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02/20/2020 - Central Florida's Nature Oasis

Highlands Hammock State Park: We didn't really know what to expect at Highlands Hammock State Park. It's located just a few miles outside the city of Sebring in central Florida (yes, that Sebring where they run the famous 12 hour race), so shopping and services are nearby...

...but those conveniences might as well be worlds away from Highlands Hammock.

The park is huge -- almost 10,000 acres. Established by forward thinking conservationists almost a century ago, it's a natural preserve chocked full of wildlife spread across large tracks of virgin hardwood forests that are interspersed with jungle-like landscapes as well as wetlands, streams and swamps.

First off, you should know about the park's campground: it's nice, but we have stayed at nicer Florida state park campgrounds. On the downside, the 143 campsites are a bit crowded together, and there are no full hookups available; water and electric only. Here's a tip: sites on the periphery are probably the roomiest. On the upside, the forested campgrounds, buildings and other facilities are very well-kept, and there are an abundance of park activities offered year-round that will keep both younger and older campers happily distracted. Case in point: the park's 9 separate nature trails. These are simply astonishing.

And when you do set out for an easy hike, you'll find no trail more captivating than the park's famous cypress swamp boardwalk.

There you quickly get the feeling that you've journeyed back in time, moving across a primordial marshland.

If you keep a sharp eye out, you can spot all sorts of critters -- including big alligators -- in their natural habitat.

The cypress swamp's calm, dark waters form a natural mirror, an illusion that has to be seen to be appreciated.

To prove the point, did you notice that the above picture is actually shown upside down? Go ahead, turn it over.

Whether or not hiking is your thing, the park features an inexpensive guided tram tour that lasts about 90 minutes. It journeys through sections of the park that are otherwise off limits to visitors, and we highly recommend it. Tip 1: buy your tickets the day before your tram tour. Tip 2: sit on the driver's side for the best views. The park also operates a well designed and poignant museum dedicated to the memory of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the young men who hand-built much of the park's infrastructure way back when. Not surprisingly, the entirety of Highlands Hammock State Park is a bird watcher's paradise. In sum, it is an unexpected zoological oasis and an unequaled camping experience not to be missed. Next Up: Manatees!

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