When you say “South Florida,” many people think of high rises, beaches, casinos and other big city temptations, along with a bunch of traffic. However, there are other ways to enjoy that part of the world. One way is to walk the Ocean to Lake Trail; a dedicated hiking path traversing protected lands conserving the sheet flow of water feeding the Everglades.
Much property in the heart of South Florida is being managed as a giant watershed to keep the water pumping into the Everglades in an effort to restore its historic flow. These lands are also game preserves and have the added benefit of being places where trails explore open sawgrass prairies, high pine islands, wet cypress sloughs and thick hammocks full of tropical trees.
Tough hiking pal Jeff Cochran — who lives in Fort Lauderdale — and I decided to tackle the 76-mile one-way Ocean to Lake Trail. We excitedly left Lake Okeechobee, heading east on FL 76 Highway before turning into DuPuis Wildlife Management Area. There we picked up a footpath that wound through a mosaic of South Florida forest. Pine flatwoods dominated in higher ground. Wetter areas often had prairies, still other areas were covered in cypress. Just a few feet in elevation change can make a big difference in the flatland vegetation.
Our 12 mile first day ended at the Loop 4 Campsite. The evening was fairly warm, as the clouds built. Sheets of rain fell overnight. I was sleeping under a mosquito net and had to rig up my rain shelter out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night. Of course, I should’ve just put the tarp up in the first place. Jeff was snug and dry under his new tarp.
I doggedly started a fire despite the morning precipitation, and the two of us cooked breakfast then broke camp in the rain. Luckily, the precipitation held off for the rest of the dark, cloudy day. We made 12 more miles, reaching the Little Gopher Campsite.
The weather radio announced big storms coming. The rain eventually hit about 6 p.m. I scrunched under my tarp, feeding mosquitoes, contemplating whether to set up the mosquito net yet.
Meanwhile, Jeff fell ill during the storm. He had smoked a big cigar that hurt his tum-tum. Holding the butt of his cigar, he sat under his tarp saying he didn’t feel so good, then broke out into a massive sweat. He is a paramedic, so I wasn’t worried. It was actually hilarious since I knew that smoking the giant cigar was the cause of his illness, but he didn’t. After the rain, we hung out by a small, flickering fire before returning to our respective shelters.
Overnight, cold air followed the rain front, completely changing the weather situation. The third day cleared, became sunny and cool — great hiking weather — and we pushed out a 16-mile long day, camping in an area known as Hungryland, named by the Seminoles as they were hunted by the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars of the 1840s.
Since the north winds were blowing, Jeff and I found a sheltered campsite and hung close to a palm frond fire. Temperatures dropped to the 40s. Yes, cold happens in Florida, and with the wind chill you would’ve thought we were on top of Roan Mountain instead of a few feet above sea level in Palm Beach County.
We arose to a chilly sunrise, broke camp and hit the trail, fighting distance and a strong wind. Our hike was but 6 miles and we were still feeling the effects of the previous day’s ramble.
Sometimes campsites don’t come when or where you need them, but we got lucky this day, settling in a dense forest, sheltered from the north blow. We ended up near the Hungryland Canal. The weather remained quite cool and windy all day long. What a contrast from 48 hours prior! That night went down to 33 degrees, very chilly weather for South Florida. The radio forecasters were warning everyone to bundle up. Farmers were worried about winter crops freezing that night. Unfortunately, Jeff had an accident, twisting his ankle while getting water from the canal.
Next day, the Ocean to Lake Trail cut through a little bit of civilization before reentering wilderness at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. We kept pushing past the Loxahatchee River and made the Scrub Jay Campsite after 16 miles, despite Jeff’s bum ankle. He complained all day about his purple ankle, bordering on whining.
The north wind relentlessly pushed through the pines and prairies all day and continued into the night. Our campsite, nearly devoid of trees, was vulnerable to such blows, as it was sheltered only by a little bit of low-lying palmetto scrub.
Our final and fifth night was another cold one. To add insult to injury, my camping air mattress got a hole in it, so I tried to sleep on the cold, hard ground with only limited success. Nevertheless, the next day we were psyched, since Jeff and I would reach our goal, the Atlantic Ocean. We wound through Jonathan Dickinson State Park and made a short road walk toward the ocean. He and I crossed a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and ended up on ritzy Jupiter Island, then sauntered through the isle in dirty clothes and packs. We reached the ocean at Martin County Beach Park.
Jeff and I each symbolically dipped our feet in the salty Atlantic Ocean in celebration, completing our 76-mile hike from Lake Okeechobee on the Ocean to Lake Trail.