it out!
6. Biking the 3-Mile Loop
Bring your own bike or rent one onsite to leisurely pedal the three-mile loop road under a shaded canopy of oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Eight of the park’s nine trails are accessible from the loop road. Cars are permitted on the loop and during busier times of the year, traffic may be congested which makes pedaling it more inviting. Bicycles aren’t allowed on trails and trailheads have bike racks so you can enjoy trails at your own pace.
When biking, stay to the right and pedal at your own pace. Helmets are highly recommended and cyclists 16 and younger are required to wear them under Florida law. Contact the Hammock Inn for bike rental fees. (863-402-0061).
7. Viewing Wildlife
Shortly after arriving in the park, I watched a white-tailed deer walk out from the woods and stand by the roadside. A woman walked her dog by the deer and although the canine barked up a storm, the deer was not phased. Along another trail, I saw three little wild hogs foraging through the leaves. Although cute, I knew mamma pig had to be nearby and did not want to stand between her and the babies. Sure enough, she was on the other side of the trail and when she came running through, I stood behind a tree with a group of hikers thinking safety in numbers.
Also during the day, a red-shouldered hawk perched next to me in a palm tree, and I spied an alligator on the Fern Garden Trail. While in the picnic area, swallow-tailed kites drifted above. The park is a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Observe with your ears and listen to the sounds of the forest. You may hear the squeaking of trees swaying in the wind or birds excitedly chirping away. Highlands Hammock State Park is also home to the most rare and endemic species than any other Florida State Park. It’s home to animals as black bears, otters, panthers, bobcats, gopher tortoises, and other Florida wildlife. Basically, you never know what you’ll see.
8. Puckering Up for Citrus
I wasn’t sure why the Wild Orange Trail is named for citrus, until I looked up into the trees and saw bright oranges dripping off branches. I hiked the trail in March and imagine if I was there a little sooner, or a little later, the orange blossoms would be blooming. The sweet, fragrant scent of orange blossoms is one of my favorite scents, it’s so Florida! Inhaling them along a hiking trail would be divine!
Head over to the Hammock Inn and see if they have citrus goodies for sale. During my visit, I picked up fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, a slice of sour orange pie, and orange and vanilla twist ice cream from Maxwell Groves Country Store. I packed a cooler and took some of this home while enjoying the rest in the picnic area by the inn.
9. Dogs Are Welcome
Although Radcliff did not join me on this trip, Highlands Hammock State Park is dog-friendly and I saw a lot of pups along the trails. Dogs are welcome on some trails but prohibited on boardwalk trails. These are the Richard Lieber Memorial, Cypress Swamp, and Fern Garden Trails. After seeing the wild pigs, I sure wish my dog was by my side.
For single occupant vehicles (like me! Solo travelers) the admission fee is only $4, otherwise admission is $6 per vehicle. Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, and passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass are $2.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Highlands Hammock State Park
There are certainly more than 10 things to love about Highlands Hammock State Park and I can’t wait to return to fall in love with another 10 experiences! I visited for the day and from my North Port home in Southwest Florida, it was about a 90-minute drive. From Tampa Bay and Orlando, it’s less than a two-hour drive.
Highlands Hammock State Park
5931 Hammock Rd.
Sebring, Fla. 33872
Open 8 a.m. – Sunset, 365 days a year
The park concession offers a tram tour to learn and observe alligators. Tickets are sold on the day of the tour at the Hammock Inn in the park.
Check out the Visit Sebring website to find more fun things to do.