From this vantage point on the Florida Trail, the waters of Lake Okeechobee glimmer in shades of blue as far as the eye can see.
The “Big Water” is on the scale of the Great Lakes, with more than 500 square miles of water and marsh cradled in a shallow bowl
Before the land surrounding the lake was ditched, diked, and drained more than a century ago, it actively fed the Everglades with a sheet flow of water.
The name Pahokee means “Grassy Waters,” which you’ll see in the shallows as you hike.
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Length: 11.7 miles
Trailhead: 26.825083, -80.666500
Fees / Permits: none
Restroom: At the Pahokee Marina
Land Manager: Army Corps of Engineers
Just like all other segments of the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee, there is no shade along the dike. While this segment was paved, it may no longer be because of dike reconstruction.
Don’t leave cars at trailheads overnight. If you’re backpacking, inquire at the Pahokee Campground about leaving your car there. Tell them you’re hiking the Big O.
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 is at the Port Mayaca Lock at the junction of SR 76 and US 441. The entrance road for parking is beneath the Port Mayaca Bridge along SR 76, on your left as you head eastbound. Follow the dirt road up and around to the grassy dike, parking near the gate.
The southern trailhead is at the Pahokee Marina in downtown Pahokee. From SR 80 east of its intersection with US 27 in South Bay, follow Bacom Point Road (SR 715) north from Belle Glade to Pahokee. When you reach downtown, turn left and drive up and over the dike. A paved parking area adjoins the marina.
There are two other trailheads providing access to this section. About 3.5 miles south of Port Mayaca along US 441, the NENA Trailhead is a small paved parking area with a dirt ramp leading up to the dike.
In the community of Canal Point, just before US 441 makes a sharp left, a ramp leads up and over the dike to the Canal Point Recreation Area. It has covered picnic benches along the lakefront and paved parking.
A hike in three parts thanks to intermediate access points, the Pahokee to Port Mayaca section has had closures along some part of its path or another for the past decade.
Currently, the S-235 water structure in Canal Point is being rebuilt. You can hike out and back from Pahokee to the closure for a 7-mile hike.
8/2019 update: Due to two current closures along this section, long distance hikers end up having to roadwalk from Pahokee to the NENA trailhead along US 441.
It is a narrow high-speed highway with limited shoulder space and large trucks barreling down it. If you can avoid it, we don’t recommend walking along it. That’s from personal experience.
Pahokee to Canal Point
Starting your hike at the Pahokee Marina parking area, walk up to the top of the dike. After a quarter mile you reach a gate at the north end of the Pahokee Recreation Area.
Use the pass-around to continue along the dike. To your left is the sweep of Lake Okeechobee, unobstructed.
This section of the Florida Trail offers the best views of large stretches of open water.
The lake has the effect of an inland sea: cool breezes when the wind is blowing the right direction, and whitecaps when the wind is choppy.
A navigation channel was dredged not far from shore and you can see pleasure boats cruising between the markers.
Watch for alligators in the shallows and along the roughly defined shoreline, as well as in the paralleling canal.
On a clear day you can see a puff of smoke rising from the sugar refinery in Clewiston, more than 25 miles away.
In the backyards of Pahokee, notice banana palms and mangoes growing. Cattle and chicken ramble through yards, even a few horses here and there.
After 3.5 miles, you reach the S-235 water control structure. If it is open, you can continue into Canal Point Recreation Area.
Canal Point to NENA
At Canal Point Recreation Area, there is ample trailhead parking and covered benches, but no restrooms. Those can be found a half mile up US 441 at the community center with the enormous kapok tree out front.
8/2019 update: A closure for restoration of the C-13 water control structure means you cannot walk through to the NENA trailhead from here, yet. A round-trip hike out of the Canal Point Recreation Area to the closure and back is 5.4 miles.
Continuing on to the next gate, go through the pass-around. As you walk this section, look off to your right into the community. Ancient cypress trees in yards along US 441 mark the original shoreline of the lake.
In the crushed limestone and muck that makes up the dike, we’ve uncovered some interesting fossils along this section, including clamshells studded with honey-colored calcite crystals. Look out, around, and down—it’s all fascinating.
As you approach the next water control structure, you may see the Port Mayaca Bridge on US 441 shimmering off in the distance across the water. You’re only halfway there, but the bridge seems a lot closer than that. The optical illusion continues the rest of the hike.
After you cross the C-13 water control structure at 6.2 miles, sugar cane fields are now visible to the east.
If you see smoke rising or feel ashes falling, know that burning the cane is a normal part of the harvesting process, and it goes on year-round.
As a grass, sugar cane is always in season somewhere around the south end of Lake Okeechobee, and crops are rotated throughout the region.
Stubbly grass pokes through the lake’s surface, creating little islands of marshland just offshore as you reach Sand Cut, once a vibrant little community around a creek, flattened by the dike reconstruction.
From the C-10A water control structure. It’s an easy walk down to US 441 if you have someone picking you up at this point, 7.4 miles into the hike.
Continuing along the curve of the dike, notice a narrow canal now paralleling on the right at the bottom of the dike. It’s there for drainage, but it’s also a place to watch for alligators and wading birds.
C-14, the next water control structure, is a favorite for alligators, who tend to hang out where the outflow meets the lake.
Beyond it there used to be a designated campsite along the lake, the Port Mayaca campsite. But the dike reconstruction flattened it, too. We’ve seen no sign of it in years.
However, this is the new location of the ramp down to the NENA trailhead along US 441, at 9.8 miles.
NENA to Port Mayaca
NENA stands for Northeast Everglades National Area, and refers to a greenbelt of natural lands stretching between Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Ocean through Palm Beach and Martin counties.
In 2004, the Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association officially opened a hiking trail along this greenway. It’s now one of the more popular backpacking destinations in South Florida, the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail.
As the westernmost trailhead along the Ocean-to-Lake Hiking Trail, NENA ties the Florida Trail together with this spur trail.
The dike continues to curve as you pass the access to NENA. In these last couple of miles, your opportunities for spotting wildlife increase dramatically.
Watch for ospreys that nest in the ancient cypresses that define the old shoreline on the left, and otters splashing in the tiny canal. Large alligators cruise the lake shallows.
Crossing the C-11 water control structure, you have less than a mile to go. Ghostly white blooms of moonflower vines spill over vegetation down the dike on your right.
The Port Mayaca Bridge draws closer and closer, until finally it looms larger than life.
Below the dike, US 441 meets SR 76 at an intersection in the old village. Ancient cypress trees shade the yards of homes dating back to before the dike was built.
You reach the gate at Port Mayaca at 11.7 miles, the grassy parking area atop the dike just beyond.
NORTHBOUND: Florida Trail, Port Mayaca to Henry Creek
SOUTHBOUND: Florida Trail, South Bay to Pahokee
NORTHBOUND backpackers: Between the parking area on the south side of the Port Mayaca Lock and the trailhead at the Port Mayaca Recreation Area on the north side of the lock, you must roadwalk.
Walk down to SR 78 and take it up to US 441. Follow the highway up and over the St. Lucie Canal on the Port Mayaca Bridge. It’s a 1.3 mile walk between the two trailheads.
Our slides from hiking this segment of the Florida Trail
Other nearby trails and parks in the area
Snaking through an oh-so-slender slice of the rocky Okeechobee Ridge, the relict shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, the Rafael Sanchez Trail stays in deep shade for its 5.7 mile traverse of this skinny stretch of forest.
Learn about the Annual Big O Hike around Lake Okeechobee.