112.8 miles. Walking atop a 35-foot-tall dike built to hem in the waters of the second largest lake entirely within the United States, you cultivate a sense of perspective. To one side, the lake – or its marshy rim – shimmers off into the distance. To the other, Big Agriculture, in the form of vast sugar cane fields and cattle ranches. Little remains of the natural, except in small pockets: the pond apple thicket in Pelican Bay near Rardin Park; the rocky shoreline of the lake, topped with ancient cypresses and tropical trees, on the opposite side of US 441; the rugged tangle of vegetation in the Fisheating Creek floodplain.
There are many closures along the Herbert Hoover Dike due to ongoing rebuilding of the dike by the Army Corps of Engineers. See their map for current closures. Thru-hikers and section hikers use alternative roadwalks on paralleling roads to get around the closed segments, which change on a regular basis.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on symbols for details and directions.
The Florida Trail does a full circle around Lake Okeechobee, which makes it a compelling backpacking destination: it’s the longest loop hike in Florida. But it’s only a good backpacking loop when it’s all open, and it isn’t, right now. The Army Corps of Engineers has an ongoing project to rehabilitate the dike, with multiple contractors working on multiple pieces at once, creating closures that make hiking here more suitable for day hikes.
Making the decision to walk east or west around Lake Okeechobee used to be easy. Now, with construction zones blocking access to much of the southern half of the lake, it isn’t. Here are the facts on each route’s strengths and weaknesses to help you decide the best route for you.
For a thru-hiker or section hiker, the western side of Lake Okeechobee is optimal if you prefer a quieter, more scenic walk with more frequent places to camp. The eastern side has access to more small communities and less campsites but more campgrounds. It’s less than a half mile difference to choose either side of the lake.
Most of the dike is now paved, a project that started fifteen years ago to facilitate ease of use for cyclists. The asphalt surface is tough on feet, especially if you’re carrying a pack. The section between Harney Pond Canal and the Kissimmee River remains blissfully pavement-free, and is one of the most remote portions of the trail, highly recommended for an out-and-back backpacking trip from Harney Pond Canal north to Indian Prairie or Buckhead Ridge campsites, depending on your stamina and time. Designated campsites provide a covered picnic table, a couple of trees where you can string a hammock, and flat spots for camping.
56.2 miles. The preferred route for long distance hikers due to its solitude and wild spaces, the trail – entirely atop a 35-foot levee – offers expansive views of Lake Okeechobee, its western marshes, and vast open prairies turned to cattle ranches. Much of the trail, but not all, is paved and multi-use.
56.6 miles. The eastern side of Lake Okeechobee has more communities close to the Herbert Hoover Dike, and more open water to see from the trail. All of the trail here is paved and multi-use except for one short segment near Chosen. Closures due to rehabilitation work on the dike affect many segments on this side of the lake.
62.1 miles. A spur trail that leads from Port Mayaca on the east side of Lake Okeechobee to Hobe Sound Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. En route it passes through popular Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Riverbend Park as well as rugged and wild DuPuis Reserve and Corbett WMA, where there are vast wet prairies and cypress strands with wades similar to Big Cypress.
- The Army Corps of Engineers is actively attempting to shore up the dike. These construction projects have been going on for a decade and at times, block access to more than half the trail. Alternative roadwalks are necessary where there are closures, since pieces of the dike are gone – and you’re not permitted to enter the construction zones.
- Water in all canals along this route has agricultural runoff and pesticides in it. The lake itself is suffering from extreme levels of toxic algae and bacteria from agricultural dumping. Wherever possible, make use of potable water sources and non-potable tap water at the locks.
- Never camp on top of the levee. Trucks drive down it at all hours. Use the designated campsites, or camp at the base of the levee.
- Alligators are common in the canals and all throughout the lake. Some are quite huge. If you do need to filter water, don’t do so at dawn or dusk, when you might be mistaken for a deer. Avoid filtering water near culverts as well, since alligators often den inside them.
- Clewiston and Okeechobee are the most fruitful town stops for getting things done, since they have a broad variety of services and accommodations. Minor resupply is also a short walk from the trail in Moore Haven, Pahokee, and Lakeport.