One of the segments of the Florida Trail that are paved around Lake Okeechobee, the 13.7-mile walk between Port Mayaca and Henry Creek offers unparalleled vistas of both open water and the marshes of Chauncey Bay, teeming with bird life. This is definitely a section that city folks who exercise on pavement will excel at, and hikers used to walking on soft woodland paths will not, as your feet take a rhythmic pounding on the asphalt. Since there is an intermediate trailhead, it’s possible to break this hike into two shorter sections, but it is traditionally hiked in one fell swoop for the Big O Hike.
Location: Lake Okeechobee
Length: 13.7 miles
Lat-Long: 26.987605,-80.620458 to 27.163076, -80.716079
Fees / Permits: None
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: you might find a portable toilet at the S-135 lock. Or maybe not.
** Hiking south of Port Mayaca to Canal Point is currently prohibited due to reconstruction work on the dike. **
South trailhead, Port Mayaca: Follow US 441 south from Okeechobee towards Canal Point. Slow down before you see the large Port Mayaca bridge. Get into the turn lane on the right and exit to the recreation area. At the T facing the St. Lucie Canal, turn right and continue uphill to park on the crest of the dike. Do not block the turnaround or gate.
North trailhead, Henry Creek: Follow US 441 south from Okeechobee past Taylor Creek. Past the large, obvious dike access area at Nubbin Slough, continue 3 miles and watch for a small sign on the right for G-36 lock access. Turn right and park below the ramp. Do not block the gate or access road.
It’s a short walk from the parking area to the gate that bars vehicles (except the Corps of Engineers) from the top of the Herbert Hoover Dike, with a pass-through on either side to permit hikers and bicyclists to slip by and onto the broad paved surface. When this section of the dike was paved, it was supposed to include a flat, walkable natural footpath adjacent to the bike trail, but somehow that never worked out. Walking in the grass would be tricky, given the fire ant nests and uneven terrain.
Atop the dike, the Rim Canal – from which the original muck for the dike was dug – is always to your right, and Lake Okeechobee to your left, as you walk north. That tall line of ancient cypresses beyond the Rim Canal marks the original shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, the Okeechobee Ridge, a rock ridge that once formed the natural eastern edge of the lake. Another hiking trail, the Raphael Sanchez Trail, leaves the east side of the Port Mayaca North recreation area to explore that shady strand. The lake was encircled by this dike in the 1930s after massive loss of life occurred during two hurricanes in the 1920s. Once the main feeder of the Everglades river of grass, Lake Okeechobee is now trapped behind this unyielding wall, which is why the trail is the only way to experience the beauty of the lake.
Continuing along the dike, you’re treated to a panorama of the grassy waters, where individual blades of grass jut from the expanse of blue, depending on water levels. Swallows swoop across the dike in pursuit of low-flying insects, and queen butterflies open their wings to the warmth of the sun. There is a transition from agricultural to residental and back again along the Rim Canal, with scattered houses, often on stilts. As dawn breaks, wave upon wave of cattle egrets wing low and soft across the lake, rising from their roosts on the Rim Canal to seek somewhere along the lake to feed.
A new shelter, an aluminum-roofed spot of shade covering a wooden seat, appears on the left. Several have been added to this section in the last year, which helps, since the walk atop the dike has no shade other than that cast by the infrequent water control structures. This one is not far past MP 37, or Milepost 37 east, a large number painted on the pavement, as measured from Clewiston – and 3.6 miles from the starting point of today’s hike. Another bench appears soon after MP 41. In between, you’re treated to a constant parade of birdlife along the shoreline and in the Rim Canal, with a few anglers thrown in for good measure – fishermen on their boats up and down the Rim Canal. Large rocks define the lakeshore, as a buffer against waves digging open the dike. You’ll see cormorants perched on these as well as in clusters on willows in the shallows. Alligators cruise along the grassy islands.
After 7.3 miles, you reach the S-135 Chauncey Bay Pumping Station and lock. It’s typically one of the busier locks, where boaters wait in line to be lifted from the lake up to the Rim Canal. A spot of shade and a guardrail to sit on await just over the lock. There might be a portable toilet accessible below – look down towards the Rim Canal. As you’ve noted by now, there aren’t many opportunities for privacy when peeing in the outdoors along this walk. Take whatever you can.
Just past the lock is the ramp down to the trailhead for this segment, where backpackers often walk across the bridge to the J&S Fish Camp Tavern, a quarter mile across and to the right. There’s rarely food but libations are not a problem, and they have restrooms and camping. However, the Chauncey Bay designated campsite sits just to the north of this lock, too, on the lakeshore side. This is the only fully shaded primitive campsite along the entire shore of Lake Okeechobee, and has easy access to water. It’s also a very pretty setting, with tall grasses waving in the breeze.
As the dike curves away around the breadth of Chauncey Bay, the lake recedes into the distance, for the bay is so shallow it’s thick with marshes. At times of higher water, there are passageways through that duck hunters use to flush their quarries, but low water means moonvine goes crazy covering the lone cypresses standing in the shallows. This is a view that didn’t open up until 2006 or so, when the Army Corps of Engineers finally eradicated the vast forest of Brazilian pepper that had swarmed across the dike, and is still in evidence on the far shore of the Rim Canal. It used to be a hike in a tunnel of noxious plants; now, the sweeping vistas are the reward. Keep alert, and you will see bald eagles, harriers, and osprey.
Reaching the next shaded bench, one of the originals, at 8.7 miles, the trail continues to curve noticably to the left around the bay. The lake is a ribbon of blue in the far distance, and the Rim Canal is edged with mounds of vegetation. Behind it, you’ll see white roofs peeking up from old-fashioned RV parks and fish camps. The next covered bench, close to the 10 mile mark, is a delight to discover for the footsore walker, since there’s still one more push to make. The lake is a nearly indiscernable streak in the distance here. A cell phone tower looming off to the right, past the canal, lets you know you’ve passed the 11 mile mark, with MP 48E soon thereafter.
The walk is a straight shot for some time, but as it curves again, you can see a blur of white in the distance at the Henry Creek water control structure, which marks the end of this hike. Once you can see it pretty clearly, you still have nearly two miles to go. Palms cluster along the Rim Canal, while the marshes that make up Chauncey Bay continue to fill the lake shallows. Another clue that you’re almost there is a nursery of palms along the far side of the Rim Canal, including a long line of cabbage palms leading right up to the edge of the recreation area.
Just before you reach the G-36 water control structure at the Henry Creek lock, a paved path veers off to the right and downhill. Follow it to leave the dike – with one last glance out to Lake Okeechobee over your shoulder – and proceed down to the bridge crossing over to the parking area. The parking area is frequented by anglers and has no facilities. Completing this hike after 13.7 miles, you’ll be relieved to take a seat, whether on your car or on the guardrail.