Living Sanibel: Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest
With a name that is derived from the Creek Indians and is all but impossible to pronounce, everyone, including the Florida Division of Forestry staff, simply calls this state forest the OK Slough. Okaloacoochee was coined by the Seminoles and is a combination of several Creek words that describe “dark, shallow waters.” That description holds true today since the freshwater found throughout the slough has a dark tint produced by the tannic acid from the roots of the surrounding vegetation.
These 32,039 acres of state forest were purchased between 1996 and 2000 under the Conservation and Recreation Land (CARL) program using a combination of Preservation 2000 and Save Our River funds. The slough itself is 13,382 acres, a wide-open expanse of sedges, cattails, and marsh grasses, with cypress domes rising in the distance. A hiking trail, with an elevated boardwalk and overlook, gives visitors a first-hand view of its expanse. Because the slough is so shallow, canoeing and kayaking are not recommended.
The slough drains slowly to the south, eventually feeding the waters of Corkscrew Swamp, then down through the Fakahatchee Strand and out through the Ten Thousand Islands to the Gulf of Mexico. It is an important wetlands and the state of Florida must be lauded for having the foresight to save this stretch of pristine wilderness.
This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, slash pines, bald cypress, and other viable timber were logged off primarily for use as railroad ties. By the 1930s, with most of the lumber gone, the land was converted to ranching and agricultural purposes, though the slough itself was left untouched.
Today the old logging roads, with names such as Wildcow Grade, North Loop West, and Twin Mills Grade, are one of the greatest assets of the OK Slough. These old roads and trails, totaling 39 miles, wind through expansive dry prairies of saw palmetto and slash pine, giving visitors open, unobstructed views. While a few of them require a high-center truck or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate, most are high and dry, especially in the winter season. They also present an unparalleled off-road biking opportunity. Though not paved, they are fairly hard packed and are an easy pedal for most crossover or trail bikes.
Access to the various logging roads is by inexpensive self-pay stations. Trail maps and bird checklists are often available at these stations, though you would be well advised to print these out from the website before coming, just in case the stations are out.
Beyond the old logging trails are numerous hiking paths that branch off of the main roads for the adventurous to explore. There are several primitive campsites in the park, available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no potable water. Care should be taken when visiting during hunting seasons, since wild pig, turkey, and dove hunting is allowed throughout the forest.
The wildlife, from mammals to reptiles to birds, is unbelievable. Birders can often sight the elusive crested caracara. Other common sightings include wild turkey, swallow-tailed and snail kites, barred owls, tufted titmouse, warblers, ducks, and more. The website includes a downloadable OK Slough checklist of 85 different species. The slough is a part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Because of its remoteness and sheer size, the OK Slough State Forest is home to many larger animals such as wild hogs, white-tailed deer, Florida black bears, and on rare occasions, the Florida panther. Reptiles include gopher tortoises and large alligators that roam the immense wetlands.
If you ask most people about the Okaloacoochee Slough, they will say they’ve never heard of it. That will change, however, because the OK Slough is far, far better than just OK. It is one of the few places north of the Everglades where you can see what pre-Columbian Florida looked like-an undiscovered treasure within a short day’s drive from almost anywhere along Florida’s southwest coast. It is better than OK, it is simply great!
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.