Hammocks in Florida are not always fabric loungers attached to trees. Sometimes, the term instead refers to the trees themselves. A hammock is strand of hardwood trees with a dense canopy that provides shade and serves as home to an array of animals and plant life. Hammocks usually sit on higher ground than the surrounding marshes, although the ground in the hammock is (in my experience, at least) pretty swampy. Some sources say the word comes from the native American word for tree, while others say it is a cracker term associated with shade.
Not surprisingly, many of the first Florida state parks were planned around hammocks. Even if, like us, you know nothing about unique plants or bird species, they make very peaceful and interesting places to camp.
Highlands Hammock State Park
Our first experience with this kind of hammock came when we were looking for a cheap place to stay after the first game of Orioles spring training in 2021. The park looked to be about an hour and half east of Sarasota, but it actually took much longer to get there because the last few miles we found ourselves bumping along a pitted dirt road in the dark, stopping every ten yards to make sure our GPS hadn’t sent us down someone’s driveway. Before that point, the trip had been an idyllic trek through orange groves that filled the car with the scent of orange blossoms. But ten seconds on the road from hell was enough to convince us that even if we made it with our little RV intact, we would never come back. We were bouncing in our seats and every connection in our vehicle was being shaken like a satanic martini.
When we stopped to call the ranger station to make sure there actually was a park at the end of this nightmare, she said, “oh, you’re on the county road.” The she reassured us that we would make it to the gate eventually. It turns out that if you come to the gate from the other direction, you enjoy the benefit of actual pavement.
Starting with Orange Groves
Highlands Hammock State Park bills itself as the first state park in Florida, and it opened in 1935. The park features many structures and extensive walkways through the swamp constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In fact, they even have a CCC museum.
Some of the park’s trails and facilities were constructed as early as 1931 after local resident Margaret Shippen Roebling donated money to purchase land to establish a park. A federal official had lobbied to have the hammock designated as a national park, but the federal government decided it was too small.
The property started out as a local park also included former orange groves dating back to families who farmed the land next to the hammock in the 1880s. Today, wild orange trees are interspersed with the oaks, sweetgum and palms that line the roads and trails. One my first visit and on our trip this year, some of the trees displayed fully ripe fruit and fragrant orange blossoms at the same time. It’s hard to imagine anything better in February.
Walkways Above the Wildlife
Park trails started by local enthusiasts were finished and expanded by the CCC. In many sections, teams constructed wooden walkways over the swamps to allow visitors to access to environments they would never otherwise be likely to see. Some of the walkways have been replaced with modern, handicapped accessible boardwalks and bridges. Others have retain their terrifying rustic charm. I cannot begin to imagine how much I would not want to have been on the work crew that built these things.
The trails wind through wetlands and forest filled with birds, alligators, lizards, snakes, turtles, wild pigs, and the occasional otter and bear. I will admit to being scared at the sight of a big black animal snorting and snuffling through the brush and very nervous about getting out onto the twisted open CCC walkway near some pretty big gators. My favorite site was a mother otter and four little ones slinking across the road. They moved so quickly I couldn’t pull out my phone to get a picture.
What to Know About Staying in Highlands Hammock
Highlands Hammock State Park is just west of Sebring in south central Florida. The trails and roads can be very peaceful but on weekends both the trails and campground will be crowded and a bit noisy. Unlike some Florida park camping areas, this one offers no privacy between spaces. You will be keenly aware of your neighbor’s camping experiences. However, some of the lots are pretty spacious and most feature at least some shade.
Beware if you are approaching the park from the west or northwest because our GPS still always routes us down the “county road.” What is confusing is that the road approaching from the east is also the county road and it is in fact the same county road. We now have to lie to our GPS and tell it that we are headed for the town of Sebring. Only at the last minute do we reveal our true intentions and get directions into the park that involve driveable roads.
Signs in the park claims the term hammock is word used by the crackers, who were English settlers who came to Florida starting in 1763 when Spain ceded Florida to the British. Many of the crackers herded cattle through the dense underbrush using whips, and that may be where the term cracker comes from. Cracker also was a derogatory term used by the British in the 17th and 18th Centuries to refer to American colonists of Irish and Scottish descent who lived in the southern back country and who were considered lawless scoundrels.