Off the Beaten Path from Fort Pierce: Okeechobee County, Fla.
At 774 square miles, Okeechobee County is only slightly larger than its liquid neighbor: 730-square mile Lake Okeechobee. Both the county (and the lake) take their name from the Hitchiti tribe’s observation that Florida’s largest freshwater lake was “oki” (water) and “chubi” (big). Beyond that, other big adventures await you in this part of Florida, from skimming across the water on an airboat to taking in views as large as the universe.
1. The Stars at Night
Seeing the Milky Way paint the dark sky in a swirl of stars is a vision you’ll never forget. It’s also a vision displayed most evenings at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in northwest Okeechobee County. The park’s 54,000 acres are so far removed from the light pollution of towns and cities that it became the only Florida state park certified as a “Dark Sky” site by the International Dark-Sky Association. If you’ve only seen a handful of stars dot the evening sky, an evening here will change your view of the heavens.
2. Kissimmee Prairie
While an evening at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park reveals the soft glow of space, daylight reveals the diverse beauty of natural Florida. This is the largest remaining stretch of Florida dry prairie and it is magnificent in its desolation. In fact, you’ll drive five miles beyond the park entrance just to reach the park office where, between November and mid-March, guides meet guests for prairie buggy tours that travel to remote regions of the park with a chance to see resident bobcats, deer, owls, and wild turkeys along the way. Keep in mind the park is located along the Great Florida Birding Trail, so bird watching is especially popular during migrating seasons. Looking for more? Explore the park on foot, by bicycle, or on horseback courtesy of nearly 100 miles of equestrian trails that stretched across prairies, wetlands and shady hammocks. Still ready for more? Overnight guests camp out at the full-facility campground loop or nearby equestrian campground.
3. Drive Time
While a circle tour of Lake Okeechobee is one of Florida’s most interesting drives, the trip spans five counties. Within Okeechobee County you can get a taste of the full tour by heading to the north shore to follow US 98 east or SR 78 west. Whichever way you go, you’ll be heading into the past as you pass log cabins, Cracker cottages, fish camps, and open pastures. For a modified aerial view of the water, drive to the top the levee and you’re on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) which, for future reference, is the trail hikers use each year on November’s nine-day, 110-mile excursion ‘Hiking the Big O’.
4. The City Limits
Downtown Okeechobee is a blast from the past. Near the intersection of US 441 and SR 70 (aka “The Crossroads of South Florida”) a six-block strip of stores looks as if it had been used as a backlot for Leave it to Beaver. With hardly a chain store in sight, shoppers frequent independent bookstores, appliance shops, furniture stores, and diners like Glady's Restaurant, here since 1951 and where home-cooked meals will set you back $3.99 (breakfast) or $5.99 (lunch). Bonus points for Flagler Park, the green space that borders the district. With its display of vintage weaponry (a tank, helicopter, torpedo, and WWII-era 40mm gun) and a Seminole chickee hut it, too, looks like it was frozen in the ‘50s.
5. Fish and Ships
There’s a lot of fish in the sea, and nearly as many in The Big O. Helping you find them are guides who can arrange a day on the water so you can search for bluegill, crappie (which are caught by the ton between December and April), catfish, and the prize catch: Trophy bass found most frequently near the north shore in Okeechobee County. You can research guides, marinas, lodging, bait and tackle shops, restaurants, water levels, maps, reviews, rates, and make reservations at Lake Okeechobee Bass Fishing. But if waiting for a fish to bite doesn’t thrill you, then you may find it more thrilling to take to the water on an airboat tour with Eaglebay Airboats or Florida Airboat Charters, both located on the north shore.
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