Visiting Highlands Hammock State Park in central Florida is a step back in time to imerse yourself in “old Florida” scenery. The park is covered with short hikes in and around the old-growth cypress trees, oaks, ferns, and swamps. All the trails in the park are very nice but short. A visitor can easily hike them all in a day but they also lend themselves to sitting for hours and watching for the indigenous Florida wildlife. The ecosystem in Highlands Hammock houses an extraordinary amount of creatures that can be found while hiking, biking, or simply camping inside the park.
Top 4 Reasons for Visiting Highlands Hammock
#1: Designed for Riding
The park seems to have been designed to be biked from one trailhead to the next on a 3-mile one-way loop road. Sure, visitors can drive from one trailhead to the next but why would you want to when you can cruise around on a bike? This is a park best experienced by parking your rig in a camping spot and pulling out the bicycles. Many visitors see the park this way, including us and we loved the vibe that this created. The park also has several longer paths that are dedicated to bikes. If you don’t have a bike or don’t want to travel with it, the park has bikes available for rent from the Hammock Inn Concession.
If off-road riding is more your speed there is a 6-mile trail open to mountain bikes. Don’t be intimidated by the mountain bike jargon. This is an off-road trail suitable to riders of all skill levels. The terrain isn’t suitable for road bike tires.
#2: Highlands Hammock Wildlife
Florida wildlife can be found in abundance when visiting Highlands Hammock State Park. Snakes, alligators, turtles, river otters, deer, and a wide variety of birds blend into the swampy landscape but with a keen eye and a bit of patience can be easily found. The highlight for us was finding some very playful and inquisitive river otters. We also had a very unique encounter with a pair of barred owls (AKA: swamp owls). They were talkative and active and it was awesome! Getting to see these two mated owls (according to the ranger) hoot and fly around in there natural environment was an amazing treat. They are beautiful creatures. To rap up our wildlife expedition we spotted what might have been the largest woodpecker in the world and even had a coachwhip snake hunt for lizards in an old tree stump next to our campsite.
#3: Amazing Hiking Trails
All the trails within the park are less than a mile and many are loops so no need for backtracking most of the time. The trails pack a lot of scenic swampy beauty into some very short and easy hikes.
The Cypress Swamp Loop Trail
The Cypress Swamp Trail is our favorite hike in the park. It is located on the backside of the park. The trail from the parking area is clear but the exit can also be seen. Follow the wooden boardwalk trail on the left into the woods as the trail narrows to about a two-foot-wide boardwalk and hiking this path backward with oncoming traffic would be nearly impossible. The boardwalk path starts out wide with amazing reflective views of the cypress trees on the placid swampy water. At about the mid-way point the path narrows to a single person-sized boardwalk with the handrail on one side only. There are wider spots along the trail for faster hikers to pass slower ones. I loved how remote this path felt. Look for turtles and alligators all along this amazing swampy path. This is also where we came across the pair of barred owls.
Fern Garden & Richard Lieber Memorial Trail
At the half-way point, there is a trail to the right that crosses over a small stream and then splits right and left. This is the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail which is also a loop but with a spur into a different section of swamp. Take a left and then stay straight to follow the boardwalk into the swamp area. This is where we found the most wildlife including the river otters. Once finished with the spur continue the Richard Lieber loop which will graze the road before returning to the creek crossing and back onto the Fern Garden Loop.
The Fern Garden is an amazing hiking loop that crosses over a dense swamp area. Half of this short loop is along a beautifully laid out boardwalk right over the swamp water. The other half of the loop is on solid ground but adjacent to the swampy area. The entire trail screams alligators live here.
Ancient Hammock Trail & Young Hammock Trail
These two trails are both short loops through the Highlands Hammock forest. They are very similar in landscape and can both be found off of the main paved loop road in the park. They are lackluster compared with the two trails above, but still worth exploring.
Allen Altvater Trail
The Allen Altvater Trail is another short loop trail adjacent to the RV campground. This one passes through a more open area with a lot of bushes and the occasional large tree. It is nice in the early morning when the fog is still dense. We saw lots of smaller birds and deer in the area.
Wild Orange, Big Oak, and Hickory Trails
I list these three trails together as they are similar and can be done as an out and back from the Hammock Inn Concession. The trail starts on the Wild Orange section which meanders through the thinner trees before arriving at a road crossing. Just before there are several wild orange trees. Once hikers cross the road they have entered the Big Oak Trail. This trail meanders through a taller wooded area with massive oak trees. Some have obviously passed on since the park opened and only their massive stumps remain. However, the ones still standing are impressive Goliaths in the thick forest. The Big Oak Trail has a small loop in it when exited to the right hikers enter the Hickory Trail which crosses over the park’s paved loop road before dead-ending into the Fern Garden Trail.
#4 – Highlands Hammock Camping
Highlands Hammock State Park has four campgrounds. The typical modern RV site, a small horse campground, a campground dedicated to youth groups and the rustic Wilderness campground. The campgrounds are really nice for what each is designed for. We stayed at both the RV and the Wilderness campgrounds. I preferred the seclusion and beauty found in the Wilderness Campground but the RV campground had nice hot shower facilities with good shower heads and strong water flow. They also have affordable laundry machines although there are only a few so you may have to wait. Reservations can be made online for most of the campsites.
The Wilderness Campground
The primitive Wilderness Campground has 16 total sites most of which can be reserved on-line. These sites are accessed via a 2-mile flat dirt road. We arrived in solid rain and muddy conditions, although our rig has 4×4 capability we didn’t need it. In good weather conditions, any vehicle could access the Wilderness sites. The Wilderness Campground sits in an open area mostly surrounded by brush with the occasional taller tree rising above the brush. It feels more like Africa than central Florida. We loved how secluded the area was. The campground was only full on the weekend leaving the place mostly to us for the weekdays.
A solar toilet is located in the campground. The showers at the RV campground are available to those staying in the Wilderness sites. This is a nice option. We rode our bikes over and took advantage of the showers that way. The nicest site of the wilderness sites is #7 but anything between #1 and #7 is preferred to the higher numbers. #8 – #16 are close enough to a paved county road that it ruins the vibe of the area.
The RV Campground
The RV or Electric Campground is a typical modern electrified campground designed for RV camping. This puts neighbors barking dogs and loud children much too close for our taste but having access to power, water, laundry, and hot showers does have its appeal. No sewage hookups at any of the 138 sites but they do have a dumpsite within the grounds.
Other Camping Options
There are other benefits to staying in one of the Highland Hammock campgrounds. The park puts on special events like pot lucks, breakfasts, and dinners for campers and the local community to enjoy. It comes with a recommended donation to attend and reservations are preferred. The park also hosts several musical events each month. These have an additional charge.
Visiting Highlands Hammock State Park
Visiting Highlands Hammock State Park is full of wildlife and unique scenery. If short hikes and peaceful camping are your preferred choices then this park should be on your list when in central Florida.