Our 2020 update of the state of the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee
Fifteen 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 stabilization.
Since its contractors have taken to actively fencing off sections of the dike that they are working on – ostensibly for safety, but more so for liability – public access to the Florida Trail is in a continual state of flux.
Here’s what we learned by circling the lake the first weekend of January 2020: Okeechobee West remains the optimal route for thru-hikers.
A tremendous amount of construction 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 but also impacting up to Port Mayaca.
Where the Seminole section of the Florida Trail meets the Okeechobee sections at John Stretch Park in Lake Harbor, the trail is open to Clewiston. Clewiston campsite is open. Do not camp at John Stretch Park, which is open for day use only.
Eastbound is a different story. A sign greets you up on the dike noting the closures up ahead. Despite a 2018 rebuild of the water control structure at Bean City, the dike is again torn apart in that exact same spot. The eastbound closure extends all the way to CR 717 at Torrey Island this time.
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
Here’s where we have an unsolved mystery at Levee Park. Reconstruction of the water control structure completed last summer and all construction company signs were removed. The trail reopened to Moore Haven.
However, when we visited this week, we found this sign up on the dike. Several hikers have gone through in the wee hours when there is no construction crew on the dike. The chain link fence that was here last year has been removed.
We have not been able to confirm through local FTA volunteers or the City of Clewiston as to what happened to the temporary path on the west side of the green fence that starts down at the Overflow Parking Area for Levee Park.
Last year, signage pointed hikers up that trail. Now there is a beaten but overgrown path leading into the distance. It’s not obvious whether it reconnects with the Florida Trail.
Your options as a thru-hiker: try the overgrown path along this fence or roadwalk north to Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. A hiker successfully used the overgrown path today to circumvent the construction area, so it is worth trying.
If you roadwalk, we suggest you use Google Maps to navigate the 7.1 mile roadwalk. From Francisco Rd, follow US 27 north through Clewiston past Wal-Mart up to CR 720.
Turn off US 27 onto CR 720 towards the lake at the gas station. This is a very narrow road you’ll need to follow to Uncle Joe’s as the S-4 Pump Station road is now closed. Beware of high speed traffic, especially sugar cane hauling trucks.
Rejoin the dike at Uncle Joe’s, where camping is available at $20 per night for tent campers. Continue north along the dike to Alvin Ward Park.
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
A Family Dollar has opened right along the trail in downtown Moore Haven, adjoining the Laundromat. 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.
Follow SR 78 north to rejoin the Florida Trail at mile 125.1, where the paved path drops off the dike to parallel SR 78 at Nicodemus Slough, just past the construction zone. The trail is fully open along the bike path to Lakeport.
LAKEPORT TO OKEE-TANTIE
The trail is fully open from Lakeport to Okee-tantie, where it meets the eastern route around Lake Okeechobee. All campsites are in good shape.
In Lakeport, Aruba RV has changed ownership and name but the motel and restaurant are still there. There is a small cafe in the marina complex just north of it along SR 78.
A Dollar General has opened but it is two miles by road from either trail access point. Beck’s Store in Lakeport is now Big Water Deli. It still has a hot grill and ice cream.
Harney Pond Canal Recreation Area no longer has an observation tower. 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, the trail has REOPENED northbound up the Kissimmee River. Hooray! Enjoy the hike.
This side of the lake is chopped by multiple construction zones that make hiking the Florida Trail from John Stretch Park to the NENA Trailhead (junction with the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail), a distance of 26.6 miles, impossible.
As that is half the mileage of Okeechobee East, we recommend that thru-hikers avoid this side of the lake. Day hikers can walk out and back from:
- John Stretch Park to bench near Bean City (must turn around at fence) 3.1 miles each way
- CR 717 to Rardin Park, 3.6 miles linear
- Rardin Park towards C-12A (must turn around at fence) 2 miles each way
- Canal Point towards Sand Cut (must turn around before C-10A), 4 miles each way
- NENA towards Sand Cut (must turn around before C-10A), 2.8 miles each way
- NENA to Port Mayaca, 2 miles linear
Generally, fences will keep you from going any farther. The trail is FULLY OPEN from Port Mayaca to Okeechobee but closures may be imminent. Read below as to where and why.
LAKE HARBOR to SOUTH BAY
CLOSED. Construction has also entirely closed the South Bay Recreation Area trailhead adjoining South Bay RV Park.
SOUTH BAY to PAHOKEE
As the South Bay Recreation Area trailhead is closed you cannot hike to Chosen (CR 717). However, now that construction has completed around Rardin Park, you can hike from CR 717 to Rardin Park.
North of Rardin Park, the trail is blocked off at C-12A, with heavy construction going in Pahokee. In fact, the contractors have blown away several homes along Bacom Point Rd in the residential district to use for access to the dike.
PAHOKEE to PORT MAYACA
Access to the Florida Trail is fenced off at the north end of Pahokee Recreation Area with a no trespassing sign. At Canal Point, we did not see any construction, but you cannot hike through south to Pahokee.
The dike is still torn apart at Sand Point with active construction underway, so it is impossible to hike from Canal Point to Port Mayaca. However, you can access the dike at the NENA trailhead and walk to Port Mayaca from there.
PORT MAYACA to HENRY CREEK
Port Mayaca Recreation Area is open and no construction is obvious from US 441 along the dike. However, we encountered signage along US 441 at the Henry Creek turnoff that stated the ramp would be closed.
The ramp was not closed on a Sunday, and there was no construction or signage on it to indicate that you could not access the Florida Trail on the dike. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if you place a car here.
There is now a Dollar General in Upthegrove Beach along US 441, but no easy access to it from the trail.
HENRY CREEK to NUBBIN SLOUGH
The dike itself is open at the moment. But there is construction going on where the Rim Canal meets Nubbin Slough, and that construction may spread to the S-191 water control structure. Another spot to watch in case it closes.
NUBBIN SLOUGH to TAYLOR CREEK
Construction is complete along this section. Two cyclists we met said they’d started at Okeechobee and made it here.
When we drove through Taylor Creek we noted the “No Trespassing” sign on the gate leading to the dike – past privately owned cabins – but the gate was open. Since there is a public boat ramp here as well as public access to the dike, the landowner may not lock the gate as was done in the past.
TAYLOR CREEK to OKEE-TANTIE
OPEN. Lots of people using this paved section of trail to enjoy the outdoors. What has been called Parrott Avenue Wayside and Lakefront Park over the years is now officially Cliff J. Betts Recreation Area in Okeechobee.
Sadly, a long string of storage units is being built right along Eagle Bay, blocking the view of the trail from SR 78 and also making for a pretty ugly backdrop for a nice birding spot in Okeechobee.
The Big O Hike
Normally, we do this reconnaissance trip during the annual Big O Hike. This year, after 26 years, the Loxahatchee Chapter suspended the event.
With the dike torn up as it is, it’s harder to build enthusiasm for a “walk around the lake” when you can’t actually walk around the whole thing. It’s been a decade now since hikers could do so. Here’s hoping that the Big O Hike will return in the future.
These are segments of the Florida Trail and recreation areas along the Okeechobee section for which we’ve updated or newly provided details since last year’s “Around Okeechobee” update.
Florida Trail, Lakeport to Indian Prairie
11.9 miles. In the sweep of the Herbert Hoover Dike past Lakeport, the Florida Trail overlooks the vast western marshes of Lake Okeechobee
Florida Trail, Indian Prairie to Okee-Tantie
10.4 miles. Along the vast marshes that buffer Buckhead Ridge, the sweep of the Florida Trail past Indian Prairie leads up to the mouth of the Kissimmee River
Harney Pond Canal Recreation Area
Discover uniquely wild panoramas along Lake Okeechobee with a walk on this paved trail in Lakeport
Scott Driver Recreation Area
Providing access to the Kissimmee River, C. Scott Driver Recreation Area is also an important trailhead for the Florida Trail along Lake Okeechobee
Florida Trail, Port Mayaca to Henry Creek
14 miles. In an arc between ancient natural shoreline and expansive waters, this hike along Lake Okeechobee’s eastern shore offers unparalleled vistas
Florida Trail, Henry Creek to Okeechobee
8.6 miles. Along the north shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, this paved segment of the Florida Trail is one of its prettiest, offering sweeping views of the lake.
Cliff J. Betts Recreation Area
Also known as Lake Okeechobee Recreation Area, this waterfront park in Okeechobee offers expansive views of Lake Okeechobee from its shoreline and pier
Florida Trail, Okeechobee to Okee-Tantie
3.8 miles. On the sweep of Lake Okeechobee shoreline between Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River, expect some of the best birding along the lake as you walk along the dike
Okee-Tantie Recreation Area
Where the Kissimmee River pours its waters into Lake Okeechobee, Okee-Tantie Recreation Area offers access to the river and a wild marshy stretch of lakeshore