South Florida – Lake Okeechobee on down to the Keys

11Feb12

The ride on Friday, Jan 6th to lake Okeechobee turned out to be quite a day. The morning was filled with quiet roads, early morning light and plenty of birds.  Our ride took us onto Route 60, a busy truck route heading east.  Due to this part of Florida having wet and swampy areas, there just weren’t many good roads that could take us through. Not to mention a large military bombing range that we had to go around.  Route 60 deteriorated with overgrown shoulders, ill-placed rumble strips and  heavy truck traffic. Just as we were mulling over our next 14 miles of a bummer of a route an Osceola County Sheriff pulled up behind us on the grass and wondered if he might be of some assistance. He immediately expressed concern for us.  He offered us a ride to the county line where the shoulder would be much better.  We heartily accepted.  Our bicycles quickly were stuffed in the trunk using our bungee cords to hold it shut.  Debi and I piled into the secure backseat and we all headed off.  He drove us through Yeehaw Junction and then south to the county line just north of Lake Okeechobee. We missed taking photos of the junction which we were looking forward to. Oh, well. Our 70 mile day turned into 50 something with the help of the Sheriff. It was a hot Friday so we rejoiced for the shortened day. The rest of the ride into town was uneventful, aside from a couple bee stings at a general store.

Cattle, one of Florida's main exports north of Lake Okeechobee

We found a forty dollar hotel room on the north side off town with wi-fi and AC. The city of Lake Okeechobee was hectic, busy and offered few quality dining options. In order to retreat as quickly as possible from the world we sometimes settle for mediocre nourishment. It just is what it is and tomorrow will be another day.  After buying a nice assortment of microwavable foods from CVS we locked the door to our room and devoured our meal.

The next morning we finished our errands in town (laundry and groceries) and continued our ride south through town to the great Lake Okeechobee. The hotel we stayed at was a few miles from the actual lake. As we approached the lake we rode up an access ramp to the dike which surrounds it and protects the surrounding areas from flooding. The trail on top of the dike is called the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail or its acronym L.O.S.T.. We had a quick lunch at the first picnic table we came to and then proceeded down the western side of the lake toward Moore Haven. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first alligator along the canal.

Air boat in the shallows

Alligator along canal

The trail abounded with all kinds of birds. Mostly Vultures, Herons and Egrets. The trail started out paved and quickly turned to hard pack dirt and then to rough double track with loose gravel. Some parts further south were grassed over and actually a little smoother. As the conditions changed we saw less and less people. It always feels good to leave behind a busy, hectic area. Everything melts away and we are back out in the wild, wild world again.

Deluxe double track

Canal along the dike

Debi riding south

Empty campsite along the trail

Bryan in front of the full moon

Saturday night Jan 7th we camped in a free, primitive campsite on the Florida Trail.  On this side of the lake the FT follows the L.O.S.T. for some way before branching off again. We actually got disoriented at one of intersections and then some fellow rode by and gave us a map. That night we camped next to a small canal and waterway. The boggy, swampy areas were full of wildlife. Mosquitoes were fierce as well.

Sunset from our campsite

morning sunrise from camp (Debi on the phone with her mom)

On Sunday, January 8th we started down the trail again and wound up getting off in Moore Haven, FL. From there we headed southwest through more citrus and sugar cane country. Traffic was light and the sun was bright. A very nice day of riding indeed. As we rolled into Immokalee, FL, it reminded us of Mexico, there were people of many nationalities-Haitian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Indian, and the list continues. It was Sunday just before dinner and most of the folks were moving around on bicycles. Mexican bakeries and cafes sat next to Haitian food joints. It looked like a hard working town. Produce and citrus are big here and it appeared that the larger companies had their own housing for workers and their families complete with pedestrian access to town.

Smoke on the horizon

Big Signage

Loaded orange trucks parked outside a Citrus plant

Quiet Moore Haven

On Monday, January 9, we made a couple of stops and lightly resupplied for our ride south down through Big Cypress Preserve. Most of the stretch south from Immokalee was through Panther country. We didn’t see any cats but thought it would be pretty cool if we did. That night we camped at Monument Lake for $16. There were no showers or electricity but it had a nice, flat grassy site which allowed for a pretty sunset. The campground host was from Maine and was very helpful and informative.

Blinking sign and tall chain link fences just out of sight

More gators lying in the sun

Sunset in Big Cypress

Tuesday morning we woke up early, under some fog. We broke down camp fairly quick and headed out. The first mile or two was on pavement with light traffic and then the next 20 were on the Loop Road in Big Cypress Preserve. The Loop Road was closed to motor vehicle traffic per the 10/19/11 update which we felt meant it was open to other forms of travel such as pedestrian and bicycle.  It was so nice to be riding a scenic route sans traffic.  We saw occasional alligators sunning themselves and more birds than can be imagined. A few miles in we came upon a surveyor who was working on the new resurfaced road. He informed us the road was closed and that we needed to turn around and go back to the highway. We explained to him that the National Park Service website said it was closed to motor vehicles and that we were traveling through and would not be returning. He informed us that he has been turning away all users so far. Eventually, he came around and let us through. For the next ten miles or so we came across the occasional grader and steam roller operators but other than that the ride was free of people. These folks were all pleasant, waved at us and didn’t seem to mind our passage at all. That afternoon, we made our way to Pinecrest, FL where we stayed at one of two free campgrounds in the preserve. A free campsite is the perfect way to top of a day of traffic free riding.

Wet on both sides of the road

The famed Loop Road about half way through

Fenced in Harley hangout

Sunset yet again

On Wednesday Jan 11, we woke and left before dawn leaving our fellow campground neighbors to sleep off their late night of singing and drinking (which was honestly pleasant to fall asleep to).  We headed back out to Highway 41 aka the Tamiami Trail for a quick few miles on pavement. Shortly, we turned onto a canal road by a memorial of ValuJet plane, flight 592 that crashed back in 1996. The memorial was a stark reminder of an awful event. Once on the canal road we continued east paralleling the water and highway 41. At the end of the gravel canal road we came back out onto HWY 41. A few miles further was the Miccosukee Indian reservation casino where we treated ourselves to an  affordable lunch buffet. Feeling so full and content after lunch, we turned and headed south along more canal roads into a steady and tough 20+ mph headwind. Slow going but with no traffic. The only person that came across us was a Florida Watershed management worker who told us to watch out for Pythons along the canal. He then proceeded to show a picture of one on his I-phone. It was 14 ‘ long! With no natural predators these giant monsters have become quite a problem in these areas. That night we camped off a canal road in a remote region amongst tall grasses and fire ants.  The canal roads are a part of a trail network called the South Dade Greenway Network.  This network of trails is confusing and the maps online are outdated.  We recommend doing your research if you ever plan on taking these  routes.

Sunrise in Big Cypress

Canal roads paralleling HWY 41 - looking east

Canal and the river of grass

Tired sign and map

Looking north on a canal road paralleling Krome Ave

Nether camping along the canals

View from the tent

On Thursday, January 12th we started out in a soupy wet fog that added a bit of surrealism to the morning. We pedaled past banana plantations and all sorts of produce.  Fields full of local workers harvesting were frequent. About 8 miles in to the day we came to a dead end at some sort of pump station with another canal flowing off to the right. A true dead end, unless we were to ford the water. Luckily, at the pump station were two nice fellows that informed us that the whole station had just been built 3 months ago and was not on any map. They were kind enough to open some chain link gates for us and we were able to ride on through! Thanks guys! We came out on the highway 9336, which is the main road into the Everglades National Park. From here we decided to head into the Florida City area where we took a quick break at Robert Is Here Fruit/Vegetable Stand/Petting Zoo for a key lime milkshake.

Residual morning fog drifting across a banana plantation

Our temporary dead end

Fun place to check out

Our quiet days on the canal roads ended. We were now on our way to the Keys on some of the busiest roads we have been on in Florida.  It was a long slog out to Key Largo and once there we found it to be rather scruffy and tired. There had been some effort to create a bike path paralleling the highway but it had since been paved over in a sea of asphalt, sand and ill-placed electric poles. Motorists seemed to blaze around in every which way and there were so many businesses and associated parking areas that it was just an all out free for all. That night we stealth/wild/free camped in a deeply wooded spot on  Key Largo.

Staying on schedule to meet up with family in Key West on Saturday meant we needed to ride on Friday Jan 13. Typically, we try to avoid riding on Fridays  if we can help it due to heavier traffic and distracted drivers.  We continued down US 1 with its occasional, separate bike paths, poor bike path signage and heavy traffic. Often we spent more time crossing the road back and forth trying to piece together short stretches of bike path than it took to just stay on the right side of the road.  This stretch was not as fun as we had thought it would be. A lot of traffic for sure. As we approached the  Bahia Honda  area we crossed Seven Mile Bridge. After a very close encounter with a pick-up truck that crossed the white line prior to passing us it was hard to enjoy any more of the ride. This was lowest day on the trip. High speed traffic and no where to go is a bad mix. We will never ride this route again now that we have finished it and, honestly, would not encourage anyone to make this ride to Key West during the peak tourist season.

Approaching Key Largo

Plenty of bridge crossing on the way to the Keys

One of the many short stretches of bike lane on a non-motorized bridge

Looks like they have it covered - now just to connect it all

Giant!

A nice stretch with relief from the traffic

Peering out at a rest stop

We spent one more night camped in the woods on Spanish Harbor Key where we were visited by a small rat that seemed to have no fear of us. We started to wonder if we set up our tent on top of his hole? We think he had a rough night although he did manage to chew a hole through our tent while we were sleeping. He didn’t seem to come in or eat anything. The next morning we woke up early and finished up the last bit of  riding into Key West. We stopped in Siesta Key for breakfast at The Broken Egg. Once full of calories and coffee we pushed on slowly into Key West. A seafood festival was going on so we sat on the out skirts and just watched all the people. A lot of them probably passed us somewhere along the route.  That afternoon, we met up with our family who traveled down from up north to see and spend time with us!

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One Response to “South Florida – Lake Okeechobee on down to the Keys”

  1. 1 Frank Zangara

    Wow. Thats alot to take in. As usual, great pictures. You guys are doing great. My big question is….whats next?

    Stay safe

    Bike cop


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