Located in the heart of south-central Florida is an area that remains unchanged by time. Lake Okeechobee stems from the Seminole word meaning "Big Water" and is the second-largest freshwater lake in the U.S. This 730 square-mile lake has long been known for its abundant natural bounty and rich cultural heritage. It is still the land of Native Americans, extensive agriculture and world-class fishing. Today, this area between Fort Myers and West Palm Beach boasts The Big Water Heritage Trail, a scenic auto tour route which links the regional assets around Lake Okeechobee.
Approximately 90 minutes from either coast, routes to The Big Water Heritage Trail include U.S. 27, one of Florida's original highways; "Sweet Route 80," otherwise known as S.R. 80, traveling through sugar cane fields to Clewiston; and S.R. 70, U.S. 98 or U.S. 441 into Okeechobee. This tour is a preview of The Big Water Heritage Trail highlighting the historic towns of Okeechobee, Port Mayaca, Indiantown, Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven, and Palmdale while offering opportunities for recreation, adventure or relaxation for the whole family. Make a day of it, or make a week of it - it's time to break away from the familiar and experience Florida's rural heartland along The Big Water Heritage Trail.
DAY ONE - OKEECHOBEE
Begin in the town of Okeechobee, on the northern-most tip of the great lake, where agriculture, native wildlife and vegetation flourish in the natural sub-tropical habitat. Approximately 65,000 head of cattle are raised in this area, making it one of the largest producers of beef in the state of Florida. This is the perfect place for bird lovers to observe rare and endangered species such as the tufted titmouse, Florida scrub jay, limpkin, wild turkey and snail kite.
After the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 that claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people, Congress authorized the construction of the three-story Herbert Hoover Dike in 1930 that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. Today, the tame water of Lake Okeechobee attracts more than six million visitors a year and is home to one of the nation's prized largemouth bass and speckled perch fisheries. Check out the professional fishing guide services, or if you prefer to stay on dry land and want to experience Florida's Native American culture, head west on S.R. 70 to Brighton and turn left (south) on C.R. 721 (about 20 miles) to visit the 35,000-acre Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation, (800) 683-7800. Check out the Seminole Bingo Casino and campground while you're here.
DAY TWO - PORT MAYACA AND INDIANTOWN
Head southeast approximately 27 miles along the northern edge of the lake on U.S. 98/441, to Port Mayaca, where the St. Lucie Canal - the only waterway connecting Florida communities on the Atlantic Ocean to those on the Gulf of Mexico - flows into Lake Okeechobee. Just a couple of miles east of Port Mayaca off S.R. 76 is the DuPuis Management Area, (561) 924-5310, where countless species of wildlife, including turkey, quail, fox, deer, bobcat, squirrel, bald eagle, hawk and owl make their homes in this vast land of pine flatwoods, scrub cypress, wet prairie and marsh. Hiking trails, camping, fishing and equestrian facilities are open to the public, as well as a visitor center.
Bordered by the St. Lucie Canal, a little further east along S.R. 76 is Indiantown - a quaint, small town situated in the heart of Florida's citrus and cattle country. The Seminole Country Inn, (772) 597-3777, built in 1927, is a charming place to stop for lunch and experience the innkeeper's own recipes for "uptown coleslaw," fried green tomatoes or "poor woman's pudding." Porch rocking is an old favorite at the inn and no reservations are required.
DAY THREE - BELLE GLADE AND CLEWISTON
Take U.S. 98/441 for approximately 13 miles to the town of Belle Glade. In the Belle Glade Branch Library, the Lawrence Will Museum, (561) 996-3453, features early archaeological treasures and historical records of the area. While in Belle Glade don't miss the Torry Island Bridge, the oldest manually operated swing bridge still in use in Florida.
Turning west along the south edge of the lake, follow U.S. 27 north to Clewiston, where the Clewiston Museum, (863) 983-2870, features an exceptional collection from the early days of Clewiston and the Okeechobee region. For water-based adventures, Big O Airboat Tours, (863) 228-0785, offers wildlife and nature tours, where you will learn the history of the lake and more. Hop on the Sugarland Tours, (863) 983-7979, operated by the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, for an exciting four-and-a-half-hour heritage and agriculture tour with an interesting historical orientation of Clewiston and Lake Okeechobee. Get an up-close look at a sugar cane farm where you can chop and chew some sugar cane while viewing the latest in farming techniques.
DAY FOUR - MOORE HAVEN
Continue north along U.S. 27 to Sam's Lures, (863) 946-1962 by appointment only, in Lake Port, just north of Moore Haven, for a behind-the-scene glimpse of how classic handmade wooden baits are made. While Sam is well-known for his top-water baits, check out his latest creation, Lil' Katie, a 1/4-ounce 2-inch crankbait. The first weekend in March, Moore Haven hosts the Chalo Nitka Festival and Rodeo. Chalo Nitka is Seminole for "Big Bass" and is one of Florida's oldest continuous festivals dating back to 1949. Continue north on U.S. 27 for 17 miles to Palmdale and visit Gatorama, (863) 675-0623, one of Florida's first alligator attractions. Since 1957 Gatorama has offered visitors close-up views of these ancient reptiles in a natural setting. Every August, you can take part in their Alligator Hatching Festival.
No matter where you pick up the Big Water Heritage Trail you will find that each town is unique and that recreation, relaxation and outdoor experiences are bountiful. To request a copy of The Big Water Heritage Trail brochure contact: Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, (863) 983-7979; Okeechobee Chamber of Commerce, (863) 467-6246; or Indiantown Western Martin County Chamber of Commerce, (772) 597-2184.
If you brought a bike or like to hike, check out the 110-mile paved Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST), (877) 445-3352, that runs along the top of the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. LOST is a small portion of the 1,500 mile Florida National Scenic Trail stretching from Gulf Island National Seashore near Pensacola to Big Cypress National Preserve, near Miami.