The Fort Center site at Fisheating Creek WMA is documented as possibly the first place in the eastern part of our continent where people grew corn. A variety of mounds, ditches, embankments, and ponds were built in the prairies along Fisheating Creek as part of a village occupied between 1000 and 500 B.C. In 1835, during the Second Seminole War, a fort palisade was built and named after Lieutenant J.P. Center, hence the name. The trail system is comprised of two parts—a linear 3.5 mile round-trip on a dirt road (with trail markers to guide you), and a 1 mile interpretive loop through the shady cabbage palm and oak hammock.
Length: 5 miles
Lat-Long: 26.950668, -81.135548
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Modern composting privies at the trailhead
Follow the trail markers from the trailhead kiosk to a nearby observation platform on an open prairie. The trail turns left and follows the road. Follow the markers past the FWC maintenance yard to continue on the hike. It’s been recommended to me that you bicycle the long, open straight dirt road between the trailhead and the hammock loop along Fisheating Creek (where bikes are not allowed).
From US 441 in Okeechobee, follow SR 78 west to Lakeport, or from US 27 in Moore Haven, follow SR 78 east to Lakeport. Look for the turnoff for Banana Grove Road on the north side of the road, between two branches of Fisheating Creek. There is a sign at the entrance “Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area.” Follow the unpaved road for about a mile to reach the trailhead parking area on the left.
There are two parking areas at this trailhead, and you should start your hike at the first one—there’s a restroom, a large kiosk with information about the trail, and the markers lead you across the road to an observation deck overlooking a wet prairie, a perfect (and wheelchair-accessible) spot for birding.
As the trail leaves the observation deck, it turns right (west) and heads past the second trailhead. Follow the gravel road through a gate around the FWC manager’s house and work area. It continues into an open prairie with a large slough on the opposite side of the fence on your left, obscured in October by tall Southeastern sunflowers that grow along the edge of the road. It’s a long, straight, flat walk. A ditch with lance-leaved arrowhead parallels the trail on the right. In a stand of oaks on the left, a bizarre collection of golden orb spiders cling to their last days before the cold comes by huddling their webs close to each other. Around you are the classic Okeechobee prairies, broad and open, dotted with cabbage palms and small oaks. Slight depressions along the road create tiny depression marshes where aquatic plants thrive.
Along this open stretch you encounter shaded benches with detailed interpretive information presented on one side, starting with how this was once a working ranch and is now a wildlife management area, and presenting information on the wildlife and history of the area. The name “Fort Center” comes from a Third Seminole War fort erected on the site, built out of cabbage palm logs. It is high ground between arms of the vast Fisheating Creek floodplain as it meanders into Lake Okeechobee, thus the reason for its long-time occupation by a variety of civilizations.
When the trail jogs to the left and begins passing under the shade of oaks, you’re drawing close to the beginning of the loop. You may see a hog trap set on the side of the trail—wild hogs frequently root through the forest and damage the understory. More than 500 were trapped and removed this year alone.
The trail passes through a gap in a fence at 1.6 miles, marking the high ground and protected area of Fort Center. While instinct might lead you to continue straight down the path into the deep shade of the ancient oaks, it was more fun to leave the best for last. When you see the sign for the nature trail loop (no bicycles allowed), turn left to take the trail less traveled. It’s a narrow track but obvious enough, marked with Lucite posts with hiker symbols, and it meanders along the edge of a ranch fenceline before reaching a large willow marsh on the left. The ancient oaks – and site of the even more ancient village – are to your right, and this path circles its edge, rounding a large depression marsh and slipping through the thick understory of saw palmetto beneath the oaks. Look up, and you’ll see bromeliads dangling from the trees.
After 2.4 miles the nature trail emerges at an intersection with the main trail. Continue straight ahead to enjoy a sweeping view of Fisheating Creek off to your left from a high embankment. Depending on the water level, you may be able to scramble down to its shores. The trail continues to a picnic table under an oak tree, kindly placed there by members of the Lakeport Airboaters’ Club. Loop around here and head back along the creek to the intersection with the main trail. Turn left.
Beneath the cool canopy of live oaks, it’s now time to explore the ancient village at Fort Center. This started as a settlement of what archaeologists call the Belle Glade people, dating back to 1000 B.C. It is thought that these people, who dug ditches and built mounds to live on above the creek’s floodplain, might have been the first to cultivate corn in the Americas. Look for a narrow path on the left. It’s not marked, but it leads beneath wild citrus trees and climbs up a mound surrounded by forest. Return the way you came. Farther down the main trail, there is a more obvious short path on the right that leads to an interpretive spot. Between 200-800 A.D., a pond was intentionally constructed in the low spot at this site. One amazing artifact found within this pond was an elaborately carved wooden platform used for ceremonial cremation. Remains were interred in the adjoining mound.
Back on the main trail, you’re walking under both a canopy of live oaks and a lower canopy of very old citrus trees. Since citrus was brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s, it’s possible this wild grove is one of the oldest in Florida. We sampled a handful of fruits and found them to be very unusual. The lemons and limes were tasty, not tart, and the grapefruit tasted sweet.
Watch for the final side trail on your left, leading to the largest of the mounds. The interpretive panels here tell the entire history of native occupation of this settlement, which ended sometime in the 1700s. The Fort Center complex has been of great interest to archaeologists for more than a century. Well-documented artifacts removed from the complex – including pottery, tools, bones, carvings, and pollen – are displayed at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, in the special Tallant Collection gallery.
Returning to the main trail, turn left. Within a few minutes, you leave the shade of the oak hammock and encounter the first junction for the nature trail, at 3.4 miles. You’ve completed the loop through the hammock. Continue straight ahead, passing through the fenceline, and follow the obvious road / trail back through the vast open prairie to the trailhead to complete the 5 mile hike.