*** Hiking between Canal Point and Port Mayaca is currently prohibited due to reconstruction work on the dike. Thru-hikers should use the western route around Lake Okeechobee. ***
The sweep of Lake Okeechobee curves away from your perch on the Herbert Hoover Dike as you walk this section of the Florida Trail along the eastern side of the lake, the water glimmering blue as far as the eye can see. Lake Okeechobee is on the scale of the Great Lakes, with more than 500 square miles of water and marsh cradled in a shallow bowl, and before the landscape was ditched, diked, and drained in South Florida 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. Despite the dike being a man-made constriction for water flow, hiking 35 feet above the lake has its advantages for sweeping scenic views, photography, and birding.
Location: Pahokee / Canal Point / Port Mayaca
Length: 11.9 miles
Lat-Long: 26.825083, -80.666500 (Pahokee), 26.981882, -80.617215 (Port Mayaca)
Type: linear and natural surface (limestone) – most of the dike top is otherwise paved
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: available at Pahokee Marina if unlocked
The trek around Lake Okeechobee is popular with backpackers because it can be done in a week and is circular. The parking area at Pahokee is within sight of City Hall and the police station. If you plan to be gone for more than a day, do inform someone there that you are leaving your car. Pahokee is a Florida Trail Gateway Community and friendly to hikers.
Hiking the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee should not be taken lightly. You are atop a dike for most of the distance, and although it is flat, the limestone surface is rugged and sharp. You are entirely exposed to the elements, and there is no shade. Wear sunscreen and a hat. There are few places to hide when nature calls—be creative. Mosquitoes are rarely a problem along this section unless the breeze dies down. This section of the trail connects to the Ocean-to-Lake Trail at the NENA trailhead. Designated campsites offer picnic tables and fire rings.
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 through Belle Glade and paralleling the dike into Pahokee. When you reach downtown, turn left and drive up and over the dike. Park at the top; you’ll start hiking to your right.
The northern trailhead is at the Port Mayaca Lock & Dam 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-top parking near the gate.
Canal Point Recreation Area provides another access point. The NENA trailhead on US 441 is supposed to provide access, but the ditch between the parking area and dike has not yet been bridged. When the ditch is dry or shallow, you can cross between the two.
Starting your hike at the Pahokee Marina (which now boasts a big swimming pool on the edge of the lake, and clean restrooms), walk north, away from the Everglades Adventures campground, following the top of the dike. After 0.2 mile you reach a gate with a Florida Trail sign. Use the pass-around to continue along the dike. To your left is the shimmering sweep of Lake Okeechobee. This section of the Florida Trail offers by far the best views of the large stretches of open water, with 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. On a clear day you can see a puff of smoke rising from the sugar refinery in Clewiston, more than 25 miles away. As you hike, watch for alligators in the shallows and along the roughly defined shoreline. Built in the 1930s after two horrific hurricanes caused tidal surges that drowned thousands of residents in Pahokee, Belle Glade, Okeechobee, and Moore Haven, the Herbert Hoover Dike was established for flood control and to tightly define the lake’s boundaries. As a result, you can’t see Lake Okeechobee when you drive around it—the Florida Trail is the only place you can truly enjoy its spectacular views.
As you hike away from downtown Pahokee, you’ll notice banana palms and mangos growing in backyards off to your right, as well as livestock—chickens and cattle—and even a few horses here and there. Pahokee is the western shore of Palm Beach County, very unlike its neighbors along the coast. The population is a complex mix of Hispanic and Caribbean cultures, workers brought here in decades past to work the cane fields, along with the folks who ran the operations. A decade ago, I felt nervous here, as did many hikers. Not anymore. The city is very much an agricultural center, with fresh farmer’s markets, lovely churches, and restaurants serving cuisine authentic to the region.
This part of the dike and subsequent infill buried a river shown on pre-1910 maps as the Pelican River, a waterway that once encircled the town, which was fringed by the Everglades grassy waters when it was founded. Drawing away from Pahokee, you cross the S-235 water control structure and enter Canal Point. The recreation area here offers covered picnic benches and trailhead parking, but no restrooms. This is the end of the “Wimp Walk” portion of the Big O Hike, at 3.4 miles. Continuing on to the next gate, go through the pass-around and as you walk this section, look off to your right into the community. Ancient cypress trees in yards along US 441 belie the original shoreline of the lake. In the crushed limestone and muck that makes up the dike, I’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. A bench provides a place to sit and enjoy the view of the lake while having a snack.
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. It’ll play that optical illusion with you for the rest of the hike, always tantalizing but out of touch. You cross the C-13 water control structure at 6.2 miles, and off to the right, sugar cane fields are now clearly visible. If you see smoke rising (or feel ashes falling), don’t be alarmed—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, one of my favorite places to stop and rest. The hillside is covered in tiny wildflowers that attract butterflies (at least in November), and there’s always plenty going on here, as it’s a hot spot for local anglers looking to snag speckled perch, or “specks,” as they call them, from the shoreline around 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, at 7.4 miles into the hike, but there is no official trailhead parking here. Sugar cane stretches off to the horizon on the far side of the highway.
Continuing along the curve of the dike, you’ll 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. The view on the left continues to offer the sweeping open water and the bridge that keeps receding, mirage-like, as you approach. Water control structure 14 is a favorite for alligators, who tend to hang out where the outflow meets the lake. You’ll spot the Port Mayaca campsite at 9.8 miles, right near water control structure 16. It’s impossible to miss, with its cabbage palms poking up next to the picnic table, and a fire ring for backpackers who’ll spend an evening filled with a starry sky along the lapping shore of the lake. The water strums a regular rhythm that I find soothing along this section of the trail.
Start watching on the right for where the sugar cane vanishes behind a screen of trees, for it is here that the Ocean-to-Lake Trail emerges from its route that encompasses 62 miles from Hobe Sound to this point and reaches the new NENA trailhead, which was under construction when I last visited. A narrow boardwalk connects the Florida Trail atop the dike with the NENA trailhead, where there are informational kiosks and a restroom.
The dike continues to curve, and 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 water control structure 11, you have less than a mile to go. Ghostly white blooms of moonflower vines spill over vegetation down the dike on your right. The bridge draws closer and closer, until finally it looms larger than life. US 441 meets SR 76 at an intersection in the old village, where massive cypress trees shade the yards of homes dating back to before the dike was built. You reach the gate at Port Mayaca at 11.9 miles, with the grassy parking area atop the dike just beyond. It’s a long but satisfying walk.