Put one foot in front of the other. Walk nine days. Cover more than 110 miles. Circle the second largest freshwater lake entirely inside the United States. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If so, you’re ready to tackle the Okeechobee section of the Florida Trail, also known locally as the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST, that is).
It’s a gigantic loop around a lake so large it’s had killer storm surges during historic hurricanes—and a modern-day storm surge during Hurricane Frances. When more than 2,000 lives were lost when the lake burst its banks in 1928, the Army Corps of Engineers recommended girding this inland sea with a massive dike, more than thirty feet high in most places. Dozens of hurricanes later, the dike still stands. And atop it, you’ll find the trail—a trail with a view unparalleled in South Florida.
It’s a popular destination for backpackers headed south during Christmas break, since the circumference can be traversed in a week, there are lakeside primitive campsites to savor, and trail towns provide respite along the way. It’s attracted the attention of Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails, an arm of the Department of Environmental Protection devoted to maintaining green space and biking trails, resulting in a paved path put in place atop the dike. And it’s drummed up a steady stream of hikers who return every year to participate in the longest-running “endurance” event held by a Florida Trail Association chapter, the Big O Hike. Now in its 13th year, this Thanksgiving week event sponsored by the West Palm Beach-based Loxahatchee Chapter encourages hikers to spend nine days of day hikes circumnavigating the lake, with base camp set up at a local campground each night. And it was because of this event, and the loss of a friend, that I walked around Lake Okeechobee for the first time.
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November 2002. A bitter wind raked South Bay RV Park, and I shivered in my newly purchased dome tent, catching few winks as the temperature plummeted to freezing. Who knew? I’d prepared for typical South Florida fall weather, with a sweatshirt, nothing more. In the morning, some of my fellow hikers were bundled up like the Michelin Man. A record crowd climbed to the starting gate atop the dike, where the ashes of Sunny Piskura, long time hike leader, were scattered to the wind by her loved ones. And we walked. The bracing wind stung my cheeks as I rounded the bend into Chosen, a village scoured off the map that fateful day, September 16, 1928, when a nameless hurricane drove the waters of the lake into the Everglades, breaking the weak muck dike and sending a wall of water that washed away barns, houses, livestock, and thousands of farmers and migrant workers who tended the muck farms. There is nothing left of Chosen but its name. Belle Glade and Pahokee suffered a similar fate, but those towns rebuilt, albeit as forgotten and impoverished outposts of Palm Beach County. After 3 miles, our “Wimp Walkers,” a Big O tradition, bail out for the shuttle bus and the ranks thin to the hard-core hikers willing to do a 12-mile day. The payoff is unexpected. At Pahokee, ending the day’s hike, we encounter the joyful Grassy Waters Festival, a cross between a county fair and a church picnic, with live gospel music, hot dog eating contests, midway games, and a petting zoo. A sombrero-clad muchacho rumbles past in a toy train; he clutches a Chihuahua in his lap. Several boys ready themselves for the tricycle race. Our hungry hikers seek out corn dogs and chicken legs before the shuttle bus arrives, and we pause to watch a skydiver touch down on the grassy berm of the dike.
Each day the same, each day so different: you’d think that walking atop a dike would be boring, and yet it is nothing but. The textures and colors of the landscape change as the miles fly by, with the endless sugar cane fields yielding to strips of lakeside civilization and then to cattle ranches along the prairies of the northern Okeechobee. It’s a perspective you can’t get by driving around the lake—you must experience it from the dike. Despite the artificial intrusion of the dike, the lakeshore varies too. Some days, jagged rock drops off into the inky blue, and stands of individual blades of grass define Pay-hay-okee, the “Grassy Waters” of the Seminole. Its vast expanse was called “Mayami” by the Calusa, who came from the Gulf Coast in their canoes up what we now call the Caloosahatchee River to explore the peninsula’s interior; they built villages upon the great lake’s shores. In the 1930s and 1940s self-taught archeologist Montague Tallant, discovered burial mounds at Nicodemus Slough and Chosen. Artifacts unearthed from those mounds, including an intricate crocodile-god pendant, are on display in the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute and at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. Less celebrated and nearly as forgotten, a battle fought between Federal troops and the Seminoles on the shores of this lake in December 1837, the Battle of Okeechobee, a defining moment in Seminole history and for the career of Zachary Taylor, the commander who would become President. Fought along the Okeechobee Ridge, the historic edge of the lake, the battle pitted a small band of Seminole warriors with superior position in the trees in the hammock against soldiers struggling through sometimes waist-deep marshes. Sheer numbers won: the Seminoles were driven south, where spiritual leader Abiaka (Sam Jones) withdrew his people deep into the Everglades for safety. The hallowed battleground is now a subdivision; the only reminder of this chapter in Florida’s history a large stone marker outside a roadside bar, “Old Habits,” next to Taylor Creek.
Okeechobee’s gems are many, from the vast sweep of the palm-dotted marshes of Indian Prairie to the delightful calcite-encrusted fossilized scallops found underfoot embedded in the limestone of the dike. As I walked along the lake daily with an ever-changing group of hikers, I learned their stories: Don, from Ontario, one of our elder statesmen, looking for a place to stretch his legs; Leona, who owned a fish camp in Ontario and read about the Big O Hike in Walking magazine years before; Rosie, who drove down from Maryland every year because she liked the company. We paused at the Hiker’s Graveyard, solemn granite columns bracing a weak spot in the dike, and perched on the railings at the locks like birds, seeking a spot to rest sore feet. It wasn’t easy hiking: hard limestone, uneven surfaces, and a total lack of shade conspire to heat up your feet, leading to near-daily blisters. Enter Lou Beauchamp and her blister clinic, set up in the back of a van at the campground every evening. For a glass of wine or a good story (or even a good whine), Lou, a retired nurse, doctored up sore feet. We traded blister-avoidance tricks like collectors cards at Happy Hour every eve: wear cheap knee-highs as liner socks; smear your feet with petroleum jelly; swap out shoes every other day. Happy Hour was Sunny’s invention, an afternoon icebreaker at the campground, a reason to gather around the picnic tables and chat and nibble before making dinner plans. And dinner we did! From fabulous steaks to fresh-caught catfish, we learned the secrets of Lake Okeechobee’s small towns, where restaurants and diners serve up real home cooking. With appetites honed from miles of hiking, the Big O hikers make a major economic impact!
Learning about the region is part of the charm, which is why I returned the following year—not to mention the friendships forged on this first journey around the lake. Hiking this section of the Florida Trail introduced me to a part of Florida I previously knew little about, and to a lake I’d only ever seen in the distance from the dike at John Stretch Park. I watched anglers putter into the locks with a boatful of catfish, and duck hunters slide their fast boats past with nary a duck on board. I learned the rhythm of the sugar cane harvest, and could spot white pelicans soaring over the endless blue. I learned the calls of the blue-winged teal and the smooth-billed ani, and discovered that sandhill cranes like to hang out around lone cattle. And I discovered that I liked being away from the normal flow of life for nine days, rising before sunrise to catch the colorful morning glow from every conceivable angle. Sure, there’s no shade. And it’s flat, except when you have to go down the dike. But it’s a different take on Florida, a quiet refuge from the humming cities on either coast—and you’ll never lack for fresh water to filter.
PLANNING YOUR HIKE
OKEECHOBEE SECTION, FLORIDA TRAIL
DISTANCE: 113.8-mile loop
MAPS: Florida Trail Region 8, Okeechobee, includes the four maps needed to circle the lake. Maps include detailed directions, trailhead locations, campsites, and potable water sources. Florida Trail Association, 877-HIKE-FLA or www.floridatrail.org
LOGISTICS: 16 trailheads, 8 designated campsites, and access to trail town facilities (campgrounds, motels, restaurants, stores) at South Bay, Pahokee, Taylor Creek, Okeechobee, Lakeport, Moore Haven, and Clewiston.
BEST TIME TO HIKE: November through March, when temperatures are cool and mosquitoes are at a minimum.
TRAIL TOWNS YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
While Pahokee, Moore Haven, and Lakeport all provide trailside services to hikers, there are two major towns along Lake Okeechobee that you shouldn’t miss. Surrounded by sugar cane fields, Clewiston is known as “America’s Sweetest Town” and is home to the U.S. Sugar Corporation and the classic Clewiston Inn (800-749-4466), a 1930s hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Sites. Have a drink in their Everglades Room with its stunning wrap-around mural of local wildlife. Hiker favorites in town include Sonny’s BBQ and the Common Grounds Coffee Shop. There are many budget motels along US 27 appealing to the backpacker’s wallet, and hikers walk right past Roland Martin’s Lakeside Resort (800-473-6766) en route to the dike. On the north shore of the lake, the frontier outpost of Okeechobee is the heart of Florida’s cattle country, where beef cattle go up for sale weekly at the lively Okeechobee Livestock Market on the north end of town. Between Taylor Creek and Okee-tantie, hikers encounter popular watering holes like J&S Fish Camp and eateries like Lightsey’s along the trail. Follow US 441 (Parrott Ave) north into town for a wide range of restaurants and resupply options, as well as camping at the Okeechobee KOA (800-562-7748). Or stay at a local motel like the Flamingo Inn (863-763-6100) or Pier II (863 763-8003). If you have the time, visit the downtown antiques district and take a gander at the historic mural on SW 6th St—it depicts the settlement of this region.