Living Sanibel: The LOST Trail
The 110-mile Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, popularly known as the LOST Trail, encircles the second-largest freshwater lake in the continental United States (Lake Michigan being the largest). The LOST Trail crosses five Florida counties-Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, and Palm Beach. Most of the trail runs atop the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake, but long stretches have to be traversed along state and county highways. The long-range plan is to continue the LOST Trail entirely atop the 35-foot-high dike, but erosion repairs, locks, and rivers and canals entering the Big “O” at different places make this a daunting task. It will likely be decades before that dream comes to fruition.
The LOST trail is part of the Great Cross-Florida Hiking Trail that runs from the Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Collier County to the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola. The best route for hikers is along the eastern shoreline of the lake, which avoids the 30-mile stretch in Glades County where access to the dike is impossible. Here the trail runs along State Highway 78, where the shoulder is wide enough, but the traffic, though never heavy, is fast.
The best way to experience the LOST Trail is by bicycle. The paved sections of the trail are long and straight and ideal for road bikers who like to pick up some speed, while the unpaved sections offer riders a challenge. A good interactive map is available from Palm Beach Bike Tours and helps peddlers get a better understanding of what riding this trail involves.
A good section for beginners to bike runs 6.7 miles from the Moore Haven Locks to Liberty Point. The only problem with this section is the Western Swamp, which extends into the Big “O” and makes any view of open water impossible. The next leg of that trip, heading east from Liberty Point to the town of Clewiston (5.17 miles) provides some nice views of the lake. An even better stretch for seeing the Big “O” is the run between Clewiston and Rita Village (4.47 miles).
Because much of the LOST Trail segment in Glades County is along State Road 78, a better stretch of the trail begins when you cross the county line into Okeechobee County where you can access the dike at the Okeetanta Trailhead. Continuing north, the trail runs on top of the dike all the way to Port Mayaca in southern Martin County.
The views from atop the dike are the bicyclist’s reward. On one side is the rim canal, which surrounds much of the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee. Seldom more than 50 feet wide, the rim canal abounds with numerous limpkins, herons, egrets, ducks, alligators, gar, bass, bream, and dozens of different species of passerines such as red-winged blackbirds, warblers, and boat-tailed grackles. On the Lake “O” side of the dike, the views can be stunning. The lake is so wide that you cannot see across to the other side. Its shoreline abounds with birds and animals, including armadillos, raccoons, and river otters. Of course, there are also airboats, pontoon boats, bass boats, and everything in between roaring up and down the rim canal and the lake, accompanied by plenty of noise.
Small shaded shelters and portable toilets are placed sporadically along the trail atop the dike. Primitive campsites are situated at various spots around the lake, but bicyclists may also choose to overnight in local motels found in towns such as Okeechobee, Clewiston, Pahokee, and Moore Haven. There are also plenty of small, local eateries along the way.
The LOST Trail isn’t for everyone. If you, or your children, lose control of your bike, it’s not all that hard to wind up heading down a steep embankment toward the rim canal or the lake. There are no shade trees anywhere, and the wind blows unabated once you are up on the dike. A tailwind can be a biker’s dream come true, but the odds are always 50/50 that it could be a stiff headwind instead. Applying plenty of sunscreen is a must, and a hat is also recommended. Remember to bring bug repellent if you plan to ride at dawn or dusk, as the mosquitoes can be fearsome. Biking in the dark along the rim is not recommended.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.