Okeechobee: The town, the lake, and the trail

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At the north end of Lake O, there’s a town that shares its name.

Okeechobee has a downtown district that looks somewhat like Avon Park…

… thanks to the big, somewhat brown park in between the main streets, complete with sidewalks that run in weird angles.

One end of the park is occupied by some old military equipment.  You’ll see it as you make the left turn, following US 98 as it once again heads south towards the lake.

You might see a sign touting Okeechobee’s large mural.  The oversized painting on the side of a school building depicts the Big Lake’s history.  Unfortunately, after following signs that led me to the mural, there were other signs here, warning me not to park anywhere nearby.  Why on earth put a tourist attraction in a spot where tourists can’t park to look at it?  I decided to ignore the warnings, and park at the school…

… then walk back for a closer look at the mural.  Nice.  Moving on.

Lake Okeechobee

At long last, US 98 reached Lake Okeechobee.  The highway turns left at the northern shore, then circles around the eastern side of Lake O.  Make a right instead, and then an immediate left, to turn into a popular spot for lake access.  There’s a pier here…

… which provides space for fishing, or just gawking at the second largest freshwater lake, wholly contained within the United States (Lake Michigan is the largest).

The center of Lake Okeechobee is a quintipoint — a point where five municipalities meet.  Five Florida counties meet here; Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry. 

If you’re headed on to the Everglades, you’ll quickly learn a lot about the importance of Lake Okeechobee, and how humans have totally screwed up the natural order of things.  For many millennia, the Big Lake flooded annually.  Its water poured out slowly across the entire southern end of the Florida peninsula.  That wide river stretched from present-day Miami to Naples, and the whole thing was the Everglades — a shallow, grassy river that was as wide as the entire state.  Now, of course, much of that land has been drained, and the water sent into a network of canals.  Much of the old swamp is now dry, allowing room for condos, shopping malls, and farms.

In order to control the annual flood, as well as the storm surge from the occasional hurricane, engineers built the 20-foot-high Herbert Hoover Dike around the entire lake.

Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (L.O.S.T.)

Unfortunately, the dike prevents any nearby community from having a nice view of the lake.  However, it does provide a great place to ride a bike.  The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (or L.O.S.T.) runs 110 miles around the lake.  Since I had my bicycle with me, I rode a couple of miles…

… clockwise around the lake.  The scenery doesn’t change much, but at least you don’t have to worry about climbing any hills!

Since there are breaks in the levee which allow boats to access the lake, the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail can’t always stay atop the levee.

I rode my bicycle as far as the first gate.  In order to go any further…

… you must detour over to the highway, and cross the nearest bridge, then return to the top of the dike on the other side.

I had no intention of circling the entire lake, so I rode back to the parking area, then continued the drive south on US 98.

Every few miles, there’s another trail access point, and picnic area along the lake.  I only checked out one other access area, but I think it’s safe to say they’re all pretty much the same.

As US 98 parallels the Big Lake, you’ll pass by a few businesses that cater to fishermen, an occasional palm tree farm, a few houses, and a whole lot of overgrown, but otherwise empty space.  There are two towns on the southeast coast of Lake O.  After the uneventful drive, I was looking forward to Pahokee and Belle Glade, but the enthusiasm quickly faded.

Belle Glade is just slightly nicer than Pahokee, but both are quite depressing.  As I drove through Pahokee, I got the feeling that I was in the “bad part of town”, but soon realized that there wasn’t a good side — the entire town has the same, run-down, impoverished feeling.  A few miles later, I passed through Belle Glade.  It’s a larger town, and I was able to spot a few nice, middle-class homes, but I didn’t stop in either place for a picture.

Just before Belle Glade, US 98 turns east, and heads to the coast at West Palm Beach.  I wanted to go further south, so I took Fla. Rte. 80 to US 27.

For the next 40 miles, US 27 is nearly straight.  You’ll only need to turn the steering wheel two times, at a couple of slight bends in the road that change your trajectory from south to southeast, then back again.  There is absolutely nothing interesting about this road — it is merely something you must pass across in order to end up somewhere better.

This entire area used to be part of the Everglades.  Now, canals run beside the road.  Some of the land has been divided for farming, while the rest has been drained, but otherwise untouched.  A large factory or plant of some sort, off to the side of the road, will hold your attention for a while, but you’ll never quite figure out what it produces, or why it’s there.

Once you’ve watched those 40 miles tick by, US 27 crosses I-75, giving you your first chance in more than a half hour to get onto another road, and make a quick break for the Miami Metropolis.  I had reservations at a hotel near the Miami Airport, and it would have made sense to take I-75, but instead I stayed on US 27.  South of Alligator Alley, US 27 serves as a western boundary for Miami’s sprawl.  On the right side of the road is the Everglades, and the canals that have sucked them dry.  On the left, condos shopping malls are taking root.  Neither side is especially scenic, and I found no good places to enjoy the sunset that was about to occur, on the other side of the ugly canal.  So, I headed on to the motel to finish the day.  The Keys and the Everglades both awaited me, over the next two days.

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