Every year, we take a look at what’s going on around Lake Okeechobee with the Army Corps of Engineers dike rebuilding project. The project dates back to 2006, when it was determined that the hurricanes of 2004-2005 and a storm surge across the south end of the lake directly impacted the dike. Undermining and leakage was obvious in several locations at that time.
The southern end of the lake once naturally flowed into the Everglades, which – more than a century ago – was dredged and diked and turned into agricultural land. Since then, a series of dikes have held the waters of Lake Okeechobee back from flooding the fields and towns along the lake’s south end. Mass destruction and loss of life in the 1928 hurricane resulted in the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which was simply muck piled up while dredging the Rim Canal for navigation. The last pieces of the Herbert Hoover Dike were constructed along the north edge of the lake in the 1960s.
Rather than work their way around the lake, the Corps has several contractors simultaneously working on removing the earthen dike, adding a metal wall, and backfilling the earthen dike. This has made access to the Florida Trail – which circles the lake on the dike – very difficult for the past decade. The Army Corps of Engineers posts a map of closures along the dike on their website. This is a screenshot of those closures as of December 20, 2016.
Based on the above map and our personal reconnaissance of the area in late November 2016, here are the facts on how you can tackle the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee on either the west side or the east side. We’ve long recommended the west side as far more pleasant, since it’s away from “civilization” and factories, but the east side may be a viable alternative now because all hikers must roadwalk through the city of Okeechobee to pick up the trail at SR 70. We leave it to you to decide, based on these facts. Please note that all potential combinations of roadwalks to get around closures are discussed in our guidebook, The Florida Trail Guide.
1) From the post office at Lake Harbor, you must walk west-northwest along Corkscrew Road to Clewiston, with one jog out onto US 27 to get around a canal. Corkscrew Road is little used. 8.6 mile roadwalk with a commercial campground along the route.
2) Walk through Clewiston on the Florida Trail as you normally would to Levee Park. Clewiston is a small city with all services and many cheap motels, your first major resupply stop along the trail. 1.2 mile on city sidewalks, with access to services.
3) There is a construction zone between Levee Park and Liberty Point, but according to locals (and the Okeechobee News), a path between two fences is open for hikers to walk through to get to Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, where you can camp or get a cabin. There is also free camping at Liberty Point at a designated campsite. 5.3 miles on paved path on dike.
4) You must leave the dike at Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp to follow its entrance road out to CR 720, a narrow two lane highway with high speed trucks, minimal shoulders, and deep canals on both sides. 8.4 mile roadwalk to US 27.
5) Rejoin trail route at Daniels Rd to cross the Caloosahatchee River Bridge on the pedestrian walkway, then circle around under the bridge to walk out 1st Street in Moore Haven towards the dike. Moore Haven is a small town with minor services. 2.4 miles on sidewalks and city streets.
6) At Canal Road, turn left and follow the road out to SR 78 through a residential area. It’s not a busy road but is narrow. Turn right on SR 78. This is a high-speed two lane highway with a lot of truck traffic. Continue along SR 78 until you can join the bike path coming down off the dike just before Fisheating Creek; this is the Florida Trail. 7.7 mile roadwalk to join FT.
7) Despite what the Army Corps of Engineers map shows, the bike path paralleling SR 78 is not closed. The remainder of the Florida Trail on the west side of Lake Okeechobee is entirely open. From Fisheating Creek to Okee-tantie is an unbroken 25.5 miles of trail, with numerous designated (free) campsites and some opportunities for lodging and minor resupply in Aruba, Lakeport, and Buckhead Ridge. The trail is unpaved between Lakeport and the Kissimmee River. Once you reach Okee-tantie, you will need to walk an additional 3.8 miles on the Florida Trail (paved path) to Okeechobee Waterfront Park because of the closure on the northbound dike.
STRENGTHS OF OKEECHOBEE WEST:
Quick access to your first major resupply and zero day in Clewiston
More unbroken miles of trail
More designated campsites (free camping) available
Less residents, more expansive views
Less paved trail
WEAKNESSES OF OKEECHOBEE WEST:
Pass a garbage dump near Moore Haven
Pass a prison on roadwalk in Moore Haven
Crossing the Kissimmee River bridge is scary with truck traffic
1) From the post office at Lake Harbor, you must walk east-southeast along Corkscrew Road towards South Bay. Corkscrew Road is little used. It dumps out onto US 27 after 3.8 miles. You must cross the busy four-lane highway to face traffic and walk south along the shoulder to the entrance road to South Bay Recreation Area, a total of 5.3 miles roadwalk. ANOTHER OPTION suggested by reader Perry Michael Koussiafes: From the post office at Lake Harbor, continue to John Stretch Park, turn right and cross the bridge. Join the trail on the dike. When you come to the construction area (which is fenced), walk down the dike to US27, walk about ¼ mile along US27 (wide shoulder but it’s 65mph!), walk back up the dike on the other side of the construction.
2) Ascend to the dike in front of South Bay RV Park, a commercial campground with good prices for FT hikers tenting. Follow the paved top of the dike east-northeast towards Torrey Island, where there is a commercial campground on the far side of the island. Once you pass Torrey Island the trail has a natural surface. There is a construction zone (pictured at the top of the page) between the end of Hooker Hwy at the dike and Rardin Park. According to section leader Roy Moore of the Loxahatchee chapter, the detour south of the construction work area is partly on private property and the manager, “Billy” would appreciate a call at 561-996-4127 just to verify that you will be walking through as a trail hiker. IF for some reason you cannot reach him, you can roadwalk out Hooker Hwy to CR 715, turn left and follow the road up to Rardin Park to return to the dike. It’s 3.5 miles from South Bay to Hooker Hwy, and another 2.5 miles to work your way around the construction zone to Rardin Park. Add another mile if you have to use Hooker Hwy as a bypass.
3) The trail is open between Rardin Park and Canal Point, and is paved. There is a commercial campground right next to the dike in Pahokee. 9.4 miles.
4) The trail is closed north of Canal Point to Port Mayaca. You must roadwalk up US 441. This is a busy two-lane highway with narrow shoulders and lots of commercial truck traffic. There are restrooms and a picnic table at the Canal Point Community Center, which you pass soon after leaving the dike, and a place to rest (but no facilities) at the NENA trailhead. Roadwalk along US 441 to the north side of Port Mayaca is 9.2 miles.
5) The trail is open between Port Mayaca and Nubbin Slough, and is paved. There is one designated campsite at Chauncey Bay. 17.4 miles.
6) You must leave the dike at Nubbin Slough and again follow US 441 north. It is busy, but the shoulders are wider AND you will pass services en route to the Taylor Creek bridge, including gas stations, restaurants, and a motel. 2.6 mile roadwalk.
7) Rejoin the Florida Trail on the north side of the Taylor Creek bridge by walking up the entrance road through the RV park, past the Fish & Wildlife Office, back up to the dike, which is a paved path. Continue to Okeechobee Waterfront Park, which has restrooms and picnic tables. 2.5 miles.
STRENGTHS OF OKEECHOBEE EAST:
More parks to stop at to rest
More commercial campgrounds (sense of security behind gates)
WEAKNESSES OF OKEECHOBEE EAST:
More residents along route
Only one designated campsite open
Only minor resupply available until Okeechobee
More houses and commercial operations along the route
Less comfortable for a woman alone
Leaving Okeechobee northbound
In either direction, you’ll leave the dike at Okeechobee Waterfront Park to cross SR 78 and follow sidewalks up US 441 through the city of Okeechobee, past all services including a KOA, motels, Walmart, library, numerous restaurants and grocery stores. When you reach the little downtown area, turn left and parallel SR 70 until you’re forced to walk a block over to it and walk along that highway. As you leave Okeechobee, the road narrows and traffic is high speed. Be cautious. Look for where you rejoin the Florida Trail route at NW 128th Ave; there is a small sign for the S-65E lock pointing south where you want to go north. Total of town sidewalk miles plus roadwalk along SR 78 is 11.2 miles.