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Take a hike in Florida

When Cheryl Ellefson moved to Florida in January, she began searching for a way to get to know people _ and her surroundings.

So when she saw a flier for the Florida Trail Association, she looked at it quizzically.

"I didn't even realize there was that much hiking in Florida," said Ellefson, who moved here from North Carolina. "It's so flat, you don't think there is."

But when she attended an association meeting, she discovered that the group hikes all over the state, from sandy parks near the beach to trails that wind through swamps and scrubland. Soon, she was out there herself, hiking in Little-Big Econ State Forest and getting to know her fellow hikers.

"If you like hiking _ and you have to like hiking to meet people this way _ there's a wide variety of people in the group, all ages, from all kinds of different backgrounds," said Ellefson, 34.

Although hikers don't need to join a club to go hiking, many beginning hikers get bored with the same old trails. As a result, they join a group, such as the Florida Trail Association, so they can learn about new places to hike and meet other hikers.

Take Judy Minter of Oviedo, for example. Minter began hiking a few years ago with a singles group. When she wanted to find different trails to hike, she joined the trail association.

"I didn't discover this was my passion until my 40s," said Minter, whose previous exercise consisted primarily of aerobics classes. "It has opened up wonderful experiences for me."

But for many newcomers (and some old-timers), hiking in Florida seems like an oxymoron. Hiking, to most people, means backpacking through mountains, not walking on a flat stretch of land.

"Most people have an image in their minds _ that you can only "trail walk' somewhere up in the mountains, in some national park along the Appalachian Trail," said Pete Durnell, president of the Central Florida chapter of the Florida Trail Association. "Obviously, there isn't the challenge of walking up and down mountains. But there are hills. And if you hike in sand, it's about as difficult as hiking up a mountain."

Hikers say the topography is quite different throughout the state.

"People think of Florida as being nothing but swamp and alligators. They don't realize there's such a variety of terrain in Florida to hike," Minter said. "You're not always going to be knee-deep in swamp to hike. There are places, like Blue Spring (State Park in Volusia County), where the terrain changes from hilly sand roads down to swamps, palm trees to oak trees and scrubby stuff."

Even the diehards don't hike much during summer, instead leaning toward shorter, early morning hikes or opting for water-related activities, such as canoeing. But as fall _ and cooler temperatures _ come to Florida, hikers are gearing up for their best season.

Trail hikes are only part of the mission of the Florida Trail Association. Made up of 15 chapters throughout the state, the association maintains the state's network of trails, getting out every spring and fall with saws and machetes to make the trails passable.

The organization has about 3,500 members statewide. Because the group is conservation-oriented, however, it attracts a large number of members who pay $25 for an individual membership or $30 for a family but don't actually get out and hike or maintain trails.

"We have about 200 to 250 active members, people who actually participate," Durnell said of the Central Florida chapter.

Organized hikes are scheduled several times a month, on both weekends and weekdays. Hikes are held on trails all over the state. Most are day trips.

Most of the hikes are open to the public, and that's how most new members get their first taste of Florida hiking. But newcomers should be prepared.

First, consider the length of the hike and decide if you're in shape to handle it. "You don't need a marathon-type physique," Minter said.

Lengths of hikes vary. The trail association schedules some short hikes of 4 or 5 miles, and some medium-length hikes, about 7 or 8 miles. For longer hikes, generally 10 to 12 miles, members are told in advance about the hike's length and difficulty so they can get into shape for it.

Florida day hikers don't need lots of equipment. In fact, many wear sneakers rather than hiking boots, because the terrain isn't difficult.

"For years, I hiked in tennis shoes," Minter said. "Four or five years ago, I finally got some hiking boots _ they're the real light kind. But what you wear depends on your preference. If you don't mind getting your tennis shoes wet and muddy, then wear them."

There are a handful of necessities: a light backpack packed with a snack, a lunch and plenty of water. Insect repellent is a must, as is a sun hat.

New members come to the club at many ages and stages in life. Ellefson, a freelance marketing consultant, joined so she could learn more about Florida and meet people. Other members joined because they wanted to get in shape, and some simply wanted to explore the outdoors.

For Rebecca Bowman of Oviedo, hiking seemed like a less strenuous way to stay in shape during her first pregnancy.

"I couldn't ride my bike anymore," said Bowman, 36, "so I took up hiking. I liked being outdoors, and I didn't want to walk on the sidewalk in the city. They really showed me that there are a lot of different places to hike here."

But most important, says Durnell, getting out with the trail association _ or any other outdoors group _ encourages Floridians to appreciate the natural world.

"We want people to get out there and see something that's the real Florida," Durnell said. "If we don't get people to appreciate it, they're not going to care when some of these forests and preserves are in danger of being developed."

Besides, once out on a trail, hikers learn to appreciate the beauty of a Florida landscape.

"We do have some vistas, not as majestic as mountains, perhaps," Durnell said. "But we have oak hammocks, ponds and wetlands that can be beautiful. Especially if you get it at sunrise or sunset. It's majestic in a different sort of way."

For more information, contact the Florida Trail Association, P.O. Box 13708,

Gainesville, FL 32604; call (352) 378-8823.