Locals hoped that Highlands Hammock would become a national park; instead, it became a state park four years before Florida created the state park service.
One of Florida’s largest parks at 9,000 acres (14 sq miles, 36.4 sq km), Highlands Hammock opened in 1931, making it one of Florida’s earliest state parks.
The park contains a significant old-growth bald cypress swamp with a connected old-growth oak hammock. The hammock rests on land that is slightly elevated from the swamp and so is generally free from flooding. While the elevations of the two ecosystems differ only by a few feet, they are nonetheless quite different in plant and animal life. Ancient bald cypresses thrive in the shallow water of the swamp, while swamp laurel oak and southern live oak require the mostly dry soil of the hammock.
Both the bald cypress and southern live oak may live hundreds of years, with some specimens surpassing 1000 and possibly 2000 years. It’s likely that Highlands Hammock has multiple trees that predate the discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon in 1513. Such untouched hardwood forest had already become rare in the first few decades of the 20th century in Florida.
By the 1920s, the residents of the nearby city of Sebring and the surrounding area felt that development was coming too quickly. Banding together, they were able to purchase the mostly-untouched forest. There hope was to create a national park.
One of the persons who led the effort was Margaret Roebling, the daughter-in-law of Washington Augustus Roebling. Washington Roebling, along with his father (John A.), designed and supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Margaret (Née Shippen McIlvaine) was married to Washington’s only son John A. Roebling II. The couple purchased over 1000 acres in Lake Placed, just a few miles south of the Highlands Hammock area.
The movement to create Highlands Hammock included both the wealthy, such as Margaret Roebling as well as regular individuals. The land was purchased and by 1931 management was turned over the state. In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Florida established the park service and Highlands Hammock became one of the first official state parks.
Due to the Depression and the subsequent election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) a work relief program that provided manual labor to create and preserve natural lands in the US. The CCC worked on federal, state and local lands and in 1935 they set up a camp at Highlands Hammock. Much of the development of the new park was done by the CCC, including the main buildings still in use today.
Today, the park is one of the state’s most popular. Along with swamp and hammock there is also pine scrub land, the other important central Florida ecosystem. There is a campground and many nature-oriented activities, including a scenic drive, bike and horse trails, hiking trails a narrated tram tour, a small museum dedicated to the CCC and more. It’s particularly popular in the winter – both because of the cooler weather as well as the large number of “snowbirds” who stay in the Highlands County area.
Because of the efforts of locals a century ago, a large enough area of swamp and hammock has been set aside to keep the area generally healthy with limited development and a strong population of many species of animals, including some that are quite rare.
While all Florida state parks are technically tourist attractions, Highlands Hammock is one of the most popular and most successful. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to experience on of the most important ecosystems in the Sunshine State.
Highlands Hammock State Park 2020 Visit (coming soon!)