OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee is a great town if you are a fisherman, as Lake Okeechobee, the river and canals in the area provide some of the finest bass fishing the world. But, if you are not into fishing, there are other things to do, like hiking and biking.
The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) provides plenty of opportunities for both hiking and biking. A fairly flat, ten-foot wide, paved multi-user path is provided on the top of the levy that surrounds the lake, and in the Okeechobee area there are still large sections of it open and available for use, unlike areas on the south and east side of the lake that are mostly closed for multi-year construction projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Nearest to town at Jaycee Park, just inside the dike at the intersection where U.S. 441 and S.R. 78 meet are some brand new facilities. To access this park, you take the access road that crosses over the rim canal and then over the dike itself. At the top of the dike you cross the LOST, and continuing to enter the park with paved parking, great views of the lake and a new public bath house with water. On the back of that structure is a system of switchback ramps that take you to the LOST itself. When you reach the trail, if you turn right, you can walk or ride as far as Taylor Creek two miles away. If you turn left, you can go as far as the Kissimmee River. This is a popular stretch of the LOST as it is nearest to town and provides great parking. It is very common to see entire families on bicycles or walking in this section of the path.
A little further away from town, on U.S. 441 North is the Taylor Creek Storm Water Treatment Area (STA) and some really good walking or bike riding. The STA, is found a little over four miles north of the intersection of S.R. 70 and U.S. 441, just 2/10s of a mile north of the
bridge over Taylor Creek on the west side of the highway. The STA is a water treatment area built by South Florida Water Management District what takes water from Taylor Creek and runs it through a marsh to remove phosphates and then deposits the water back in Taylor Creek at the south end of the treatment area. These two ponds that make up the STA are surrounded by a well-maintained shell rock road that is a favorite of walkers. There is ample parking, picnic tables, and a toilet facility available, but no fresh water. Wildlife abounds at the STA, and on a recent visit there, I counted ten alligators sunning on the bank as I walked long. Birds are plentiful here as well, I have also seen deer and one time an otter in the lower pond. The parameter road around the entire structure provides a three-mile walk or ride, but there is a cut-off road between the ponds that can shorten the walk if you would like.
For the mountain bikers, there is a dedicated mountain bike trail in the Okeechobee area as well. Known as the Grassy Island Trail, this off-road trail is found on the north side of Northwest 50th Drive, a little over one mile west of U.S. 441. There is a large parking area with an information kiosk and a gate. From the
gate in the fence, a short ride across an active pasture and through a second gate you find the Grassy Island Trail, running through a hammock of oak and palm trees. The trail is over 5 miles in length and sandy during the dry season. It may be underwater in the warmer months when we find ourselves with daily afternoon rains, so you need to pick your days to ride. There are no facilities, or water available at the site, but there is plenty of parking and good information at the kiosk.
The Florida National Scenic Trail system circles Lake Okeechobee, on the dike and then heads north along the side of the Kissimmee River.
This trail system is described at the web site http://www.floridatrail.org/ and there you will find directions to trail heads, and where there may be closures along the way. The trail has established trailheads at Yates Marsh off Northwest 68th Street, off of S.R. 70 near the Kissimmee River for 3.3 miles. This ends in a trailhead on the end of Lofton Road (Northwest 144th) near the river. There is also
an established trailhead for the Chandler Slough Area on Loften Road with a 4.3-mile long section that roughly parallels U.S. 98 for 4.3 miles. There are lots of closures on the trail around Lake Okeechobee and the area. A good place to check on closures is at the Florida Trail Website http://floridahikes.com/florida-trail-updates/okeechobee-updates.
Further north, up U.S. 98 in Highlands County is a section of the Florida National Scenic Trail that I sampled recently. Just north of the Istokpoga Canal is Hickory Hammock Wildlife Management Area, which is adjacent to the Kissimmee River Public Use Area. The Hickory Hammock trailhead is found a half mile northwest of the U.S. 98 bridge over the Istokpoga Canal on the north side of the road and is signed as such. There is parking for plenty of cars, a shade structure with tables and information signage found there as well. There are NOT any public facilities of any kind, or water available at this site. If you stop at the Istokpoga Canal Boat Ramp park, a half mile before Hickory Hammock, there are facilities available there.
According to the Florida Trail web site there is also a marked trail called the Ocean to Lake Section, a spur trail, that is marked for 61.7 miles from the park at Port Mayaca in Martin County on the east side of the lake to the beach at Hobe Sound. This trail travels through portions of the DuPuis Reserve, Corbett Wildlife Management Area, Jonathan Dickerson State Park and River Bend Park on its way to the beach.
Speaking of Port Mayaca, the LOST trail beginning there is currently the longest section of paved trail available for use. At this time there have been no construction closures between Port Mayaca Park and the structure at Nubbin Slough (S191) some 18 miles away. For a bicycle, this is really the best portion of the trail to ride, as once you pass through the gate at Port Mayaca onto the trail, you will not need to negotiate another gate for the entire 18-mile distance. This portion of the trail is lightly used and in excellent condition, with wonderful views of both the lake and the rim canal. Be warned, however, that there are no facilities or water available along this trail anywhere in that distance or at the park at Port Mayaca or at Nubbin Slough.
As far as riding the LOST goes, there are some excellent sections available to ride in Glades County near the town of Lakeport. Glades County has recently paved the path from the bridge at the Harney Pond Canal to where the dike crosses S.R. 78 on the south end of town. A good starting point for this trail is in the Harney Pond Canal Park, that runs parallel to the canal and provides boat ramps for both fishing and airboats. There are facilities at the park and water is available. From the Harney Pond Park, take the trail over the dike, and cross the Harney Pond bridge on the shoulder. At the end of the bridge, through the gate is the newly paved path and it will take you several miles along the back side of Lakeport, to the south end of that town.
Along the way, adjacent to the Lakeport Lock, you can see the
Hiker/Bikers Graveyard, a section of the dike with large stones exposed from it, reminiscent of a grave yard. If you continue on the LOST, through the gate on the south end and a few miles down the path that runs parallel to S.R. 78 you will come upon the Vance Whidden trail park. This little known gem of a park, in an area known as Currie Island has a short entry road and a figure-eight shaped paved path of some two miles in length. It is off the highway and quiet and very few people are found here. There is parking available at the entrance to the path but no facilities or water yet. Glades County is considering allowing some dry camping in the park as well, for through hikers and touring bicyclists.
Also in Glades County, between the Kissimmee River and the town of Lakeport, there is a shell rock two-track on the top of the dike suitable for mountain biking. Friends who have ridden it, say it can be bumpy and difficult at time, but with a mountain bike with suspension, it is something to explore.
These are only a few of the trails in the area for hiking and biking. More information can be found on line. One very helpful resource for finding trails and biking opportunities is Google Maps. When the application is open, on the top left of the page is a bicycle icon. You can click on this icon and the map will display any bicycling paths and trails and bicycle friendly roads in the area.