Nine Days, 109 Miles: Hiking the Big 'O'
Explore Florida’s Lake Okeechobee one day at a time.
By Katherine O'Neal
The sun is just rising over the water, beaming light and warmth on a large gathering of hikers standing atop the Herbert Hoover Dike that encompasses Lake Okeechobee. People are busy swapping stories of past adventures, adjusting gear and reacquainting themselves with old friends. Some are quietly looking across Lake Okeechobee, contemplating the trek around this 730-square-mile freshwater sea of sorts, and to the opposite shoreline that is a four- or five-day walk away.
A Thanksgiving week tradition since 1992, the Big “O” Hike attracts trail enthusiasts from all over the United States, with some traveling to Florida specifically to attend the event. The hike is hosted by the Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association.
Hikers range in age and ability, and on the first day there’s a “wimp walk” for those not wanting to trek the full day’s mileage, which can be anywhere from 9 to 15 miles. Shuttles are arranged the night before and enlist the help of volunteer drivers from within the group of hikers that coordinate travel between the starting and ending points.
The adventure begins at the marina in Pahokee, a small city situated directly on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. A city that feels lost in time, Pahokee exudes an “old Florida” feel, with streets lined with towering royal palms. The name, like those of many Florida communities, is derived from the Seminole language: Pahokee means “grassy waters.” With unique Florida history and charm, Pahokee is the perfect place to kick off a nine-day journey around the Big “O.”
Walking the Walk
Hikers participating in the Big “O” Hike head north from Pahokee along the Herbert Hoover Dike, with the destination being either the 3- to 3.5-mile “wimp walk”, or 8.5 miles farther down the trail to the Port Mayaca Lock. Along the way, sweeping views of Lake Okeechobee offer potential sightings of herons and other species of birds as they wade along the edge of the lake. A shuttle back to Pahokee or to the campground is available at Port Mayaca, courtest of one of the group's volunteers.
Back at the campground, hikers gather and review the day’s events and enjoy a dinner in town or at their campsites. Later that night during the planning session, shuttles and departure times are determined for the following day.
A series of day hikes, usually starting at daybreak, makes up the wilderness trek. Depending on the mileage, hikers are off the trail and back at camp by late morning or early afternoon.
When water levels are low, the western edge of Lake Okeechobee transforms into a grassy marsh that is perfect for birding. Herons, cranes and other wading birds are abundant near beautiful Indian Prairie Canal. The trail leaves the Herbert Hoover Dike in several places along the western side to bypass some of Lake Okeechobee’s locks and dams and passes through the towns of Moore Haven and Clewiston.
In between Moore Haven and Clewiston is Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, a favorite stop among Florida Trail hikers. On Thanksgiving, the Big “O” hikers have an elegant dinner at the Historic Clewiston Inn, followed by a talent show featuring the homespun talents of the hiking group. Family and friends are welcome, and the dinner makes for a memorable reward after almost 100 miles on the trail.
The hike concludes where it was started nine days earlier – in Pahokee. Only this time, as the hikers approach from the south, Pahokee feels like an old friend, one that beckons a visit every year around Thanksgiving.
At 109 miles, the Big “O” isn’t the easiest hike, and it’s completely without shade. Hikers will want to wear lightweight, quick-dry clothing and apply sunscreen frequently. They’ll need to pack plenty of snacks and water and bring along a poncho for rain protection. Since the Big “O” Hike is essentially a series of day hikes, no more than a few hours’ supplies are needed. A good first aid and blister kit are essential to enjoying the hike – except for hikers who have well-conditioned feet. Trekking poles or a hiking staff make the trip more enjoyable as well, and will help to reduce back and leg fatigue.
As always, hikers should make sure they’re in good enough shape to endure the rigors of nine days on the trail. For those who haven’t hiked for a few days at a time, they should give themselves enough time to build up to a 109-mile trek. Getting in several day hikes beforehand, and building up those muscles in your lower back and legs is well-advised. Since they’ll be hiking on hard-packed dirt and pavement, comfortable athletic shoes that are broken in are a must.
Ready to hike? The Loxahatchee Chapter’s treasurer, Paul Cummings, can give you a day-by-day breakdown of the trek, group camping rates, meal rates and other Big “O” Hike information. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.