Florida’s most impressive prairie vistas are well-buffered from civilization by massive cattle ranches to the north of Lake Okeechobee. Just to get to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park means a drive of 10 to 17 miles off the nearest major highway on a dead-end road. It’s why this is one of the best places in the state for stargazing. Entering the gates and driving in for 4.2 miles to the visitor center, you’re immersed in a landscape of waving grasses and saw palmetto that goes on to the horizon, where caracara soar and sandhill cranes dance. Protecting more than 54,000 acres, the park is majestic on an Everglades scale, with interesting birds and flowers at every turn.
The island of oaks that is home to the campground, visitor center, and picnic area is the hub of all outdoor recreation at the park. The system of more than 100 miles of forest roads is open to hiking, bicycling, and equestrian use. It stretches to the east bank of the Kissimmee River, but most treks along it are on a vast scale. Here at the visitor center, you can sample the park along the Kilpatrick Hammock Trail, a 1 mile loop through the oak hammock and prairie’s edge, which starts and ends at the edge of the campground.
Length: 1 mile
Lat-Long: 27.584143, -81.045166
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: low
Restroom: At the visitor center
Open 8 AM to dusk; campers can rise early and enjoy photography in the cool morning mist which sweeps across these prairies from the Kissimmee River. The roads here are not paved, but are hard-packed limestone, traversable (at slow speeds) by a passenger car. Keep alert for wildlife on the edges of the road.
From Yeehaw Junction (take the exit off Florida’s Turnpike), head south on US 441. After you reach Fort Drum, keep track of mileage – it’s 5.7 miles south from the diner to the sign that points you west onto CR 724 (NW 240th St). You reach the intersection of 700-A (NW 176th Ave) at 12.2 miles, which is a connection to US 98 at Basinger. Keep going straight. The road jogs sharply to the right onto NW 197nd Ave; state park signs keep guiding you. After 18.4 miles (since US 441), you reach the park entrance.
Starting from the visitor center, walk the road towards the campground, where you’ll find the trailhead on the right at a kiosk. The path is easy to follow. Orange-tipped markers lead you down a broad, mowed path in dense prairie grasses, between clumps of oaks and cabbage palms.
Within the first 0.2 mile, you reach the beginning of the loop. Follow the arrow and keep left to walk along the edge of Kilpatrick Hammock, where live oaks thickly draped in Spanish moss evoke memories of old Florida. Indeed, this was once a frontier homestead, the sort of place you’d visit in Patrick Smith’s classic novel, A Land Remembered.
Squirrels dart between cabbage palms and orange trees left behind from the homesteading days, each tree thickly laden in fruit in the winter. Crossing what appears to have been a waterway – perhaps a canal dug to afford the settlers with a water supply for their cattle – the Kilpatrick Prairie Trail goes left, and the Hammock Trail follows a double-blaze right into the lush hammock. Tall cabbage palms and thick oaks crowd close. There is a bright light up ahead between them, and you discover it’s the vast open prairie as the trail emerges onto its rim.
The prairie rim affords an excellent spot for birding, since you’re well shaded by the trees, looking out over the “Big Sky” landscape. Listen carefully, and you’re sure to hear sandhill cranes in the distance.
Darting back into the forest after the expansive prairie view, the trail rounds a flag pond, where crickets are sharing a deafening chorus. Alligator flag rises tall from the water’s edge, and the trail is rimmed with wax myrtle. A bridge, washed off its moorings from when this pond and another portion of the old canal, serving as an outflow, fill up in the rainy season. The bridge sits looking somewhat askew. The forest is especially dense to your right.
The trail turns right, headed into the heart of the hammock. After you walk past an enormous split oak furry with resurrection fern, you pass by more large oaks and a fenced area – perhaps protecting a part of the old homestead? Slender cabbage palms rest in the crooks of ancient oaks. The loop jogs amid a stand of prairie grasses and a “What is a Hammock?” sign. A slight turn to the left and the trail is back under the shade of live oaks laden in Spanish moss, and you can see the trail junction up ahead at an orange marker. Continue straight. You emerge at the trailhead, with the campground to your right. Turn left to return to the visitor center and day use parking area.