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. This part of 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.
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Length: 13.8 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Restroom: at John Stretch Park
Land Manager: Army Corps of Engineers
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.
If you’re walking this segment in the morning, you’ll be walking into the sun. Wear sunglasses and a hat.
It’s best not to leave cars at the trailheads overnight, and not permitted at John Stretch Park. If you’re backpacking, inquire at South Bay RV Park about leaving your car behind the gates at this county park. Tell them you’re hiking the Big O and they may extend a hiker rate for tent camping.
Due to dangerous bacterial growth in the lake in recent years, backpackers should obtain water from potable sources at trailheads or from taps on water control structures and locks.
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.
When 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.
Follow the road through their working yard. It’s a quarter mile walk along it before you climb up atop the dike to the south of the Clewiston Locks.
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.
In the early morning, headlights gleam towards you in the distance from traffic driving north on US 27. The trail parallels it 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.
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 becomes 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. There restrooms both adjoining the picnic pavilion under the trees and as a stand-alone building along the entrance road.
Walking towards US 27, you see the large pedestrian bridge over the Miami Canal and a picnic grove off to the right under the shade of sand live oaks.
After taking a break in the shade, cross the pedestrian bridge, turn left, and walk up along the canal to ascend the dike on the south side.
By 8.9 miles the trail passes around the other vehicle gate on the south side of John Stretch Park.
Reaching the big “MP 1 East” painted on the pavement, 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. The lake rim is densely vegetated with native bamboo, grasses, and tropical native plants.
Enjoy the view from the covered bench at 11.7 miles.
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 water structure is the site of Bean City. While there used to be a designated campsite here, its amenities were removed when the structure was rebuilt.
After you pass a stand of royal palms around 12.8 miles, the hike is coming to a close as the buildings of South Bay come into sharper focus.
Following the Rim Canal, the dike curves left sharply. The trail comes up to a vehicle gate at 13.8 miles at the South Bay Recreation Area, marking the end of this hike. South Bay RV Park is at the base of the dike.
NORTHBOUND BACKPACKERS: If you’re hiking the west side of the lake into Clewiston, it’s a 1.2 mile roadwalk to the next segment of trail. Exit the Army Corps of Engineers complex to US 27. Walk north, crossing the Clewiston Canal, to Francisco Street. All hiker services are north of here over the next two miles up US 27.
To return to the trail, follow Francisco Street towards the lake. Walk past Roland Martin’s Marina and Resort and turn left on Hoover Dike Rd. Enter Levee Park and head up to the trail atop the dike.
Our slides from hiking this segment of the Florida Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
11.8 miles. On a southbound hike between Moore Haven and Clewiston, arrive at sunrise for the best light show on Lake Okeechobee.
56.2 miles. Stretching from the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation to Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Trail Seminole section traverses a vast agricultural region, the former Everglades. Hiking is on roads and levees.
With airboat and swamp buggy rides as well as interpretation of native species, Billie Swamp Safari is an attraction providing immersion into the Big Cypress Swamp, ancestral home of the Seminole Tribe since the 1800s..
Learn about the Big O Hike around Lake Okeechobee.