For thru-hikers in 2012-2013, closures around Lake Okeechobee along the Florida Trail have made logistics quite a challenge. The Army Corps of Engineers has contractors working along several large segments of the dike, continuing to make it impossible to “do the loop” of 110 miles around Lake Okeechobee without a dangerous amount of roadwalks. More significantly, these closures directly affect thru-hikers, since they are taking chunks out of the trail on BOTH sides of the lake for the very first time.
The following are my suggestions regards the best route to take to deal with these closures, based on personal on-the-ground research this past week.
#1. Don’t hike the EAST side of Lake Okeechobee
I will neither suggest nor endorse any alternate routes along the east side of the lake due to the sheer number of closures going on and the amount of roadwalking you’d have to do – sometimes in places where I wouldn’t feel safe myself walking as a lone female backpacker – to get around the closures. Here’s what the East side looks like in terms of access:
- John Stretch Park to South Bay – CLOSED except weekends
- South Bay to Torrey Island – OPEN, including parking at South Bay
- Torrey Island to Port Mayaca – mostly CLOSED. Rardin Park has access but you can’t hike north or south from there to another access point. Canal Point and Pahokee access are entirely closed and blocked off with Jersey barriers
- Port Mayaca to Nubbin Slough – OPEN
- Nubbin Slough to Taylor Creek – CLOSED – access is blocked at Taylor Creek with a construction zone at the lock, requiring a 3-mile roadwalk along US 441
- Taylor Creek to Okee-tantie – OPEN
#2 Hike the WEST side, but with caution and pre-planning
Problem Area 1: The Corps has declared John Stretch Park to Clewiston closed except on weekends. We could see no heavy equipment or construction materials in this section, but they don’t want hikers on it as they have equipment on the dike during working hours Mon-Fri. If you can’t time your arrival for a weekend, you can’t camp at the Clewiston campsite. A viable alternative is to walk from the Lake Harbor PO for 8.7 miles along Old US 27, which parallels US 27 from Lake Harbor to the Marathon station at the south end of Clewiston. There is one spot where you will need to go out to US 27 to get around a canal.
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Problem Area 2: Folks in Clewiston say that the Corps plans to build a new lock between Clewiston and Liberty Point. Nothing has started yet. However, if you happen to hear of any closure here between Clewiston Park and Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, please let me know.
Problem Area 3: Liberty Point to Moore Haven. Extensive reconstruction of the dike is underway in this section with a large fence up to the north of Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. Hikers must exit the dike and follow roads into Moore Haven. While not busy, these roads are narrow with canals on both sides (and big gators in them, as we saw) and have farm equipment and sugar cane trucks blasting past. Use extreme caution walking this route. Water from canals has agricultural runoff; tank up at Uncle Joe’s. There is no other option around this closure. I’d suggest camping at Liberty Point or Uncle Joe’s before taking on this roadwalk of 8.4 miles into Moore Haven:
Leave Uncle Joe’s Fish camp along Griffin Rd.
0.5 Reach a T intersection. Turn right on CR 720.
4.9 Pass a farm worker village on the right
5.9 Pass the South Shore water tower and cross a railroad track
6.2 Cross a canal on the highway bridge
6.7 Cross railroad track
7.2 Reach US 27. Turn right and parallel the highway using the wide grassy shoulder
8.4 Reach the original route of the Florida Trail at Daniels Rd & the Caloosahatchee River Bridge
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It appears that the old Rice Motel in Moore Haven is no longer a motel. You’ll have to grab supplies and head on north to the trail to camp. To complicate things, the Okeechobee Waterway RV Park at the Moore Haven Lock has also closed. While this does not affect hiking north from Moore Haven, it removes nearby services (restrooms, showers, camping) and a place to park. It also means 13.9 miles between camping at Uncle Joe’s (fee) and at the next designated campsite north, C-5A, or 14.5 miles between Liberty Point campsite and C-5A campsite.
* NEW * The trail has been paved from the Moore Haven Lock north to Lakeport. It just opened to hikers this past weekend during the Big O Hike.
CLOSURE: Okee-tantie Campground and Marina have closed, including the marina store and restrooms. Parking is still permitted here. Lightsey’s restaurant is still open. For resupply, you will need to continue 4.5 miles east to Okeechobee.
The Florida Trail Association may offer a different set of suggestions, check their website for details.