Along the Kissimmee River
By Chelle Koster Walton
Adventurers can make their explorations along the 134-mile Kissimmee River as rugged or cushy as they decide.
It felt ominous, looking for a place called Starvation Slough on some desolate backroad stretch of Florida. I was traveling just north of Lake Okeechobee along the “long water,” as historians speculate the meaning of Kissimmee in native Calusa tongue.
Finally I spotted a sign for the trailhead that would lead to Starvation. I turned down a dirt and grass “road,” plowing my little hybrid through mud puddles almost the road’s width with nothing in sight but cattle and turkey vultures. I reached a clearing, and okay I admit it, I got spooked. I’m no hardcore hiker, and one who is had warned that this hike along the statewide Florida Trail was no picnic.
On her web site FloridaHikes.com, Sandra Friend, co-author of “The Florida Trail Guide,” describes a slippery, knee-deep creek crossing at the beginning of a two-day trek: “This was my first backpacking trip in six months and wet feet in the first hour? Please.”
“Not the easiest of hikes but worth it to see the ‘Cathedral of Palms South,’ a dense hammock of ancient sabal palms and live oaks along what was once the river's edge,” Friend said.
The “cathedral” stands as evidence of the river’s continually shifting course through the ages. Its latest direction strives to restore the historic river that filters into Everglades territory and to make it part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, home to a number of endangered and threatened species.
One big chunk of the corridor is designated Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, where horseback riders, hikers, and campers recreate and wild turkeys and burrowing owls forage.
For now, adventurers can make their explorations along the 134-mile Kissimmee River as rugged or cushy as they decide. I started mine that day with a fried oyster and smoked fish greens salad on river shores at Lightsey Seafood Restaurant inside Okee-Tantie Recreation Park in Okeechobee. (So there really was little chance of starvation out there in the slough).
It ended in a glamping tent at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo. There’s everything you can think of to do at Westgate – from a kids park and petting farm to horseback riding and airboating. Accommodations run the course upscale and downscale from the new glam camping trend in platform tents with air-conditioning and real beds.
Nearby, the entrance to KICCO Wildlife Management Area also hooks up with the Florida Trail for serious hikers, who can overnight in primitive campgrounds. “The Florida Trail in KICCO meanders beneath ancient live oaks along the edges of grassy prairies where cattle still roam,” said Friend.
Restricted hunting is also permitted here and all along the Kissimmee River Public Use Area that KICCO is part of. A series of canoe launches and boat ramps accommodate paddlers and boaters along the stretch.
Kissimmee River is cowboy country and almost always has been. To gain a sense of the long saddle-seated heritage, visit Lake Kissimmee State Park’s circa 1876 cow camp, where re-enactors play the part of cow hunters.
At its northernmost, the Kissimmee River stitches together the Chain of Lakes, where its eponymous city sits. Despite its modern-day affiliation with things theme park, Kissimmee’s downtown digs its spurs into the cow-hunter and waterside personality that the river has run through and through.