Circling West Around Lake Okeechobee on the Florida Trail
Hikers must choose whether to go 50 miles West or 50 miles East around lake Okeechobee. I chose the West side.
East or West
The distance around each side is about the same. Towns and services on the West side are slightly more numerous than on the East side. So historically more people have gone West than East.
But there has been significant construction works on the Herbert Hoover dike that surrounds the lake for what seems like the last decade.
The East side construction was finished before the West side, which still is not complete. For this reason, more people have been going East in the last few years.
In the areas that have been under construction, the trail has been completely impassable. Road walks of 5 to 10 miles around closed sections have been commonplace.
When I passed through, there is only one large section still closed on the West side, and one much smaller section. Construction was anticipated to be completed by the end of 2022, but apparently that did not happen.
Walking on Top of the Herbert Hoover Dike
The entire lake is surrounded by a dike. There are also canals that surround most of the dike. At various intervals there will be water control structures to pump or release water in either direction as needed.
There are also river outflows and inflows around the circumference of the lake. There are usually locks at these locations to allow boating in and out of the lake. Lake Okeechobee and it’s surrounding rivers are popular Bass fishing destinations.
At most of these outflow locations, the trail will not go across the lock, but along the outflow, then across a bridge somewhere to the other side.
So you are not really hiking a circle, but a shape that looks more like an erratically toothed gear.
The teeth can be very small, like in the case of John Stretch Park where you first meet lake Okeechobee from the Southern Canals. Or in Moore Haven, it’s several miles to get onto a high overpass bridge and back down again.
The trail on top of the dike is either pavement or double track lime rock road. Either surface is easy hiking, but can be tough on tender feet.
The slope on the lake side is gradual and in many cases goes all the way to either the lake, or marsh lands that make up the edge of the lake. There are camping opportunities on some of these slopes. Water is often frequently available here, too.
The slope on the canal side is slightly steeper. But there is a flat ledge usually about 50 to 100 ft wide up to the canal. As long as the vegetation permits, you could camp pretty much anywhere on the outer slope. You will be sharing your campsite with alligators.
You will find covered picnic tables or sitting benches or platforms on somewhat regular intervals of 5 to 10 miles. Official camping spots are a little more spaced out, at about 10 miles inbetween.
A few of the campsites are at boat ramps that see a lot of traffic. One that was listed in the FarOut app as a campsite also had a no camping sign, which made me uneasy about camping there.
Towns Towns Towns
If you go West, you will reach Clewiston in about nine miles. You hike right to the edge of town and the rest of the town is within one mile. It is a full service town with a Walmart, many restaurants, and many hotels.
I had to do many chores when I reached John Stretch Memorial Park late in the day, so I took an Uber into Clewiston and then slack packed back to Clewiston the next day. That was a very fun day.
The hotels would be considered budget motels, but winter in Florida is top tourism season. So budget rates will likely mean $100 to $200 anywhere in southern Florida this time of year.
The next town is Moore Haven. It is not nearly as large as Clewiston, and it has far fewer services. But one of the services is a Mexican market and deli right on the trail. The food there is legit, but it is not a great resupply.
There are a few smaller communities like Lakeport that do have the occasional lodging or convenience store, but are not really what I would consider towns or resupplies.
Where the West and East trails meet up again is in C Scott Park. The town of Okeechobee is about 6 miles around the East trail. Okeechobee is another large town with full resupply probably slightly better than Clewiston, but also more spread out.
Both Clewiston and Okeechobee have Uber service. So for either westbounders or eastbounders they are very convenient stops or resupply points.
I met one hiker who was extorted by an Uber driver from Clewiston for over triple the fare, so watch out. Always try to make it to a park or business to catch an Uber from. Getting picked up from the middle of nowhere might encourage bad behavior like that.
The major reroute in this last bit of construction started out with about three miles on a lightly traveled paved roads. These kinds of road walks are not bad because you can choose the shoulder or the road to walk on. You also have time to take in the scenery.
But the last five miles were on a very high speed highway with a large amount of traffic. I always walk facing traffic so that I can look the drivers in the eye as they pass me.
I have had drivers swerve off into the shoulder coming straight at me on previous road walks on the Florida Trail. I don’t trust drivers. If they are not looking me back in the eye, I am ready to jump in the ditch.
On this road, there was a barrier the entire length of the road walk. So there was never more than 5 feet between me and 60 to 80 mph traffic. It was not the best experience, especially when I stepped on a roofing nail that almost punctured the skin on my foot.
The other problem with roadwalks, is there is rarely any place to stop and rest. Much less find a place to go to the bathroom. You have to be prepared to hike the entire thing in one go. Make sure you have enough water before you begin any road walk.
Another unanticipated closure was just north of Lakeport. All the construction equipment was right there on the dike and I was afraid I was going to have to backtrack a mile or two to go around it.
But luckily, there was a bridge across the canal right at the construction. This was an easy two mile road walk through a trailer park, and ended up at a convenience store. This road walk was actually fun because it ended with ice cream and egg salad.
Pick One Emotion
I think I would actually pick lazy.
With the abundance of towns at both intersections of East and West, plus the addition of Lakeport and Moore Haven on the West, means that you could turn this into a sequence of day hikes. At least that’s what it felt like.
You could sleep in a motel every night. You could carry only one days worth of food. If you are an Uberphile, you could actually slack pack the whole thing.
Other than the road walks, the walk around lake Okeechobee on the West side was quite uneventful.
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