Most visitors to Lake Kissimmee State Park never see the lake. Certainly, they see the marina, and the Zipprer Canal that connects Lake Rosalie and Lake Kissimmee. Alligators sun on the canal banks, and you can hear airboats buzzing in the distance. But even from the very top of the observation tower, Lake Kissimmee is a mystery, off in the distance beyond a vast swath of prairie.
The lesser-used North Loop of Lake Kissimmee State Park is my favorite of the park’s two big hiking loops (the popular Buster Island Loop being the other one), since it provides access to the Gobbler Ridge Trail, which stretches through open scrub to bring you to the shores of Lake Kissimmee. It also provides better opportunities for wildlife sightings, from box turtles to plentiful deer, rare caracara and Florida scrub-jays, and even wild turkeys out on the ridge.
Location: Lake Wales
Length: 8.9 miles
Lat-Long: 27.943847, -81.354761
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, near trailhead
If you want to backpack in to the campsite, be sure to first register at the ranger station.
From US 27 in Lake Wales, drive east on SR 60 for 9.7 miles to Boy Scout Camp Rd. Turn left and continue 3.5 miles to Camp Mack Rd. Turn right and drive 5.4 miles to the park entrance, on the right. All trails can be accessed from the parking area adjacent to the marina. Please sign in at the kiosk before you hike. You must let the ranger at the front gate know if you plan to backpack to the campsite.
Like the Buster Island Loop, the North Loop starts near the 1876 Cow Camp. From the marina parking lot, follow the blue blazes through the oak hammock to the Cow Camp road. Cross the road to reach the white-blazed loop after 0.4 mile. Turn left. Entering a tall stand of pines, the trail makes its way to where you see prairie between the trees off to the left. A mirror image of the Buster Island Loop, the first portion of this trail parallels the north edge of the same open prairie. Pines and palmettos yield to an oak hammock, where a damp fur of resurrection fern covers the sprawling limbs of live oaks. Butterfly orchids grow along the thick branches of the oaks.
After you pass a flatwoods pond, the trail reaches the sign for the primitive campsite at 1.9 miles. Turn right to check out the campsite, 0.1 mile down a blue-blazed trail. The campsite is high and dry under the live oaks, with picnic tables and two fire rings. It’s similar to the campsite on the Buster Island loop (no water) but more lightly used.
Reaching the edge of the park, the trail makes a hard turn at the fence line and heads out through a hammock of sand live oak before it enters the open scrubby flatwoods. After you cross the park entrance road, a stark but compelling landscape of dense, low saw palmetto and scattered longleaf pines goes on for the next half mile, broken only by small circular wet prairies and one tiny oak hammock. Keep alert for scrub-jays and caracara, as well as rufous-sided towhees that poke through the underbrush. At 3.2 miles, you reach an old snag catfaced for turpentining, hung with the traditional clay cups and, more untraditionally, the skull of a scrub cow.
After 4 miles of hiking, the forest becomes denser, turning to pine flatwoods that offer well-appreciated shade. Crossing the park road again, you enter a hammock of pines and oaks. Squeezed between the park road and the prairie, this narrow strip of hammock contains both the trail you’re on and the trail you’ve been on, not more than a hundred feet apart in places. Be very cautious about stepping off the footpath, as you might end up stepping back on to the wrong white-blazed trail segment!
At 5.7 miles, you reach the trail junction for the Gobbler Ridge trail. Continue straight, following the blue blazes on this spur trail out to Lake Kissimmee. The footpath is well worn in the blinding white sand. The “ridge” is only a few inches high, but high enough to keep the sweeping prairie off to the left at bay. Where the trail seems to end at a T with a jeep track, turn left, following the jeep track through the tall grass. When you reach the “End of Trail” sign at 6.8 miles, you haven’t quite run out of land. Head straight another hundred feet onto the “beach” of Lake Kissimmee, relict sand dunes with clumps of saw palmetto. The marshy shores of the lake lap at the sand; you can see clear water not far off in the distance.
Retrace your steps along the blue blazes back to the white loop. Turn left. Passing two flatwoods ponds, the trail veers towards the right, crossing a jeep trail and the park road in quick succession. At 8.4 miles, you reach the “Starting Point” sign, indicating you’ve completed the entire North Loop Trail. Turn right and follow the blue-blazed trail back to the parking lot
start at kiosk edge of pavement 0.0
cow camp rd, trail jct, go straight 0.1
trail jct, start of white loop, left 0.4
start damp area 0.7
cross jeep trail 0.9
dbl blz, left 45-degree turn 1.3
ditch / seasonal stream 1.4
dbl blz right 1.6
cross jeep trail 1.7
cross ditch / flatwoods pond on left 1.8
campsite blue blz, rt 1.9
return to white loop, rt 2.0
dbl blz right 2.4
hard right, no dbl blz 2.5
cross park road 2.7
pen with skull / turpentine 3.2
cross park road 4.3
cross jeep trail 4.8
cross park road 5.1
cross jeep trail under powerline 5.3
dbl blz, slight right turn
trail veers sharp right 5.6
jct Gobbler Ridge Trail, go straight 5.7
cross jeep trail 5.8
T at jeep trail, left 6.6
“End of Trail” sign 6.8
Gobbler Ridge Trail ends at lake 6.8
return to white loop, left 7.9
trail turns right 8.0
cross jeep trail under powerline 8.2
cross park road 8.3
trail jct, start of white loop, left 8.4
end at kiosk 8.9