Away from the coastal beaches of Eastern Florida is a different type of beauty.
In the much more rural community in the greater Lake Okeechobee area, you'll find the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
This state park is a breathtaking expanse of horizon-to-horizon grassland encompassing 54,000 acres. Some may say it's a far cry from the beaches Florida boasts but it's gorgeous in its own way.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
The Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one of the largest remaining stretches of Florida dry prairie. It is home to the endangered grasshopper sparrow, crested caracara, and burrowing owl.
The isolated location offers lots of peaceful activities that any nature-lover would enjoy.
Its remoteness and thus lack of light pollution make it one of Florida’s premier locations for stargazing and in 2016 it was recognized as Florida's first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
One of the campground areas has 5 astronomy pad sites set up with telescopes. No campfires or flashlights are allowed if you decide to get a site there.
Numerous stars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all clearly visible in the night sky. You may even be able to witness the International Space Station making its orbit around Earth or rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center!
The state park offers over 100 miles of multi-use trails that stretch through trails through the dry prairie! You can take a ranger-led prairie buggy tour to see remote areas of the Preserve.
Buggy tours operate on weekends only, November through March and you’ll need to make reservations 60 days ahead. Check ahead as restrictions are in place right now.
If you are a history lover, Military Trail will lead you to the place where two Army forts once stood. You should also explore the Peavine Trail as it follows an old railroad bed constructed in 1910. The Kilpatrick Hammock trail is an easy 1-mile loop right near the campground that darts between forest and prairie views.
When you’re hiking be on the lookout for wildflowers. During each season, different colors of wildflowers explode onto the grasslands.
Spring and summer paint the prairie green with fresh grass and pink from meadow beauties and marsh pinks. Paths of yellow unfold from bladderworts combined with seas of purple pickerelweed. Autumn is heralded with yellow goldenrods and purple Liatris species.
After exploring the Kissimmee Prairie, you can continue south to the town of Okeechobee, on the northernmost shores of Lake Okeechobee.
Encompassing 662 square miles and 35 miles across, Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in Florida and the eighth-largest in the country.
For locals it has a number of nicknames, such as the “Inland Sea” or the “Big O”, however, its official name means “Big Water” and comes from the Hitchiti, an indigenous community that lived on the Chattahoochee River until the early 19th century.
Are We in Texas?
I didn’t know what to expect when I pulled into Okeechobee but I can definitely say that I didn’t expect it to remind me of West Texas, right down to the city calling itself “Cow Town.”
But this is a western-style town in the middle of the sunshine state, it’s dry and windy and surrounded by wide open spaces and lots and lots of cows.
Rodeos are a big deal here and the name of the best local restaurant tells you what the local culture revolves around. It’s simply called “The Cowboy”.
If you’re around in mid-March check out the annual Okeechobee Cowtown Rodeo!
About 90 minutes from either coast, this area is full of small historic towns, orange groves, cattle ranches, and sugarcane fields.
Cattle ranching is the oldest industry in Okeechobee County and this area is home to many of Florida’s original cattle ranching families whose ancestors were pioneer settlers in the late 1700s and 1800s.
You may hear the terms “Florida cracker” or “cracker cowboy” while you’re here, which are used informally by some Floridians as a source of pride to indicate that their families were those pioneer settlers and have lived in the state for many generations.
The LOST Trail
While you’re here, rent a bike or take a walk along the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST). The trail is a 110-mile paved and gravel path around Lake Okeechobee which circles the lake on top of a 35-foot high dike, built in the 1930s for food control.
With no motorized vehicles allowed, the trail provides for a serene experience with incredible visa views and excellent sunrises and sunsets, biking, hiking, fishing, and plenty of chances to view incredible birds, gators, and other wildlife.
Fishing (Watch Out for Gators!)
Speaking of fishing, Lake O is known as the speckled perch capital of the U.S. and there are guided tours, charters, and boat rentals all around the lake. It is one of the best fishing lakes in America, with seven and eight-pound largemouth bass catches common.
If you’re interested in fishing, go to one of the numerous marinas, get on a charter boat, and go for a relaxing day.
Ask around once you have your fish, some local diners will cook your catch for you!
I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the lake though, gators are abundant here. We spotted this 10-footer, showing only his eyes and head, more than a mile out into the lake.
Other Fun Things to Do
If you come through the area in mid-March (the 14th and 15th in 2020) there is the annual Speckled Perch Festival in town.
This is the oldest celebration in Okeechobee, dating back to 1965. The festival honors the local fishing industry with a parade and customary fish fry.
The small town of Clewiston (on the southern end of the lake), is called “America’s Sweetest Town” for its history of sugar cane production.
Here you can take an agricultural tour of a local sugar cane farm to see how sugar cane is grown and processed and learn about sugar’s history in Clewiston and Lake Okeechobee.
The Sugarland tour has several parts including visiting a sugar cane farm to learn farming techniques, touring the Clewiston sugar mill, and exploring a citrus juice plant.
Tours are 3 and a half hours long, offered Mon-Fri, October-March. Admission is $38/person and the tour begins at 9 am.
If you’re around March 21st, try to attend the annual Sugar Festival!
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park Camping
If you can get a site in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park for a night or two you won’t regret it!
There are a number of campgrounds located around Lake Okeechobee.
We provide a list of 11 campgrounds with all the details you need in our Florida's Atlantic Coast RV Adventure Guide.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is just one of the dozens of amazing destinations we outline in our 7-Day Adventure Guide of Florida's Atlantic Coast.
We provide a suggested route and itinerary, links to multiple campgrounds and boondocking spots, and the best spots to see along the way. Don’t plan your trip to Florida without it!