Hendry County: Waterfront and Wilderness
By: Gary McKechnie
If you’re a traveler who enjoys striking up conversations with locals at a diner, who looks forward to weekend drives just to enjoy the thrill of discovery, who drives the long, lonesome roads that appear as just faint lines on a map…
Hendry County awaits.
Shaped like the upper-right edge of a picture frame, the 1,190-square mile county scoops up much of Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore while also stretching west to capture the county seat of LaBelle and then south to the edge of the Everglades to encompass the Seminole Tribe’s Big Cypress Reservation.
From the waterfront and into the wilderness, here are some things to look for in Hendry County.
The Shore Thing
Sitting on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, Clewiston is Hendry County’s largest city and the place with the southernmost feel. That may stem from the slow pace of downtown, its genteel city park and, especially the classic 57-room Clewiston Inn, whose antebellum look conveys a strong sense of the Old South.
Originally built in 1926, the décor doesn’t seem to have changed much in the years since. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you can’t ask for anything more authentic for an Old Florida lodging experience-– especially when you retreat to the inn’s Everglades Lounge where a 360-degree mural of Florida wildlife (painted in the 1940s by noted artist J. Clinton Shepherd) wraps around the room.
What many travelers don’t realize as they drive through town is that Clewiston was created as a planned community, a la Coral Gables. From the steps of the inn, head a few blocks north (toward the lake) and a long parallel line of royal palms stands sentinel at the entrance of neighborhoods built in concentric half-circles.
It’s natural you wouldn’t be aware of this unless you had visited the superb Clewiston Museum. If you’re an armchair historian or just a fan of Old Florida, the museum’s bookstore carries gift items and a nice assortment of Florida fiction and historical works that dig into the area’s local, regional, and state past.
Sharing space with the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, the museum ($4) shines a light on the town’s history. In addition to maps, promotional pamphlets, and some vintage aerial photos revealing the town’s design, curator Butch Wilson has developed exhibits including fossils and mammoth skeletons unearthed in Hendry County, trade routes used by Florida’s Indian tribes, and an assortment of tools and instruments used by sugar cane cutters – along with the tokens they were expected to use at the company store (which in essence kept them indebted to their employer).
Among other highlights are authentic Seminole memorabilia including a woman’s skirt and drape, an overview of the infamous 1926 and 1928 hurricanes that nearly destroyed the town, and an often overlooked moment in Florida’s past.
During World War II, British flyers found it hard to train in the skies of England (for obvious reasons), but they found friendly skies over Clewiston. Cadets who later went on to battle the Germans attended the No. 5 British Flying Training School at Riddle Field in Clewiston five miles west of town. It’s fun to imagine how the Brits felt working among the most Southern folks in Florida. Despite the culture shock, I'd bet $1 million they were both glad to have each other.
If you’re in town for fishing, perhaps the most popular fishing spot is Roland Martin’s combination resort/marina. Together with his family, the fishing legend who hosted his own outdoors series built the complex, which offers boat rentals, fishing guides, airboat tours, a tiki bar and grill, and accommodations including an RV park with swimming pool. This relatively modern facility is the bookend to its über-rustic counterpart several miles west of town.
After passing a string of strip malls, box stores, and chain hotels on U.S. 27, C.R. 720 pierces the sugarcane and goes north. If you follow this road, drive with caution; there are many right angles to make, long canals abutting the road, and no guardrails beside them. Several miles in, you’ll reach Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp at Liberty Point where a sparse collection of cottages and cinder block rental units seems frozen in time. Far removed from civilization and with Lake Okeechobee a few feet away, this is where serious anglers can have a fishing party like it’s 1949.
On the Trail of the Medicine Man
If you traveled further west, you’d be heading toward LaBelle at the boundary of Hendry County. Before going there, though, first go and visit a unique Florida destination. You can reach it via Highway 833, which is just south of U.S. 27.
Had you arrived prior to August 2016 when a marker was erected, chances are you would have never known C.R. 833 was a road of historic significance. In the mid-1800s while the government was rounding up Seminoles for deportation to Oklahoma, Sam Jones (or Abiaki, his Seminole name) led the last tribe members to safety along a secret trail he had blazed. Dubbed “Ole Devil” by his enemies, it was a grudging sign of respect for the medicine man whose strategies helped ambush, repel, and evade soldiers in key battles in all three Seminole wars. The trail he blazed was the foundation for this very highway.
From here the route slips into some of the most forlorn country in Florida, a huge swath of land dubbed Devil’s Garden which is comprised of thousands of acres of dense, nearly impenetrable wetlands, marsh, wet prairie and birds. About 45 minutes south of Clewiston, you’ll arrive at the place where you’ll meet some of the friendliest people in Florida: the Big Cypress Reservation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
While the story of the Seminoles could fill hundreds of volumes, for now there’s no better place to get acquainted with the people, their land, and their culture than at the largest of six reservations owned by the Seminole Tribe.
On the corner of Highway 833 and West Boundary Road is where the story of the Seminoles is told splendidly. At the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum you’ll learn that of the 566 Native American tribes recognized by the United States government, the Seminoles claim a unique distinction: Unconquered. They never surrendered, never signed a peace treaty. By retreating into the Everglades, the Seminoles outsmarted and outlasted a nation whose aim was to forcibly relocate them to Oklahoma.
A short film, exhibits, a boardwalk through the woodlands, a small village where Seminole elders sell fabulous beadwork and handicrafts, and even a world-class research center will help you understand who the Seminole are, how they hunted, how they prepared meals and clothing, and how they traveled and traded and celebrated.
A few miles down the road is the Billie Swamp Safari, the tribe’s tourist attraction. Ride on an airboat, explore the swamp on a modified high-wheeled vehicle, watch a gator wrestler, grab a bite at the Swamp Water Café (try the Seminole fry bread), and purchase a few items in the gift shop.
If you don’t mind roughing it, stay the night in a modified chickee hut, patterned after a traditional Seminole dwelling. Aside from a few small beds, there is no electricity, plumbing, or air conditioning. The trade-off is that in the morning you’ll awake in a pure Florida wilderness where alligators, water buffalo, deer, horses, and sand hill cranes are sloshing in the lake outside your screen window. More modern accommodations can be found a few miles away at Big Cypress RV Resort where there are RV sites as well as fully-equipped cabins.
Open Range Riding
The remaining section of Hendry County is northwest of the reservation, and while it may have been easier to reach from Clewiston, you can backtrack toward the Sam Jones Trail (C.R. 833) and then split west onto C.R. 832 and to see what could be the most pristine landscape in all of Hendry County.
Highway 832 looks like the Great Plains of the Sunshine State. If you’re an artist, writer, or nature lover and you just want to get away from it all, just make your way down the road and into the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, a pristine, 32,370-acre slough with multiple entrances and self-pay stations leading to trails into the densely forested area. When you see a sign that reads “Panther Crossing Ahead,” you know you’re in pure Florida – and it continues. Abutting the state forest is the Spirit-of-the-Wild Wildlife Management Area, which was sold to the state in 2002. Dirt roads weave their way through open vistas punctuated by wetlands and stands of pine flatwoods. A great place for wildlife viewing, it’s likely you’ll see wading birds (ibis, herons, egrets, wood storks, roseate spoonbills) along with sandhill cranes, wild turkey and white-tailed deer.
Considering few motorists take this long, lonely road is the best reason why you should. Follow it to its western terminus and you’ll be at Highway 29, about 10 minutes south of the Hendry County seat.
LaBelle, the Beautiful
As you drive up C.R. 29, you’ll pass the Hendry-LaBelle Rodeo Arena as well as a number of Spanish markets, a clue that much of the produce in the area is picked by hardworking migrant families.
A few miles ahead at the intersection of C.R. 29 and S.R. 80, the historic Hendry County Courthouse is worth a photo. Created in a combination of Mediterranean Revival-Mission Revival styles in 1926, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
For a perfect finish to your road trip, drive north toward the Caloosahatchee River. A few blocks before the bridge the resurgent Barron Park historic district has a number of surprisingly upscale shops and restaurants (like the Forrey Grill), a coffee shop, a dance studio, an ice cream bar, and the Harold P. Curtis Honey Company, “The Home of Honey” since 1921. Nearby is the actual Barron Park, the home of February’s Swamp Cabbage Festival. A tranquil place, it sits beside the water and offers a setting where locals and guests can enjoy open air concerts, play tennis, and visit the Barron Park Gallery and Gift Shop which hosts art classes and special exhibits.
There may be no better place to wrap up your getaway than on the banks of the Caloosahatchee. Cross the bridge, take a left, and a few blocks away you’ll find a wide parking area. Walk down to the floating dock. Take a moment here and enjoy the scene. To the left, the bridge you just crossed; to the right you could follow the river west to Fort Myers.
Right now, though, this is where you’re meant to be.
In Hendry County.
If you go...
For such a remote area, Hendry County has plenty to offer. To learn more about its attractions, dining, lodging, and festivals, check visithendrycounty.com.
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA