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.
Most of the dike is now paved, a project that started in 2003 ago to facilitate ease of use for cyclists. The asphalt surface is tough on feet, especially if you’re carrying a pack.
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 section between Harney Pond Canal and the Kissimmee River remains blissfully pavement-free, and is one of the most remote portions of the trail.
We recommend it 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.
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.
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For more than a decade, the Army Corps of Engineers has had an army of contractors working on different parts of the dike simultaneously to shore it up.
As a result, you cannot hike a full unbroken loop around the lake without doing roadwalks around the closures, which are generally fenced off and sometimes have guards posted.
CAMPING AND LODGING
Designated campsites along the trail provide a covered picnic table, a couple of trees where you can string a hammock, and flat spots for camping.
You won’t find them between South Bay and Port Mayaca, where hikers are instead expected to use municipal campgrounds at South Bay, Torrey Island, and Pahokee.
Ample lodging – with a full spectrum of quality and rates – is available in Clewiston and Okeechobee. There are two fish camps with cottages and camping, and several small motels in smaller lakeside communities.
Random camping is permitted, but avoid doing so near towns. Never camp on top of the levee. Trucks drive down it at all hours. Camp at the base of the levee instead.
Dogs are welcome along this section of the trail. However, it is mostly paved and in the sun. Fire ant nests cluster close to the edges of the pavement. Keep your dog away from the lake and canals, where there are alligators.
Alligators are common in the canals and all throughout the lake. Some are quite huge.
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.
If you do need to filter water, don’t do so at dawn or dusk, when you might be mistaken for a deer by a prowling alligator. Avoid filtering water near culverts, since alligators often den inside them.
Hunting is limited to duck hunting in the marshes so it doesn’t directly affect trail access. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates.
Clewiston and Okeechobee are the most fruitful town stops for getting things done, since they have a broad variety of services and accommodations, including large grocery stores and a Walmart in each town.
Minor resupply is also a short walk from the trail in Moore Haven, Pahokee, and Lakeport.
PARKING & SHUTTLE
It’s generally smart to leave a car behind the gates of a campground or other business than at a trailhead when backpacking around the lake. Call ahead to arrange.
If you need assistance with a shuttle, join the Florida Trail Hikers Facebook group and ask for assistance. There are a number of volunteers in the area who can help. Be sure to compensate them for their gas and time.
For hikers wanting to reach the Florida Trail by train, Amtrak has an unattended station near downtown Okeechobee.
All around the lake, you may encounter people using the trail for daily exercise and for access for fishing.
At the southern end of the lake, the trail passes through several economically depressed agricultural communities.
If you get into an uncomfortable situation, move on and/or call law enforcement.
Important landmarks starting with mile 0 at John Stretch Park, for the east and west sides of the loop. At the north end of the lake, Scott Driver Park is the closest parking area for the south end of the Kissimmee section of the Florida Trail.
0.0 – John Stretch Park
5.3 – South Bay Recreation Area
10.9 – Paul Rardin Park, Pahokee
17.1 – Pahokee Recreation Area
20.6 – Canal Point Recreation Area
26.9 – NENA Trailhead
30.1 – Port Mayaca Recreation Area
37.8 – Chauncey Bay trailhead
47.7 – Nubbin Slough trailhead
52.7 – Lakefront Park, Okeechobee
56.5 – Scott Driver Park, Okee-tantie
0.0 – John Stretch Park
8.5 – Army Corps of Engineers, Clewiston
9.7 – Levee Park, Clewiston
15.0 – Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, Moore Haven
21.5 – Alvin Ward Park, Moore Haven
33.5 – Fisheating Creek, Lakeport
37.8 – Van de Velde Park, Lakeport
45.4 – Indian Prairie Canal
55.8 – Scott Driver Park, Okee-tantie
Guthook Guides Comprehensive logistics and offline maps for the Florida National Scenic Trail.
We have not yet written up all of the segments of the Florida Trail along Lake Okeechobee for our website, although details about all of them can be found in our guidebook and app.
Each of the segments below are described from the perspective of a day hiker, noting landmarks, water, and campsites along the way. Not all are aligned in a S > N perspective, but this is the order they are around the loop, from the south to the northwest and back southeast.
Florida Trail Connections
These sections of the Florida Trail connect to the Okeechobee section.
111.3 miles. Following the Kissimmee River floodplain, this is a scenic section of the Florida Trail with a mix of levees, shady woods, river views, open prairies, and cattle ranches.
61 miles. A spur of the Florida Trail that leads from Port Mayaca on the east side of Lake Okeechobee to Hobe Sound Beach on the Atlantic Ocean, treating hikers to unexpected wild landscapes north of West Palm Beach.
Florida Trail Videos (Okeechobee)
How to order a copy of The Florida Trail: Florida’s National Scenic Trail, our limited edition full-color coffee table book that tells the comprehensive story of the first 50 years of routing, building, maintaining, and enjoying our statewide National Scenic Trail.
Making the decision to walk the Florida Trail 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.
Our 2018 update of the state of the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee. Thru-hikers should continue to use Okeechobee West as their route around the lake. We provide full details on why.
Learn about the Annual Big O Hike around Lake Okeechobee.