To Fee or Not to Fee?
Florida’s public lands are not, in all cases, free. A variety of state and federal agencies charge user or entrance fees, which vary from per-person fees of $1 to per-carload fees of $8 per visit.
Fortunately, most of our agencies also have programs where you can purchase an annual pass or use permit. If you’re an avid hiker like I am, a pass adds up to serious savings over the course of a year! Here’s how to obtain permits and passes from our agencies.
Florida State Parks
Annual entrance passes cost $80 for an individual or $160 for a family, plus tax, and provides clear entrance to our 160 state parks, most of which charge an entrance fee. You’ll be asked to pay tax when visiting parks in the Florida Keys even when you show your pass. The pass covers 1/3 of the entrance fee for the Skyway Fishing Pier and deep discounts to Weeki Wachee and Homosassa Springs (both of which were retro Florida attractions before they became state parks) and t. Either obtain your pass at a major Florida State Park entrance station (call ahead to be sure they have them in stock, I discovered) or order them in advance online. The pass is good through the end of the month you buy it in a year later, so if you buy one at the beginning of the month, it’s like getting 13 months for the price of 12. Order a Florida State Parks pass online.
Florida State Forests
The Florida Division of Forestry offers a $30 annual pass for access to state forests, most of which charge a $2 per-person user fee at the trailhead, payable in exact cash to an “iron ranger.” What’s great about the $30 pass is that is coves the entire family, up to 7 people in your vehicle. Order a Florida State Forests pass online.
Florida Fish & Wildlife (WMAs)
Many Florida Wildlife Management Areas have hiking trails, and at these sites, I’ve sometimes encountered a fee structure of $4 per person. I searched their website and came up with information on hunting, fishing, and recreational use, but nothing to indicate that an annual pass is available for non-consumptive recreational users.
The Florida Trail
Parts of the statewide Florida Trail, our National Scenic Trail in Florida, remain on private land. If you’re planning a long distance hike, or looking to hike along the Suwannee River, you’ll need to become a member of the Florida Trail Association. Memberships cost $35 individual, $45 family, with discounts for students and seniors. Become a member of the Florida Trail Association.
NATIONAL PARKS AND FEDERAL RECREATION LANDS “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL” ANNUAL PASS
This is one of the best bargains our Federal Government has come up with in a long time. This multi-agency annual pass covers entrance fees as described below. The pass is $80 per year and includes yourself and up to three adults with you, with children over 15 included in that category. Order the pass online.
National Wildlife Refuges
Florida is the birthplace of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which started with the designation of Pelican Island by President Theodore Roosevelt back in 1903 and now includes more than 20 sites, most with some sort of hiking trail or multiuse trail. The America the Beautiful pass replaces the Duck Stamp method of entrance fee, which I used to obtain. Duck Stamps are still available for collectors and for entrance fee use to National Wildlife Refuges only. Here’s how to get one. However, the America the Beautiful Pass covers National Wildlife Refuge Entrance fees.
St. Marks NWR permits
If you plan to backpack the Florida Trail through St. Marks NWR, a special permit is required. St. Marks is the only NWR in the United States that permits overnight camping in designated campsites, but the rules do need to be followed to ensure future Florida Trail hikers continue to enjoy the trail through the refuge. To quote their materials:
Only backpackers hiking all the way through the Refuge on this 45‐mile long segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail may camp in the Refuge, and as such only through hikers along the Florida National Scenic Trail are permitted to camp in the Refuge. Campsites in the Wakulla and Panacea Units will be closed during big game hunts in those respective areas with the exception of the Porter Tract and Wakulla Tract campsites in the Wakulla Unit. Hunt dates for the upcoming hunt season are established each July. Each of the eight campsites is limited to no more than 20 people per night and reservations must be made through the Refuge office.
Campsites along the Trail must be reserved in advance by telephone (850‐925‐6121), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), mail or in person to: St. Marks NWR, PO Box 68, St. Marks, FL 32355
The following information and payment of a non refundable fee of $1.00 per person per night must be submitted no later than 15 days prior to the start of the trip, otherwise the reservation will be cancelled:
1. Dates campsites needed.
2. Expected number in party (maximum 20 people, 10 tents).
3. Name, address, and phone number of group leader, tag number of car(s) left at
4. Names and addresses of all participants.
5. Check or money order made out to “U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service” totaling $1.00 per
person per night.
For further clarification or questions, contact the refuge at (850) 925-6121 (M-F 8 am‐4 pm, Sat-Sun 10 am‐5 pm). If you can wrangle it during the hours they are open, you can walk to the visitor center on Lighthouse Rd via a blue blaze to the east after you’ve crossed Lighthouse Rd, and pay in person – but you must confirm by phone FIRST that they will let you do so.
National Forests in Florida
There are three National Forests in Florida: Ocala, Osceola, and Apalachicola. While the America The Beautiful pass will spare you fees at trailheads that charge fees of $2-4 per car (Lake Delancy and Farles Lake in the Ocala National Forest being two examples I’m familiar with), it will not, I discovered, give you entrance into the many recreation areas in our National Forests, as they are run by concessionaires with their own pricey fee structure, typically $4 per person. The America the Beautiful pass covers some National Forest entrance fees but NOT Recreation Area fees.
We have two National Parks (Everglades and Biscayne) and two National Seashores (Gulf Islands and Canaveral) in Florida. Entrance fees of $10 per car, good for one week, apply to access at Everglades National Park via Shark Valley or the Main Park Road, and to the Fort Pickens and Perdido Key Units of Gulf Islands National Seashore. There is no user fee for hiking at Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze. Biscayne’s trails are all on islands in Biscayne Bay and cost an access fee plus you’ll pay to get there if you aren’t paddling out to the islands. There are no fees in Big Cypress National Preserve, another National Park unit, or at the national monuments that are a part of the National Park service and have nature trails: Fort Caroline, Fort Matanzas, and DeSoto Memorial. Fort Jefferson and Castillo de San Marcos do charge fees but have no hiking trails. The America the Beautiful pass covers National Park entrance fees.
OTHER FEDERAL LANDS
Eglin Air Force Base
If you’re planning to hike any portion of the Florida Trail at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, you’ll need their annual Recreation User Permit. The permit is keyed to their fiscal year, which runs Sep-Aug, and there’s no discount for buying it for less than 12 months of use. It’s $12 per person, and you can pick one up in person at the Jackson Guard office in Niceville (their preference), or order one through the mail. To do so, send a photocopy of your current ID, along with a check for $12, your current address, and your cell phone # to:
Jackson Guard, 107 Hwy 85 N, Niceville FL 32578
Call (850) 882-4164 for any other questions on Eglin permits. I was told that if you know the 10-day window in which you’ll be day hiking in Eglin, you can order a Fishing Permit – which provides access to Eglin during those days – and use that as your recreation permit for day hiking. If you’re backpacking, it’s a different ball game. There is a per-night campsite charge of $5 per person, and you have to let them know in advance what day / designated campsite you plan to use as your camp. Unless you’re a Florida Trail thru-hiker, in which case you can obtain a letter of passage from the Florida Trail Association that waives the per-night reservation/fee requirement. You still need to estimate the dates you’ll be crossing Eglin, and you need to ask FTA for this letter about 30 days in advance. Which means you’ll likely be on the trail, and should have them mail it to you along the route, no later than when you reach Blountstown.