Sunrise through a stand of cabbage palms at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.

    Sunrise through a stand of cabbage palms at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.

    - Kevin Mims

    Okeechobee County, Florida: From Shore to Stars

    By: Gary McKechnie 

    What’s not to love about a county where the commercial district of its sole city looks like circa 1940 Florida? A destination where stargazers will find the only certified “Dark Sky’” site in Florida? A region encompassing the waters of Florida’s largest freshwater lake as well as the vanishing traces of a frontier outpost?

    It’s all in Okeechobee County, where pure old-fashioned Florida waits for you around every bend.

    Okeechobee Is Okee-Dokey 

    Okeechobee County itself sits contentedly in a quiet pocket of solitude. It’s been like this since the county was formed in 1917. And when you arrive in the town of Okeechobee, at the “Crossroads of South Florida” (U.S. 441 & S.R. 70), there’s a distinct feeling of nostalgia. 

    Here in the main commercial district, locals shop at the independent bookstores, boutiques, appliance shops, furniture stores, and restaurants lined up alongside Flagler Park. The scene is one of good old-fashioned Americana as teens hang out beneath Seminole chickee huts and tourists stop to take pictures of the tank, helicopter, torpedo, and WWII-era 40mm gun displayed in the park.

    As they have since the 1950s, locals still gather at Gladys’ Restaurant for home-cooked meals ($3.99 breakfast, $5.99 lunch) while a few blocks west at Ferrell’s Produce Market, shoppers pick up fresh-squeezed orange juice as well as fruits and vegetables fresh from the abundant farms that fill the region. Ranches, too, are part and parcel of the county, and some of the year’s biggest gatherings are tied to the cattle culture. At the Okeechobee Cattleman’s Association and Rodeo Arena, there’s the Cowtown Spring Rodeo in March and the Labor Day Bull Bash in September.

    From the junction, it’s only a few miles south to the lake via 441, but on the way take a short detour. At 610 SW 2nd Ave., artist John Gutcher created a larger-than-life mural celebrating the heritage of Seminoles and local settlers. The history of Okeechobee can be found on murals throughout town, but at roughly half a football field long it’s this 1996 painting that is most impressive.

    Where Highway 441 T’s at the lake’s north shore, you’ll spy an access road that scales the levee. If you’ve never seen The Big O before (or even if you have) the view can take your breath away. At 730 square miles, this is Florida’s largest freshwater lake. While photos are best taken from the top of the levee, a pier at the water’s edge is a wonderful place to get a little closer to the lake known by members of the Hitchiti tribe as ‘oki’ (water) and ‘chubi’ (big). They were right. It is big -- roughly half the size of Rhode Island. 

    Chances are you’ll see fishermen casting lines and nets and boaters enjoying a day on the water. If you’d like to join them, nearby outfitters can set you up for your own fishing excursion or you can take an airboat tour with Eaglebay Airboats.

    If you follow the shoreline east via 441, you’ll see signs pointing the way to the Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park. It’s hard to understand why, but for well over a century the U.S. government was determined to take land from Native Americans. On Christmas Day 1837, Okeechobee was the front line in that ongoing fight. On that day, roughly 800 soldiers and volunteers under the command of Colonel (later President) Zachary Taylor fought 500 Seminole and Miccosukee warriors in a full-scale battle. After this, neither side engaged in major confrontations. The Seminoles would eventually find sanctuary in the Everglades, outlasting the army to remain the only unconquered tribe in America. To commemorate this event, each year the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends stage an event that includes arts, folk music, pow-wow dancing, and a reenactment of the battle.

    The 15 or so miles before you cross into neighboring Martin County are among the most casual you’ll find in Florida, especially when you’re taken back in time by the sight of log cabins and Cracker cottages, and when you see signs pointing to ‘LOST’ (the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail) where you can drive atop the levee and take in The Big O from a new vantage point. Keep in mind these sights are on 441 east. At the T in Okeechobee, Highway 78 leads west and takes you past mobile home parks, fishing camps, county parks, and sprawling pastures that are popular with grazing cattle. At the Kissimmee River, Glades County begins – but not before showing you several more reasons to appreciate the simple beauty of Okeechobee County.

    And there’s more to come.

    Okeechobee Mural

    - McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

    Glady's Restaurant exterior

    - McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

    Okeechobee County sign

    - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

    Tank at Flagler Park

    - McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

    Frontier Florida

    In Okeechobee County, unincorporated areas outnumber towns by about 26-to-1. With most development concentrated near the lake, emptiness fills the northernmost reaches of the county, emptiness interrupted by places like Ancient Oaks, Hilolo, Dixie Ranch Acres, and Okeechobee Little Farms. Since there’s no one way to map out a road trip that ties all of these places together, perhaps the best way to enjoy the county is to pull out a map, select a few two-lane roads, and then see what you’ll find. Maybe you’ll find Fort Drum.

    In the 1840s, a series of forts were built across the state, each connected by military roads. Where roads for two east-west forts (Basinger and Vinton) and two north-south forts (Kissimmee and Jupiter) met, Fort Drum was built. The fort didn’t last long at all, but the name stuck. When the Civil War was over, many settlers sought a new life in a region seemingly designed for raising cattle. A railroad arrived in 1914 and a depot was built, but that was a century ago. Today along U.S. 441 and a few blocks east and west you’ll see a few structures such as a church, a cemetery, an abandoned market, and some crumbling wooden homes, but most of what you’ll find in Fort Drum are remnants from history – including natural history. Once submerged in the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras, Fort Drum is the only location where calcite crystals have been found in fossilized clamshells.

    After leaving Fort Drum, there’s one very special place to discover.

    Thank Your Lucky Stars

    If you’ve explored Florida at all, you’ve likely noticed it doesn’t take too much time or too many miles to work your way out of a city and into the country. But there’s no country like the 54,000 acres you’ll find at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in the northwest section of the county.

    Located about 20 miles west of U.S. 441, it takes some effort to reach this rural outpost. And even when you enter the gates, it’s still another five miles before you reach the park office. The honor system admission expects you to deposit $4 in an envelope into an “iron ranger.” While you might expect the five-mile stretch to be woefully dull, it’s actually wonderfully fascinating. This is the largest remaining stretch of Florida dry prairie, and there’s something enchanting about the sheer emptiness that surrounds you. It’s no problem to stop the car, set your camera on “panorama,” and capture a scene that would be familiar to Cracker cowboys from the 1880s and Seminole Indians from the 1830s.

    The landscape appears so unchanged that the park has become a favorite destination for hikers, bicyclists and, especially, riders on horseback who travel here to follow nearly 100 miles of equestrian trails through prairies, wetlands and shady hammocks. If a day trip isn’t enough, a special equestrian campground includes paddocks for horses. Nearby, a full-facility campground loop is an option for regular campers.

    Between November and mid-March, ranger-led prairie buggy tours will take you to the farthest regions of the park with the chance to see local residents including bobcats, deer, owls, and wild turkeys. Cooler months also attract birdwatchers. Migrating birds follow the Great Florida Birding Trail to their winter home to join the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Crested Caracara, and Burrowing Owl who call this land home. 

    One resident you won’t find is the Carolina Parakeet. To commemorate the bird whose last-known nest was found here, renowned artist Todd McGrain started the Lost Bird Project. Placed at the preserve is an impressive statue named Caroline, whose beak points toward the GPS coordinates of the last-known nest of a species hunted into extinction. You’ll see it just outside the park office.

    Saving the best for last, never forget that this is the only Florida state park certified as a “Dark Sky” site. In fact, it’s the only place in Florida that’s earned the distinction awarded by International Dark-Sky Association, the recognized authority for night sky protection. If you’re accustomed to seeing just a handful of stars in the evening sky, the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is where your perception of the universe will change.

    After the sun disappears beyond the Kissimmee River, stars begin to shine overhead. And then there are more. And more. And more.

    With virtually no light pollution leaching into the sky, millions of stars can be seen, especially in winter months. Since this is a state park that closes at dusk, after-hours visits are still being coordinated for guests who want to visit without staying overnight, but for amateur astronomers, curious stargazers, and anyone who's in awe of the universe love this chance to see the heavens as they were meant to be seen.

    Then again, wherever you travel on Okeechobee County, things are looking up.

    If you go…

    For more information on activities, events, and attractions across Okeechobee County, check:

    Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA 

    Okeechobee Pier

    - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve Entrance

    - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA