As of May 1, 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers has closed this section and it has not reopened yet. Backpackers / thru-hikers / section hikers: please use the Okeechobee West route.
Between Clewiston and South Bay, the Florida Trail follows an paved arc along the edge of Lake Okeechobee atop of the Herbert Hoover Dike, drawing the closest it ever does to a major highway, US 27. The shallow marshes that rim the western lakeshore yield to vast expanses of open water with grassy patches. Tall royal palms, native to this region, are hints of the once-tropical beauty that was lost to agriculture in the draining and diking of the landscape. Tropical hammocks are not the only ghosts. There is now a pretty campsite on the lake’s edge where the trail passes through Bean City, which washed away in the hurricane of 1928. The curve of the lake is most obvious along this section as you approach South Bay, the southernmost point on Lake Okeechobee.
Location: Clewiston / South Bay
Length: 13.8 miles
Lat-Long: 26.757715,-80.917641 (Clewiston) 26.696335,-80.80724 (John Stretch Park) 26.682742,-80.730502 (South Bay Recreation Area)
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At John Stretch Park
Just like all other segments of the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee, there is no shade save at the covered benches provided. Off the dike, you’ll find tree cover, and restrooms, at John Stretch Park. It’s not a good idea to leave a car there overnight. However, the camp host at South Bay RV Park, a county park that is very hiker-friendly, may let you leave your car inside their gates. Tell them you’re hiking the Big O and they may extend a hiker rate.
If you’re walking this segment in the morning, you’ll be walking into the sun. Wear sunglasses and a hat.
The northern trailhead for this hike is at the Army Corps of Engineers office in Clewiston, at the end of San Diego Street, just south of the canal and adjoining Ridgelawn Cemetery.
John Stretch Park can be used as an intermediate trailhead, and is in fact where the Florida Trail enters the loop around Lake Okeechobee from the Seminole section to the south. Okeechobee East starts to the east of John Stretch Park, Okeechobee West starts to the west, headed back to the Clewiston trailhead.
The southern trailhead is at South Bay Recreation Area, which is just off US 27 slightly north of the small community of South Bay, adjacent to the South Bay RV Park, a hiker-friendly county park campground.
If the fog is thick around the trailhead in the morning, it imparts a ghostly feel, since a cemetery adjoins the Army Corps of Engineers parking area, just outside their gates. Follow the road through their working yard and it takes a quarter mile before you actually climb up atop the dike to the south of the Clewiston Locks. Thanks to being popular with anglers, the lock is a busy spot, with boats coming and going through the marshes and along the Rim Canal. Vast marshes stretch out to your left, where anglers settle in at their favorite fishing holes and airboats buzz through a maze of islands to dance along the edge of the open water beyond. One of the last remaining stands of invasive melaluca – which the Corps has been succeeding in killing off over the past decade – is on the right side of the dike.
In the early morning, headlights gleam towards you in the distance from traffic driving north on US 27, which you’ll parallel for the duration of this hike. Fortunately, the dike is tall enough you’re never at road level – but you’re certainly obvious to drivers! Don’t be surprised if you get a honk or a wave from some. By 1.4 miles you see Evercane Road (CR 835) heading due south towards Big Cypress Reservation from the far side of US 27. There are scattered trees along the left of the Rim Canal and perches for osprey nests.
At 2.3 miles, you encounter a covered bench, the first patch of shade on this hike, a sturdy one with four posts. It overlooks a canal heading out into the marshes of the lake. Passing within view of Crooked RV Resort along US 27, the landscape yields to sugar cane plantations with windbreaks of Australian pine. The low, grassy marshes continue to fill the curve of the lake all the way past Ritta Island to Torrey Island, visible at the horizon on the left. Around 3.2 miles you pass a very large tree down by the Rim Canal, providing a rare patch of shade. Beyond it, the marshes start to break apart like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with more stretches of open water between them. In fact, a swath of open water is clearly delineated as you look over towards the structures on Torrey Island in the distance.
You reach the Clewiston Campsite at 4.8 miles. It’s off the dike, down by the lake shore, with a fire ring and covered bench. The far side of US 27 is quilted by small farms, including a mix of goats, cattle, and orchards. An access road – for emergencies – leads down to US 27 and is blocked off by a gate. You can walk down to a water control structure just beyond this access point.
As the curve of the dike begins to become very obvious, on the far side of US 27 a road heads south into the cane fields, which stretch to the horizon. The marshes continue to break up into simply tufts of grass, the grassy waters of the original Everglades. The “forest of Lake Harbor” comes into view around 5.8 miles, with eight large ficus trees along the edge of the dike providing a patch of shade for a moment’s rest, a place to look out across the open water, riffled by wind. The marshes thicken again into Ritta Island, up ahead, as you reach a curve on the dike after a very long straightaway. By 7.3 miles, you can see a road sign down on US 27 that says John Stretch Park is one mile ahead. To the right, you can see the small settlement of Lake Harbor up ahead among the sugar cane and farms.
At 8.2 miles, you reach the vehicle gate above John Stretch Park. Follow the worn path down the steep slope to enter the park, where there are restrooms both adjoining the picnic pavilion under the trees and as a stand-alone building that the trail passes, heading out the entrance road. Walking towards US 27, you see the large pedestrian bridge over the Miami Canal, one of the welcome improvements to the trail in the past decade. There is a picnic grove off to the right under the shade of sand live oaks. After taking a break at the park, cross the pedestrian bridge, turn left, and walk up along the canal to ascend the dike on the south side, adjoining a tropical nursery. By 8.9 miles the trail passes around the other vehicle gate on the south side of John Stretch Park.
As you walk above the Rim Canal, the tropical nursery, with its large royal palms, shields the traffic of US 27 for a brief stretch. The triangle-shaped nursery ends at 9.4 miles, and US 27 draws much closer to the dike. If the wind is blowing – which it often does at the south end of the lake – you’ll probably be walking into a headwind, feeling like you’ll get pushed back to Clewiston. A copse of trees along the Rim Canal makes a good rest stop.
Reaching the big “MP 1 East” painted on the pavement – the Office of Greenways and Trails, when they paved the dike, put a numbering system in that goes in both directions from John Stretch Park, although not all of the mileage points ever got painted – you’ve walked 9.8 miles. The dike begins a slow curve to the left, and you see royal palms growing on the spoil islands on the other side of the Rim Canal. To the right, sugar cane stretches to the horizon and you can see the sugar processing plant south of South Bay. By 10.5 miles, there is a break in the vegetation and a low spot where you can get down to the Rim Canal to filter water if needed. Access to the lake is limited through this upcoming section, which is densely vegetated with native bamboo, grasses, and tropical native plants.
Enjoy the view from the covered bench at 11.7 miles, another sturdy four-posted one. As you continue along the dike, your eyes play tricks on you. You think the dike may be going off to the right towards the treeline near South Bay, when in fact it is making a slow sweeping left curve, following the Rim Canal. You can now see Torrey Island to the left, where tall palms and dense vegetation surround the houses. The C4-A Campsite (I prefer “Bean City Campsite”) is in a beauty spot at the outflow into the C4-A water structure, with a covered picnic table and fire ring down by the water at the spot where Bean City, a green-bean growing community, once stood.
Back on the levee, you pass a stand of royal palms between the dike and US 27 around 12.8 miles. The hike is coming to a close as the buildings of South Bay come into sharper focus. The dike curves left sharply, following the Rim Canal, and the trail comes up to a vehicle gate at 13.8 miles at the South Bay Recreation Area, a large parking area atop the dike and above the South Bay RV park, marking the end of this hike.
Thanks to Bryce Layman (litepacker.blogspot.com) for transcribing this hike!