“I felt very strongly that Florida was missing out not having any footpaths,” Kern said. “The Forest Service thought it was all a joke. They told me ‘go ahead and do your thing. But, no one will want to hike in Florida.” Little did they know! The publicity from Kern’s hike brought responses from hikers all over the state. By 1966, these original respondents formed thenucleus of what is now the Florida Trail Association, with an original goal of building 500 miles of continuous hiking trail. The first segment, a 26-mile stretch through the Ocala National Forest, was completed by 1969. The Association raised its goal to 600 miles, then 700 miles, and finally 1,000 miles. Today, plans call for more than 1,800 miles of hiking trails with various loops and spurs from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida to the Gulf Islands National Seashore at Pensacola Beach.
So far, more than 1,000 miles of the continuous trail have been completed, as well as more than 365 miles of loop trails in state parks, state forests, and other public lands close to urban areas. Land acquisition continues for the Florida Trail, with a goal of protecting a wilderness corridor the length of Florida.
The efforts of the Florida Trail Association volunteers attracted interest from United States Department of the Interior. Their three-year study of the trail, completed in 1980, resulted in the enthusiastic endorsement of the Florida Trail to become one of now 11 national scenic trails in the United States. When Congress approved the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST), Congress designated the USDA Forest Service as the administrative agency for the trail.
Florida Trail Association members started from scratch when building their trails. Often, there were no old paths to follow. Members donated equipment and weekends and went to battle, machetes and loppers in hand, carving a narrow footpath through the dense, backwoods of the peninsula. In more temperate climates, one can cut a trail and give scant thought to maintenance. But in Florida, a trail demands constant upkeep. Florida’s annual rainfall averages from 50 to 65 inches, causing the vegetation to grow at astounding rates, making maintenance a challenge. That’s why members are perpetually out in the woods clearing trail, painting orange blazes, building boardwalks and bridges, and doing whatever is necessary to keep the trails open to hikers and backpackers. In a single year, the Florida Trail Association may document more than 60,000 hours of volunteer labor keeping this unique public resource open.
What was once considered a far-fetched dream is now reality: following the orange blazes, you can walk the length of Florida from Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. A spur trail connects the Florida Trail with another long-distance trail under construction in Alabama, which will connect to the Appalachian Trail. Long distance hikers have already walked 4,000 miles and more from Key West to Quebec, utilizing the Florida Trail as part of their journey. But most hikers look to the Florida Trail as a place for a pleasant walk in the woods, a way to keep healthy through frequent exercise, and a place to experience the Real Florida on foot. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers for more than 45 years, the Florida Trail is now one of the nation’s premiere recreational resources and a popular destination for visitors to Florida seeking outdoor recreation during the winter months.