Immokalee: Both Modern and Pioneer Florida
By Gary McKechnie
It takes some initiative to reach the town of Immokalee (Miccosukee for ‘My Home’) in the northwest corner of Collier County. Traffic, like time, seems to have passed the community by. Even if do you make your way here you may not see much at first glance.
But take a second look.
In town you’ll find glimpses of Florida’s heritage as well as one of Florida’s most elegant casinos. On the outskirts of town wonderful natural attractions await.
Roughly 40 miles northwest of the Everglades, 50 miles southwest of Lake Okeechobee, and 45 northeast of Naples, here’s what you can find in Immokalee…
Photo by Seminole Casino and Hotel
The Seminole Tribe of Florida has a half-dozen casinos across South Florida. One of those is the Immokalee Casino.
Just minutes west of downtown, the casino's popularity is evidenced by a steady stream of guests checking in as well as the rhythmic din of 1,300 slot machines ringing across the 76,000-square-foot casino. Players with the confidence to take on the house gather at 38 tables to face off against dealers at poker, blackjack, Texas hold-‘em, mini-baccarat, pai gow, and other table games.
With a style that would look at home in Vegas, the complex also features the EE-TO-LEET-KE Grill where chefs blend ingredients from the Immokalee Produce Center (more below) to enhance dishes ranging from authentic Seminole fry bread to classic crab cakes, prime rib and lobster.
Entertainment, of course, is part of the package and showrooms feature music from funk to rock. As the city’s centerpiece, this 80-room, 19-suite hotel is also a popular venue for special events including car shows, hot-air balloon festivals, food truck rallies, and fireworks extravaganzas.
Located by the airport, the multi-purpose track known by fans as “The Playground for Power” is where local motorheads gear up for a wide range of races in a wide range of vehicles: stockcars, dragsters, funny cars and even family cars -- some pieced together by shade tree mechanics and others that look like a million bucks. Then again, the racecar’s roots don’t matter as much as the spirit of the driver at the wheel. Often loud, fast, and thrilling, the excitement of the events is matched by the enthusiasm of fans that have made thise Immokalee raceway a local favorite since the 1960s.
Photo by Immokalee Pioneer Museum
In Patrick D. Smith’s novel ‘A Land Remembered’, pages are filled with vivid descriptions of the era of the Florida Cracker cowboy. Come to this living history museum and images from this classic will appear right before your eyes.
Heading to a region that attracted a mixture of cowboys, missionaries, traders, and Indians, in 1914 cattleman Robert Roberts and his family left Wauchula and settled in and around Immokalee, eventually acquiring 160,000 acres. A century later, 15 acres of the Roberts’ family homestead include 20 original structures including the hide house, bunkhouse, and ranch house. Through the buildings, living history programs, and exhibits of the Pioneer Museum, you’ll learn how cow hunters, ranchers, and Crackers adapted to the wilderness of southwest Florida.
Immokalee Produce Center
Every day, thousands of Immokalee's residents are working the fields to plant and harvest food for Florida and the nation. Come to this daily farmers’ market and you’ll find the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor: Farm fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, potatoes, oranges, lemons, limes, plantains, bananas, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, strawberries, beans and an overflowing cornucopia of produce sold at a fair price. It’s a popular destination for locals and visiting foodies who favor fresh and affordable hand-picked produce. Not to be confused with the State Farmers Market, this is at 114 New Market Road West. Call ahead for hours at (239) 657-3020.
Toxic muck once threatened to kill Lake Trafford, but a six-year restoration project concluded with the 1,500-acre lake being restocked with freshwater fish including crappie, bluegill, and bass. Not only are anglers eager to catch them, so are the alligators and predatory birds that have made the lake and surrounding woodlands their home. To see authentic Florida wildlife up close – egrets, ibis, herons, and bald eagles – check out the Airboats & Alligators tour that departs from the marina.
13 miles Due west from Immokalee you’ll turn off CR 846 (Immokalee Road) and enter the largest remaining stand (13,000 acres) of old growth bald cypress on earth.
The park is first-class in every way. The visitor center, with its café, theater, gift shop and bookstore, is indication that the tour ahead will be just as enjoyable. A chalkboard at the start/finish of a 2.25-mile boardwalk (with a shorter 1.3-mile loop) is where visitors note the wildlife they observe on their trek. On a typical day the list may include a yellow rat snake, brown-headed bunting, green anole, great blue heron and other colorful creatures. Keep in mind the boardwalk reaches only five percent of the entire sanctuary, so it’s nearly 100 times more amazing than you realize.
As you make your way down the path, the silence is comforting. You’ll enter into the presence of immense cypress trees, spiral-shaped air plants, their famous ghost orchids, and the largest mating population of wood storks in America. If any of this looks familiar, it was here in April 2016 that a guest shot a viral video. While walking the path she had to make way for a Florida panther who was as surprised to see her as she was surprised to see it. If you’d like to improve your chances of a panther sighting, then you’ll want to head to…
The number of Florida panthers, the state animal, is estimated at only around 160 in the wild. Like many endangered animals, a loss of habitat is a major factor. This refuge, established by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, was created to help time and nature restore what was lost.
Comprised of 26,400 acres, this refuge is set 26 miles south of Immokalee in the core of Big Cypress Basin. Here, 700 species of plants including ancient live oaks, slash pine, saw palmetto, rare orchids and bromeliads thrive once again. About a dozen Florida panthers den, hunt, and roam the refuge each month, sharing their home with black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, Big Cypress fox squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, alligators, coyotes, armadillos, and more than 120 species of birds – half of which stay here year-round.
There’s plenty to see in Immokalee. You just need to know where to look.
If you go…
Immokalee Chamber of Commerce
Eastern Collier Chamber of Commerce
Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce
Naples-Marco Island-Everglades Visitors Bureau: Immokalee
Photos, except where noted, by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA