By: Gary McKechnie
South Bay, at the southeast section of Lake Okeechobee, is overshadowed by Belle Glade to the north and by Clewiston to the west. There’s hardly a commercial district to speak of. And should you travel from one end of Palm Beach County to the other, you’d be hard-pressed to find two towns more vastly different than agricultural South Bay and its hyper-chic distant cousin, oceanfront Palm Beach.
But when all you really want is a place to pitch a tent, park an RV, launch a boat, or bait a hook, why not see another side of Florida?
Flashes of History
There’s an unusual vibe in South Bay; one likely generated by a noticeable lack of development. Considering the town calls itself “The Crossroads of Florida” (it’s where U.S. 27 and U.S. 441 meet), you’d expect there to be some strip malls, a few box stores, and a row of chain restaurants. But aside from a Subway, a Dollar General, and a few gas stations, there’s very little activity.
According to Butch Wilson, a South Bay native who now lives and works in Clewiston as curator of the fascinating Clewiston Museum, it wasn’t always this way.
“When I was growing up, there was a German restaurant, a country dining restaurant, and one of the best barbeque places I can remember,” he said. “It had one of the best shell emporiums, too. South Bay was a thriving little community, but it changed over time.”
What changed? Traffic, mostly. For decades, 441 was the main road for travelers heading south to Miami and then back again to reach all points north.
But as the interstate system took shape, I-95 diverted motorists an hour east of South Bay and, far below the town, I-75 became the fastest way to cross from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Over time, South Bay was left on the roadside. The detour doesn’t diminish highlights from the town’s history, which Wilson says includes a notable moment of courage.
“In the 1928 hurricane, areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee were devastated. Thousands of people were killed in Pahokee, Clewiston, Belle Glade and other towns. South Bay was hit hard as well, but before the hurricane arrived a construction barge captain and his two sons secured their vessel on the New River Canal and then went around town telling residents to get aboard. They rode out the storm and saved 167 people.”
Look around when you approach South Bay. Endless fields of green sugar cane create a calming backdrop. But it’s not the fields that attract visitors. It’s the fishing. And South Bay happens to be one of Florida’s favorite fishing spots.
The South Bay RV Park is Palm Beach County Park that enjoys a superb location for fishing and outdoor recreation. While it’s quiet in the summer, when winter arrives snowbirds quickly fill the 72 spaces and campsites with their tents and RVs. Less than a minute from town, a curving road leads to the campground beside the towering levee that borders Lake Okeechobee. Location is only part of it. Each space features full hook-ups along with an outdoor grill and picnic table. There’s camp-wide Wi-Fi, a playground with swings, a basketball court, shuffleboard court, two fire rings, a multi-purpose pavilion, an air-conditioned recreation room, a laundry, restrooms, and hot showers. Best of all, if you arrive with a boat – or even with only a fishing pole –- 730-square mile Lake Okeechobee is just a short stroll away.
Over the levee you’ll find plentiful parking for boats and trailers, a launch area, and a floating dock. A channel sweeps around the curve of Lake Okeechobee which, at water level, is just out of sight behind a large mass of four clustered islands – Ritta, Halifax Banks, Torry, and Kreamer. From the ramp, it’s simple to navigate along the main channel to reach open water, or you can weave your way into the streams that separate the islands and drop a line for bass, crappie, bluegill, and catfish. (Be sure to have your fishing license).
If fishing isn’t your thing, hiking, biking, and wildlife viewing is excellent along the waterfront. Atop the 35-foot high levee, the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) is a 110-mile long path that encircles the lake, although you don’t have to go the distance to catch a glimpse of wildlife and shorebirds.
Just a few miles west, Palm Beach County has another park within South Bay’s gravitational pull. Like its counterpart, 56-acre John Stretch Memorial Park runs parallel to the shore of Lake Okeechobee, which is likewise hidden behind the dike that creates the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. In the middle of the park, the South Florida Water Management District has placed an array of vintage engines, pumps, valves, and pipes that once were part of the flood control facility.
Despite these visible signs of engineering acumen, the park is a tranquil and picturesque haven. Old-fashioned picnic shelters, the kind you may recall from a childhood family road trip, are spaced around a large, still pond and an open pavilion is available in the event your visit includes a family reunion or other special event.
It’s tempting to test your fishing skills in the pond, but with Florida’s largest freshwater lake just a few feet away, it’s far more tempting to launch a fishing excursion from the nearby ramp although, as at the South Bay RV park, you’ll have to navigate around Ritta Island to reach open water. Even so, canoeing and kayaking is a pleasure in the canal that borders the park.
One of the simple pleasures of South Bay.
Meet the Neighbors
On the outskirts of South Bay in Belle Glade are other sights worth seeing. At 64 acres, Glades Pioneer Park has multiple ball fields and basketball courts, a mile-long bicycle path, an exercise course, splash park, picnic facilities, and kid-friendly swimming pool. At the Sugar Cane Golf Club, the 18-hole Belle Glade Golf Course was designed by Gary Player. And on the campus of Palm Beach State College, the Dolly Hand Cultural Arts Center stages professional theatrical productions and welcomes visiting entertainers.
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