While less than a mile long, this walk in the woods in the ranchlands of Glades County takes you back to a time more than 3,000 years, well before the Calusa paddled the Caloosahatchee in their canoes and settled here too. The original complex is about the same age as the Miami Circle. The Calusa were known for building canals, and here near Turkey Creek, this settlement had an extensive canal system and a large number of mounds, including the highest point in Glades County at 22 feet above sea level. Only a portion of the original complex is left today, but this interpretive trail leads you through the hammocks and scrub to see these ancient mounds and canals.
Length: 0.8 mile
Lat-Long: 26.819477, -81.303984
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
The park is home to the annual Ortona Cane Grinding Festival, held the first weekend in February.
There are picnic pavilions and playground equipment in the shady oak hammock where the trail begins, and a covered picnic table in a pretty spot along the hike.
From US 27 between Palmdale and Moore Haven, turn west on SR 78. Follow it to Ortona. Immediately after you pass the historic Ortona Cemetery, the next turnoff on your right leads to this small county park and its significant archaeological site.
Known as “Ortona Indian Mounds Park” on the county park signs, this important archaeological site is all that remains of a once-mighty village along the floodplain of the Caloosahatchee River. It is set in a remnant of scrub habitat, perhaps the southernmost extent of the Lake Wales Ridge, where the sand live oaks are thickly festooned with ball moss. Park your car and walk into the park. You’ll see a playground off to the right. Turn right and look for a large kiosk in the distance: the path isn’t marked from the parking lot approach, which is why on prior visits I never assumed there was a trail to be found. Weave your way between the trees to reach the display, which offers several panels presenting the history and significance of this archaeological site.
From the interpretive display, a boardwalk leads uphill into an oak hammock. There’s a reason for the uphill—- you’re atop one of the remaining mounds. Before this site was ever seriously studied, many of the mounds were carted away for roadfill, and a large portion of the complex was erased more than a century ago when the Ortona Cemetery, itself a historic site, was created atop a portion of what might have been a burial ground for millennia. Covered in vegetation, this particular mound is only distinguishable by its elevation and the interpretive sign along the boardwalk, which is showing its age, a little soft in places.
When you reach the end of the boardwalk, turn right. The trail continues as a broad grassy path through somewhat of a thicket of overgrowth the scrub plants, heavily draped in grapevines. It emerges at a view of a large pond. Turn right. The pond appears to have been artifically created, just as the peoples who lived here created a complex series of tall mounds above the marshlands and a system of canals for transportation. The core of the complex was this high pine island and oak scrub, and it’s here that the greatest amount of evidence has been found of their lives, including pottery shards and seeds from vegetables grown. As the trail winds its way around the pond, there are quite a few scenic views. At one spot, look down at the bright white sand and you’ll see sand spikemoss, an interesting lichen with a cluster of thin finger-like protrusions that point straight up. You pass a bench overlooking the lake, and there are mounds to the right, covered in goldenaster beneath sand live oaks. Blazing star grows in profusion – a short, scrubby version of blazing star that sprawls across the path – and in early fall, the stems are lined with tiny purple flowers.
At 0.4 mile, you reach a scenic high spot topped with a covered picnic bench and grill, a good place for a picnic. The trail continues across a bridge, crossing one of the ancient canoe canals. It’s just wide enough for a paddler, and deep enough to channel water at a steady flow, were there any water to channel anymore. Pineapple-sized bromeliads grow in the sand live oaks, and deer moss thrives in the pine duff. The trail continues through the scrub, delinated by logs on either side. It’s obvious this was once an interpretive trail, but the markers are missing. It’s a shame, because in addition to the canal, you encounter another long, linear mound on the left, about five feet high. The trail starts to loop around and comes to an abrupt end at the steep-sided canal. Don’t cross here, so as to not disturb the ancient earthworks – the canal slopes are very steep sided. Return along the outlined path back to the picnic shelter.
On your return walk, look for an opening in the oaks on the left for the short walk down to the canal from the opposite side. Since there is a bench next to the canal, I’m guessing there were plans for a second bridge here to make a loop, but it was never built. The blazing star is especially thick here. Exit the spur trail and turn left, walking along the pond. You’ll come to a large grassy clearing at 0.7 mile. Continue straight into the main portion of the park, where there is a large picnic shelter overlooking the pond. The historic artifacts and buildings you see are used during the annual Ortona Cane Grinding Festival. Near the sugar cane press, you see the “Nature Trail” sign off to the left, leading back to the primary interpretive kiosk. Continue past the press and picnic shelters and turn left at the next large opening between the oaks to exit to the parking area.