Monday, April 9, 2018

Highlands Hammock State Park

Saying good bye to the Florida Keys was quite the ordeal. No one wanted to leave. There were tears. Everyone wanted to stay another day. So much so that when Elizabeth started to wake up for the day, I heard Max whisper to her, "if you pretend to be asleep we won't have to leave." Not quite buddy. But I bribed them out of the lodge (and Key Largo) with the promise of donuts once we got to the mainland. I went to turn in our lodge key only to find the office locked with this note (below) in the window. So fitting.

On my list of possible things to do in Florida was Highlands Hammock State Park. It sounded really neat and I was convinced it would be the perfect add to our trip to Florida, however it was out of our way. Highlands Hammock sits in the middle of the state, two hours from Miami, two hours from Orlando, making it so we would have to drive out of our way. The minis disappointment in leaving Florida worked in favor of visiting Highlands Hammock because we got to have "one last Florida adventure." 

This state park is a must if you're in Florida! There are numerous trails around the park (a lot of them connect so it's easy to park in one area and walk the trails) and each trail has such diversity unlike any we've experienced hiking. While the trails were flat, we hiked among huge oak trees, palm trees, cypress swamp, and kept our eyes out for a wide range of wildlife.

We started at the Highlands Hammock Museum to pick up a trail map and ask a few questions. We wanted to get the most out of our visit since we were on limited time. The park ranger was extremely helpful and as a result, we got to see everything we wanted to.

The drive to the park wasn't anything special, but orange trees (farms) surround the park. After driving through Florida, orange and other fruit farms are the norm. I was surprised by the amount of dairy farms we saw throughout Florida.

We were shocked to learn that the park has black bears, Florida panther, alligators, frogs, deer, snakes, lizards, and more roaming around. We saw an alligator poking up from the swamp, but the oldest mini was on high alert while hiking. 

Our first trail we hiked was the Big Oak Trail to see the oak trees to Hickory Trail to the Lieber Memorial Trail to see the swamp. The Cypress Swamp Trail was closed for renovation but the Memorial Trail also goes into the swamp. Since this area is so swampy, a lot of the trails are boardwalks over the swamp....and who knows what could be right under you!

There were lizards crawling all over the oak trees. The boys tried to climb the tree a bit, but kept putting their hands on lizards!

This oak tree had broken in half at some point and now there's another tree growing out of the top! There's some really cool things to see in this park if you pay attention.

Someone got scared about the possibility of black bears around. Thankfully the fear didn't last long because as soon as they saw this "cool hiding spot that could a bear's hideout!" the middle and youngest mini tried to crawl right in! Thankfully there were no sleeping bears in there, just a hollowed out oak tree.

The oldest mini being so serious and so scared about all of the wildlife lurking in the park. We had to reassure him the entire time were we hiking. Of course as soon as we left he said, "that was really cool! We'll have to come back again!" 

When the minis saw the fallen tree they asked to climb on it. It wasn't until the first mini was on the tree trunk that I was reminded of a picture we took in the summer of 2016 on a fallen tree along the Grotto Falls Trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The more things change the more they stay the same. Two of our most favorite vacations right here.

The boardwalk over the swamp. Luckily it was pretty dry in this area at the time, but I can only imagine hiking this when the swamp is high. I might have been a tad more apprehensive walking on that boardwalk then.

Another hollow tree.

Cypress swamp all around. 

There were still tears and pouting as we left Highlands Hammock because "Florida is really over!"

The one thing from this whirlwind Florida trip that I'll forever be grateful for is that we got to experience all of Florida. All ecosystems, all types of wildlife, all terrains, etc. My kids will never think of Florida as just a beach place or an amusement park capital. They'll know that there's beaches, oceans, swamps, wetlands, big cities, islands, different cultures, fruit farms, and everything else we got to experience. Highlands Hammock State Park was the icing on the cake for our trip and a fantastic way to end our time in Florida (even though we weren't quite ready to leave!).