Okeechobee Outback

    Natural Florida is full of surprises for backpackers and outdoors enthusiasts.

    This article is brought to you by Okeechobee County Tourism Development Council.

    From its nest in a tall longleaf pine, the bald eagle rose like a missile, its cries echoing through the air. Within moments, its mate appeared. On a mission to defend their young, both raptors sliced through the sky, chasing off a circling vulture. We held our breath as the intruder turned tail and the eagles, task complete, settled in the upper branches of a barren live oak.

    In Okeechobee County, you experience moments like these, as I did while backpacking with friends for four days along the Florida Trail through immense landscapes with cozy spots for shelter. This National Scenic Trail spends more than 40 miles of its 1,400-mile statewide route working its way through the county.

    A time machine into Florida's past, it took us to open prairies where sandhill cranes danced and preened; through pastoral cattle ranches that stretched to the horizon; and along the edges of orange groves with their sweet scent, an immersion into Old Florida. 

    Room with a View

    Certain perspectives come only when on foot. The grand cypress stand of Chandler Slough looks like a mountain ridge from a distance, and there's nothing more refreshing than a dip in the Kissimmee River after a long day of hiking. Following the Kissimmee River north, we camped beneath the shelter of ancient live oaks in Chandler Slough South, their boughs protecting my tent from the early-morning dew. The rope swing at Platts Bluff tempted some to take a wild plunge into the river. Trailheads at Yates Marsh, Chandler Slough and Micco Landing provide access to the orange blazes that link places of scenic wonder along the Florida Trail.

    One of Florida's prime spots for birding is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, where the vastness of the landscape evokes a sense of wonder. It's not uncommon to spy a crested caracara or a swallow-tailed kite; both breed in the 54,000-acre preserve. There are more than a hundred miles of old roads and hiking trails to explore across prairies, past marshes and to the Kissimmee River. The campground is a destination in itself, a shady island of oaks surrounded by a sea of prairie, an ideal spot to gather with friends over dinner while watching sunlight fade across the textures of grass and saw palmetto.

    Big Water, Big Fun

    Vastness isn't just a part of the Okeechobee landscape – it applies to the water as well. As Florida's largest lake (and the second largest inland lake in The United States), Lake Okeechobee is known as the "Big Water." It draws anglers from around the world in search of trophy-sized largemouth bass as well as crappie, blue gill and catfish. With your own boat, you can launch from Lock 7/Jaycee Park (Parrott Avenue Wayside Park) or the Okee-tantie Recreation Area, both on State Road 78. At Okee-tantie, the folks at the marina can help you with bait, tackle and fishing supplies, and there's a campground on site. Need a guide? The Lake Okeechobee Guide Association can get you out on the water with little fuss.

    Atop the Herbert Hoover Dike, you get a bird's-eye view of Lake Okeechobee from the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, a multi-use semi-paved trail with many shaded picnic benches. On a stroll with the family from the Lock 7/Jaycee Park (Parrott Avenue Wayside Park) toward Okee-tantie, watch for otters playing in the canal and ibis, wood storks and herons wading in the shallows of Eagle Bay. Walk the three easy miles to Taylor Creek to see brown pelicans and cormorants staking out spots on the piers next to the lock. It's not uncommon to spy bald eagles on the cypresses at the lake's edge along the way.

    With its wide-open spaces on land and on the water, Okeechobee offers experiences that outdoor enthusiasts will truly enjoy. Whether you love hiking, fishing, birding or camping, Okeechobee is a natural destination you need to explore.

    To plan your own outdoor adventure in Okeechobee County, call 863-763-3959 or 800-871-4403 and visit www.okeechobee-tdc.com.