1,100 miles: Discovering Florida's hidden trail

Greg Stanley and Katie Klann
Naples Daily News
On the third day of her hike, Gretchen Matt stops in the early morning mist and looks down at the dry land. She just finished hiking through the Black Lagoon, the deepest section of water encountered in Big Cypress National Preserve.


(Can't hear the audio? Click here to watch the documentary)

There’s a dirt trail that starts on the fringe of the Everglades and stretches the length of Florida. It’s a footpath, really, that runs under swamps and over roots, along rivers, and through the barren, still remains of wildfires.

Gretchen Matt, also known as "Dirty Bowl," turns around to adjust her pack while wading through the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve as she begins her 1,100-mile hike on the Florida Trail on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. The Florida Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails.

Dozens of hikers head to the trail's start every year, a small plaque engraved in stone behind a visitor’s center on U.S. 41 halfway between Naples and Miami. Few of them make it to the end, to the northern terminus 1,100 miles away, among the faded brick ruins of a long abandoned military fort off Pensacola Beach.

The trail avoids the coasts, for the most part. To walk all of it is to walk deep into the wild heart of Florida, deeper into an obsession.

Gretchen Matt came from Spokane to hike it. She had already hiked longer, steeper trails. She finished the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine, and the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,659 miles from Mexico to Canada.

But it’s the Florida Trail that had been on her mind since college in St. Petersburg. It’s the Florida Trail that a prominent hiker she knows tried to tackle this year, quitting after the first week.

Gretchen had 40 days to hike it all. That’s the time she could spare from work. If she averaged 28 miles a day, she could make it to Pensacola on her 28th birthday.

She came to the starting point between Naples and Miami. An outfitter gave her gear to pick up trash along the way and asked her to blog each day about the hike.

On Day 5, alone along an empty road, she broke down and cried. There, in the dark, she started composing an exit note in her mind, a final blog post that would explain why she had to quit this trail.

Thru-hiking Florida

The Florida Trail is one of just 11 national scenic trails in the United States. All are dirt footpaths and were created by Congress. Almost as soon as they were drawn, they became like mountains on a map – a dare to a certain type of person to hike them from beginning to end.

They call it thru-hiking.

Florida Trail: Trail Lingo

Step by step, the hikers head into the wild to follow every twist and hill, carrying with them as little as possible. Out of this a community has formed, where strangers leave hidden caches of bottled water for each other, or show up on the trail with coffee and donuts, or offer hikers a yard to camp in, a place to shower.

The Florida Trail will never get the traffic or attention of the nation’s two crown jewels, the storied Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. But its terrain arguably is more diverse than either of those. And in many ways it’s tougher to complete.

The volunteers and hikers of the Florida Trail want to figure out how to keep one of the nation’s finest pathways connected in a state with one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations.

The answer, they say, starts with getting more Floridians to experience it.

'I didn't know this was a real place'

Shadows of air plants hang high above the Big Cypress swamp. Jungle-sized palmettos reach out to envelop the trail. Knees of cypress trees stick out of the dirt like small statues. 

The swamp grew over limestone rocks that were cut by an ancient sea. The sea drilled into them spiraling craters and shin-deep holes. The holes have been hidden by rain and muck. In the muck, Gretchen Matt lurched into and over the holes like a baby giraffe learning how to walk.

"I didn't know this was a real place,” she said.

Gretchen Matt leans against her backpack after setting up camp and taking off her swamp-soaked shoes. On the second day of hiking, Matt already had blisters on her feet.

Gretchen hikes in a dress, with curly red hair down to her shoulders. Other thru-hikers call her Dirty Bowl, a nickname earned by not cleaning out her bowl during her time as a backpacking instructor out west.

Often other hikers ask if the dress is really better to hike in than whatever it is they’re wearing.

“Yes, always, the answer is yes. It's breezier. It doesn't cause your pants to fall down. It's all connected. They're cheap. They're easy to find. You get a longer stride.”

Florida Trail: By the numbers

Gretchen researched the trail before setting out. She knew where to get supplies and pick up food, and where she could fill her water bottles. She felt ready for the bugs and the humidity. If she could just make it through the first 100 miles, she’d been warned, she would be in the clear.

She made it out of the swamp averaging just under 20 miles a day. But the hardest part was about to begin. The trail bleeds under Alligator Alley and follows a series of canals north through the grasslands toward Lake Okeechobee. At the lake, the path falls off the canals and spits hikers out onto two-lane roads that cut through the small towns surrounding it.

Click here to view Gretchen Matt's journey through the Florida Trail

These road hikes are the bane of the Florida Trail. When there are gaps between the state forests, parks and preserves, and no deal in place with private land owners, hikers have to follow the side of the road until the path picks up again.

This isn’t a big problem at most national trails, in part because they traverse more remote areas.

The Florida Trail, which can stretch 1,300 miles with the Florida Keys included, has gaps along the way. About 300 miles of it still follows roadways more than 30 years after Congress created it in 1983. It’s only become more difficult to close gaps as the state population has ballooned from 10.8 million to 20.6 million over that time. Deals with logging companies and large landowners have expired as properties change hands or are developed.

Florida Trail: By region

The U.S. Forestry Service, which is responsible for the trail, and Florida Trail Association, which oversees volunteers who maintain it, are trying to close the gaps. Among the options are tax incentives for landowners, buying up swaths of land and continuing to negotiate for access on a piecemeal basis.

“It's an extreme challenge,” said Shawn Thomas, the trail’s program manager for the Forestry Service. “But it can be done."

Within the next few years, about half of the gaps could be closed, Thomas said.

As it begins to rain near mile 718 of the trail, Cyrilia Trudel-Gazquez, Gretchen Matt, and Lint Bunting pull out their rain gear and continue hiking.

The road ahead

It was on a road in the town of Moore Haven that Gretchen thought about writing her exit note.

She had just stared down a feral dog eating road kill. The sun set. She was exhausted. The dog looked rabid. She backed off until she was able to hitchhike around the dog and was dropped off in front of a state prison and its barbed-wire fence. The isolation that had been so welcome in the swamp now seemed hostile. She still hadn’t met one other hiker. There was no place safe to set up her tent.

For the first time on any trail, Gretchen thought she was going to quit.

Walking between 2 and 3 mph, Gretchen Matt does not take many breaks. She follows the orange blazes on the trees, marking the path, and takes the occasional photograph of the scenery.

She didn’t.

She stayed in a motel that night.

Soon after, she met another thru-hiker, Cyrilia Trudel-Gazquez, from Quebec.

Interactive presentation about the Florida Trail

A few days later, Gretchen watched as a speck in the distance slowly turned into a third hiker, Clint Bunting, better known on national trails as Lint. Lint had completed 13 thru-hikes before taking on the Florida Trail, becoming something of a celebrity among hikers.

Even after 30 miles under a grueling sun, Lint hikes in an easy fidgety way, kicking out his tree-trunk legs as if he were killing time, waiting for a bus.

The three would hike the rest of the trail together. They kicked balls of garbage to each other down the road for hours. They teased each other relentlessly and fell quickly into older brother, middle sister, younger sister roles.

They averaged 30 miles a day.

Map of the Florida Trail managed by the USDA Forest Service

They made it up through the pines around the Suwannee River in northern Florida, and hiked down the long roads that lead through the Panhandle. They discovered together the quirks of the trail – a working soda machine in the middle of nowhere, a vortex that collects trash in a titi swamp, a river with no bridge where the trail forces you to hitch a ride with a boat to continue on.

Somewhere along the line, they stopped counting the miles they had traveled and started counting the miles they had left. They only reluctantly talked about the end.

Because it's there

Hikers head to trails for different reasons. Lint fell into it when he realized comfort was killing him. He needed the soreness of a body that’s been used. He had been slipping into drugs. Backpacking replaced one addiction with another.

Gretchen had been turning it over in her mind ever since hearing about the Florida Trail in college, captivated that she could hike an entire state. There was urgency, too. Because who can say what will still be there in five or 10 years?

“It's a shame if you live your whole life and you don't do the thing that you've been thinking about,” she said.

Trails attract just about every age and segment of the population, said Bill Walker, a police officer and former paratrooper who volunteers to maintain a 60-mile section of the trail near the Suwannee River for the Florida Trail Association.

“I’ve met doctors, businessmen, writers trying to thru-hike this trail,” he said. “People that just got out of college and don't know which direction they're going. Truck drivers. Military guys. Police officers. Firefighters.”

Walker doesn’t know why he does it.

“I know that I like to do it.”

On Day 38, Gretchen, Cyrilia and Lint crossed a bridge in Navarre and suddenly reached an empty beach, white sand dunes rolling behind them and the blue Gulf ahead.

Gretchen Matt stretches her arms on the beach near Fort Pickens on Friday, March 3, 2017, after having completed her 1,100-mile hike in 40 days.

“It’s like the Florida Trail just gave up and said, ‘I'm not going to challenge you anymore,’ ” Gretchen said.

To finish a trail as hard and humid as the Florida Trail with 30 miles of pristine beach is almost like an inside joke, she said.

“How can this be the end of such a terrifying trail?”

The end of every trail is a letdown, a distant afterthought to the adventure of getting there. It brings with it a kind of depression that Gretchen describes as going back to the world.

She, Cyrilia and Lint nearly passed the ending marker, among the ruins of Fort Pickens, and stood awkwardly by it for a moment. A pair of fresh hikers starting out the other way passed them and tried to say hello.

The three just kept silently looking at the marker.

They were done.

Gretchen Matt hikes into the sunset along Pensacola Beach as she nears the end of her trip on Thursday, March 2, 2017. "It felt like a strangely beautiful ending to such a challenging trip," said Matt.