Our 2018 update of the state of the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee
Fourteen years after a record hurricane season undercut the Herbert Hoover Dike along Lake Okeechobee during a storm surge, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to issue a flurry of contracts for dike restoration and stablization. Since its contractors have taken to actively fencing off sections of the dike that they are working on – ostensibly for safety, but moreso for liability – public access to the Florida Trail is in a continual state of flux.
Here’s what we learned by circling the lake in November 2018: Okeechobee West remains the optimal route for thru-hikers. A tremendous amount of effort for dike stabilization is still going on along the eastern side of the lake, so that’s where most of the closures are, the most problematic being from South Bay to Pahokee.
Where the Seminole section of the Florida Trail meets the Okeechobee sections at John Stretch Park in Lake Harbor, great news! All construction in this area has been completed. It is now possible to hike to either Clewiston or South Bay. We saw quite a few cyclists up on the dike on Black Friday.
It was impossible to tell from US 27 if the Bean City campsite still exists, but the water control structure at that point has been rebuilt, as has the one closer to Clewiston. Hikers can camp on the lakeside in either direction. Do not camp at John Stretch Park, which is open for day use only.
LAKE HARBOR to CLEWISTON
Open all the way from John Stretch Park to the Army Corps of Engineers trailhead in Clewiston.
CLEWISTON to MOORE HAVEN
The segment north of Levee Park in Clewiston has been shut down. What does this mean? Don’t turn off into Esperanza Blvd to go back towards the lake, or you’ll be disappointed by this:
Peel off at mile 103 and start following the sidewalk into Clewiston along US 27. Thru-hikers must roadwalk up to the next access point, the S-4 Pump Station. That means walking right past all services in Clewiston, where you can take care of resupply and grab a cheap motel room. Once you’re north of Walmart, traffic speed picks up and the road shoulder isn’t the greatest for sharing with traffic going 60 MPH or more, but at least it’s a four-lane highway with a median.
Turn off onto CR 720 towards the lake at the gas station. This is a very narrow road you’ll need to follow for 2.8 miles. Beware of high-speed cane-hauling trucks. You’ll walk past the Clewiston RV Park – a former KOA with cabins, campsites, and a pool – and head into sugar cane fields. When you see the blue Water Management District sign for the S-4 Pump Station, turn right and follow that dirt road to rejoin the Florida Trail north of the construction zone at mile 107.5.
Hiking north from the S-4, you’ll have access to the Liberty Point campsite and Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. North of Uncle Joe’s, the trail has reopened all the way up to Alvin Ward Park, which has restrooms and picnic benches. Don’t camp here as camping is not permitted, but you may want to camp just before it to stage yourself, since the next campsite remains closed.
Alvin Ward Park is at mile 116.1. Leave the park via the entrance road, which will take you past the Moore Haven Lock and out to US 27 to cross the Caloosahatchee River on the pedestrian walkway of the highway bridge.
MOORE HAVEN to LAKEPORT
Moore Haven has a new Dollar General closer to downtown. The Burger King has closed, but Joey’s Pizza and Cafe 27 are open. The Florida Trail remains closed between the Moore Haven lock and Nicodemus Slough. From mile 118.5 at the T intersection of 1st St NW and Canal Rd, we still recommend you use the lesser-traveled Canal Rd to roadwalk to SR 78, so as to avoid walking past the prison and sheriff’s office. You can rejoin the Florida Trail at mile 125.1, where the paved path drops off the dike to parallel SR 78. It remains open through this segment.
LAKEPORT TO OKEE-TANTIE
The trail is fully open from Lakeport to Okee-tantie. The only changes we observed along this portion of the hike was that Beck’s Store in Lakeport changed hands – it still has a hot grill and ice cream – and that the Indian Prairie Campground maintained by Glades County is locked up and abandoned.
Once you get to Scott Driver Park at Okee-tantie at mile 150.4, it looks like you can walk north along the Florida Trail along the Kissimmee River. That’s because the project that had the levee fenced off for two years is done. However, the levee is one again fenced off for another project, which you cannot see from this point. It is still necessary to roadwalk through the city of Okeechobee and west along SR 70 to rejoin the trail at mile 159.8, on a detour of nearly 15 miles. Again, you walk past all services in Okeechobee to make this connection.
It’s a chopped up mess, and we don’t recommend that thru-hikers take this side of the lake. It seems that all of the water control structures are under construction simultaneously through this section, from South Bay to Sand Cut.
Day hikers can now walk out and back from:
- Rardin Park towards Pahokee (must turn around before C-12A) 2 miles linear
- Pahokee towards Canal Point (must turn around Canal Point structure), 3.6 miles linear
- Canal Point towards Sand Cut (must turn around before C-10A), 4 miles linear
- NENA towards Sand Cut (must turn around before C-10A), 2.8 miles linear
- NENA to Port Mayaca, 2 miles linear
- Nubbin Slough towards Taylor Creek (blocked from US 441 access by landowner), 3.5 miles linear
Generally, fences will keep you from going any farther.
LAKE HARBOR to SOUTH BAY
Open all the way from John Stretch Park to the South Bay Recreation Area. The South Bay campground is open and there is a civic center next to it where the restrooms are often unlocked during daylight hours. A mile south of this trailhead is a new Pilot truck stop with an extensive selection of food, including hot pizza and grill items.
SOUTH BAY to NENA
The Florida Trail cannot be hiked between South Bay and the NENA trailhead (where the Okeechobee East and Ocean to Lake sections meet), a distance of 21.6 miles as the trail goes. If you look at a road map, taking roads adds at least 35% to that distance, maybe more. They also lead you through the most economically depressed communities in Palm Beach County. We don’t recommend trying it. We found fences and barriers across the trail at construction sites at South Bay Recreation Area, Torrey Island, Rardin Park, Pahokee, Canal Point, and Sand Cut. Since in places the water structures are missing and it’s just a gaping hole in the dike, don’t even think of hopping fences to get through this stretch. It is truly a mess. This is the area that was impacted the greatest by the storm surge back in 2004.
At Pahokee, we were stopped by a lady sitting in a car blocking the entrance to the main parking area and campground. She would not allow us to enter the public area where the restrooms and marina are, claiming they were under construction – we saw no evidence of any – unless we were registered to camp at the campground. She claimed it would reopen in December 2018. There were cars parked in the parking area, but she would not allow us to pass. When we questioned as to her status (law enforcement? private security?) and that of the “construction” and what was being done and why others could go down there, she simply ignored us.
NENA to PORT MAYACA
Newly opened! 3 mile linear section up to Port Mayaca before you must jump over to SR 78 to use it to cross the highway bridge over the St. Lucie River. Best of all, you can now walk across from the Ocean to Lake Trail and actually reach the shore of Lake Okeechobee. They’ve built a connecting road here to the Herbert Hoover Dike from the trailhead.
PORT MAYACA to NUBBIN SLOUGH
Open. However, we’ve been told that the Corps of Engineers plans to start work in this section within the year. There is now a Dollar General in UptheGrove Beach along US 441, but no easy access to it from the trail.
NUBBIN SLOUGH to TAYLOR CREEK
Roadwalk still necessary despite the completion of construction work, because of the ongoing landowner issue at Taylor Creek that no government agency has resolved to reopen public access.
TAYLOR CREEK to OKEE-TANTIE
Open. However, see above. A roadwalk through Okeechobee is still needed to start the Kissimmee section. Exit the dike at the pier and go north through town.
The Big O Hike
For the past eight years, it’s been physically impossible to circle Lake Okeechobee on the Florida Trail, effectively curtailing the once-popular Big O Hike. We joined the hike this year in its shortened form, six days instead of nine, less miles per day and less segments available to hike, and no chance to “circumambulate” the lake. It’s now more of a social gathering, a series of group hikes and camping with friends, but remains Florida’s longest running annual hiking event.
Discussion ensued on the future of the Big O Hike. Should it continue? If so, should be focus remain Lake Okeechobee, since the Florida Trail is so chopped up along it? Hike leaders Roy Moore and Scott Lunsford of the Loxahatchee Chapter assured the group that the hike will go on at least one more year.