Story of a… Hiker
Sandra Friend, 52, braves gators, bears and floods to research her guidebooks to Florida’s best trails.
At age three, Friend began hiking Florida. Every summer, her family left their New Jersey home for campsites in the Sunshine State, holding her hand as she toddled the Everglades boardwalks. Now, the Orlando resident has authored nearly 20 books about exploring her home state, including “The Florida Trail: The Official Guide,” the definitive resource on one of the country’s 11 National Scenic Trails. She’s logged 1,100 miles of it so far, and is readying to finish the remaining 300 miles.
“We have more diversity than the other big thru-hikes, like the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail. On the AT, you’re in a long green tunnel atop mountains. It’s all the same. Because of elevation, North Georgia looks like New Jersey.” Whereas the Florida Trail has 83 habitats. “Here, a gain of three inches changes the scenery entirely. The Florida desert has bright white sand and the tiniest trees. The opposite is a floodplain forest, like along the St. Johns River. There’s no dry ground—you walk on a bridge surrounded by huge maples, sweet gums and cypress.”
Even after 16 years of adventuring in the Florida wild, Friend still finds surprises. “One spring in the Panhandle, I happened upon mountain laurel blooming white and pink. I’d never seen it in Florida before.”
“Floridians aren’t scared of gators, but out-of-staters are. On day hikes, I carry a big, wooden hiking stick. I’ve only poked a gator once, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used it on snakes.”
Critters don’t scare her, but water does. Once when hiking the Hickory Hammock stretch of the Florida Trail in Okeechobee, a friend dropped her 9.5 miles from her car in an area without cell service. A floodgate controlled the water flow of the drainage path, which she had checked before setting out. “But as soon as I started hiking, I got into water. Several times, to avoid drowning, I hopped fences for higher ground. By the time I reached my car, I was drenched and hypothermic. At McDonald’s, I warmed up with five cups of coffee.”
“In 15 years of hiking Florida, I never saw a bear. Then all of a sudden, they were everywhere. At Wekiwa State Springs Park, my husband John and I ran into a big one. We yelled. It just sat down. That was scary—you think if you yell at a bear, it should go away.”
“People in Orlando are surprised to learn that the Florida Trail is literally in their backyard. It comes around the metro area to the Charles H. Bronson State Forest, to the Little Big Econ State Forest. These are names people know, but they may not realize it’s all part of a national trail.”