2/1/2016 update: There is a mile-long construction closure just north of Scott Driver Park that essentially shuts this section down between SR 78 and SR 70. We’re awaiting word on any kind of mitigation that will allow hikers to get through that mile.
Following the Kissimmee River north from where it empties into Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Trail is atop a series of South Florida Water Management District dikes similar to those encountered south of the lake. The big difference here is the scenery. The channelized river glimmers off to the left, while the view to the right is a vast expanse of open prairie with cattle ranches. Once you reach the S-65E lock, the remainder of the hike is a roadwalk to Platts Bluff County Park, a beauty spot along a remaining natural portion of the Kissimmee River.
Length: 14.7 miles
Lat-Long: 27.148696, -80.867300 (Okee-tantie) to 27.297061, -80.994166 (Platts Bluff)
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: at Scott Driver Recreation Area
To Okee-tantie: From the junction of SR 70, US 98, and US 441 in Okeechobee (35 miles south of Yeehaw Junction & Florida’s Turnpike along US 441), drive south on US 441 to reach a traffic light at a T intersection. The Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee is in front of you. Turn right to leave US 441 and follow SR 78 for 4.5 miles to Okee-tantie. You may park on either the south side of the highway at the former Okee-tantie Recreation Area (home of Lightsey’s), or on the north side of the highway at Scott Driver Recreation Area. At Okee-tantie, park your car in the main lot somewhere near the old guard shack entrance to the closed campground. For reasons still unknown, Okee-tantie Recreation Area closed last year – the county pulled the plug on it – so the marina is boarded over, campground closed, restrooms inaccessible, but the boat ramp and Lightsey’s remain, so there is still a regular stream of traffic through the parking area.
To Platts Bluff: From the same downtown junction in Okeechobee, drive west on SR 70 for 8.1 miles. Turn right on NW 128th Avenue. After 3.5 miles it comes to a stop sign at NW 56th Rd. Turn left and continue 2 miles to Platts Bluff County Park. Please note that unlike the other terminus, this park is rather remote for leaving a car overnight.
From the Okee-tantie parking area, follow the entrance road out to SR 70 and cross the highway carefully, there is no crosswalk and traffic moves at high speeds. You’ll be in Scott Driver Recreation Area (an alternate parking site with less spaces), which has a water fountain and restrooms. Walk up the dike to the right to begin your journey north on this segment of the Florida Trail, officially starting the Kissimmee River section. By 0.8 mile you reach a gate atop the dike, and must walk around it.
The top of the dike here is much like the top of the Herbert Hoover Dike used to be: an unpaved limerock surface with a grassy center. It provides a nice bit of elevation above the surrounding countryside, great for sweeping scenic views, but absolutely no shade. You quickly lose sight of the river, although it isn’t far away, hiding in the bushes to the left. Vultures often hang out in the handful of trees.
You can see a mile or more ahead, and at least that far off to the right across the cattle ranches. The trail gently curves, following the channelized river. A dirt road parallels on the left side, providing access for anglers to the Kissimmee River. On the right, a canal parallels this dike; watch for alligators.
After 1.5 miles you see the C6 water control structure on the Kissimmee River, providing a glimpse of the river to the left. The dirt road allows access to the dike here and continues to parallel to the left. From this perspective on the dike, thirty or more feet up, you can tell you’re above the floodplain where the meanders of the river dried up after the channel was dug down through it. Expansive views to the east continue, showing off vast acreage of cattle ranches. The river – sadly, a big ditch – hides again behind the trees.
Eventually, the vegetation on the left clears and the river is once again obvious, with access points for fishing. You see a blazed post – there aren’t many blazes in this open landscape – at 2.2 miles. The next blaze is on a rock in the right track of the trail.
By 5.3 miles, there is a fork in the trail where another dike takes off to the northeast. Keep left. There is a small parking area down by the river with a puddle of shade and access to the water, should you need to filter any. It’s a good spot for a break. Just beyond is the S-154 water control structure, with a pass-through for hikers. There is a blaze on the concrete pass-through, one on the tower and another one on the fence.
The trail narrows and goes over a small bridge over a canal as it continues to parallel the Kissimmee River. Off to the right, things are beginning to look a bit more wild. Agricultural lands yield to cabbage palm hammock and a dwindling stretch of forest. At 6.7 miles is another good access point for water from the Kissimmee River. This section of the trail is a Jeep track; there is no paralleling road, just the river on the left, where thickets of Brazilian Pepper, an invasive species, seem to be undergoing active removal. Where they’ve been removed, access to the river is easy.
By 7.6 miles, you pass a water structure on the left that looks like a bunch of low, old oil containers filled with gravel on either side of the river. The landscape opens up on the right into expansive cattle ranches, and you can see cars on SR 70 on the far horizon. Up ahead, in clear view, is the pass-through for the S65E Lock. Orange blazes lead you down to the right under a big live oak. There is non-potable water from a spigot at the lock.
Passing through a stile, you continue up the access road leading away from the lock towards SR 70. Along the access road you’re walking through the large, open fields of cattle ranches, and as you approach SR 70 there is an orange grove on the left. Carefully cross the highway and continue along the paved road, NW 128th Avenue, on the opposite side. [thru-hikers: limited resupply, camping, and showers 1.8 miles north on SR 70 at Kissimmee River Fishing Resort]
You pass a big gate for JW Sod at 2.5 miles. You may see sandhill cranes dancing in the sod farm on the left hand side of the road, the right hand side is primarily residences, and the road is long and straight. Ephemeral ditches on both sides make a possible water source, but keep in mind all ditches through this region are full of agricultural runoff.
At 4 miles, there is a rough water hole on the left side of the road; it’ll be there any time of year, but doesn’t look like the best of water. Open prairies, undoubtedly part of cattle ranches, extend behind fences on both sides of the road. At 4.7 miles, the intersection of NW 56th Street and NW 128th avenue, is a stop sign. The trail turns left, following NW 56th Street, with a canal paralleling the road. Be cautious of drivers on this narrow road, as well as dogs in people’s yards. This road tends to have a little more traffic on it later in the morning because of people going to the boat ramp early.
You see a large stable on the right before you pass a slough and two side roads. By 6.5 miles you reach a turnaround for cars at a big curve in the road. The trail follows the curve, orange blazes painted on the cabbage palms, into the shade of the live oak trees at Platts Bluff County Park. With an open understory, it’s a pretty park, but has no picnic benches. A rope swing hangs over a side channel of the Kissimmee River, where you can access the river if you need to filter water – or take a swim.