Deep in the heart of Florida lies an attraction rarely seen by the millions of visitors and residents in the Sunshine State. This inner sanctum shelters turquoise lagoons, crystal-clear streams with sugar-white bottoms and a vast array of life, from wild orchids and wild irises to wild boars and wild bears. All this natural beauty is yours for the modest price of seeking out and hiking the Florida National Scenic Trail.
Patterned after the Appalachian Trail, Florida's rendition, begun in 1964, is still a work in progress. Only about 880 miles have been built so far, about 550 of them certified as meeting national hiking trail standards. When completed, the trail will cover 1,300 miles, including hundreds of miles of side trails and loops.
Because the trail stretches nearly the entire length of the state, it is never more than a day-trip away from any major tourist destination. And Florida's top humanity magnet--Orlando--is near the trail's earliest trailhead, in the Ocala National Forest.
A good starting point in the 430,000-acre-plus forest is at Juniper Springs Recreation Area, roughly 60 miles north of Orlando. The trail runs past the entrance to the popular park. Hikers and campers can venture north to explore the pristine solitude of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area. Its 50-foot-high sand pines are home to the endangered Florida scrub jay.
But it is the side trails within the park and along the main route that offer the most vivid vision of Florida's beauty. And few guidebooks--or even local brochures--mention the most memorable sights. For example, Juniper Springs Pool is well documented as the park's main attraction. In the mid-1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps crafted the 72-degree, blue-tinged spring into a family-friendly, rock-encircled swimming hole. It also built a small mill and a graceful stone arched bridge.
But the park's secret gem can be seen only by following the path along the crystalline waters of Juniper Creek. At the trail's end, a wooden bridge ushers hikers to a stunning sight: the turquoise- and aqua-dappled waters of Fern Hammock Springs, ensconced in a primeval thicket of oak trees and cabbage palms. A careful look at the snow-white spring bed reveals the sources of the water. Like upside-down mini-volcanoes, the boils erupt in little clouds of white sand, which settle quickly, never marring the crystal clarity.
Scores of springs dot the landscape along the central and northern portions of the Florida Trail. Their cool, colorful waters offer a respite during Florida's steamy summers. But even locals seem to favor hiking during the spring and fall to escape the mosquitoes and the torrential subtropical downpours.
A chunk of the Suwannee River section of the trail to the north, and some other segments, cross private property. They are open only to members of the Florida Trail Association, which is building the trail. The group's 6,000 members are working with state and federal agencies to open more land to the public, hoping eventually to construct a contiguous trail from the Everglades to the state's northwesternmost edge in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The group is also trying "to educate Florida residents and visitors to appreciate and preserve the natural beauty of Florida," says longtime member Judy Trotter. "Florida is not Disney World. Florida is not high-rise hotels on the beach. Florida is so much more."
Florida Trail Association, P.O. Box 13708, Gainesville, Fla. 32604-1708, 352-378-8823 or 1-800-343-1882, www.florida-trail.org. The group's 15 chapters sponsor hikes around the state, including an annual trek around Lake Okeechobee.
CAPTION: The 1930s-era Juniper Springs Pool, a stop on the Florida National Scenic Trail, features blue-tinged, 72-degree water.