Last updated on January 9th, 2017 at 08:38 am
Driving up the east side of Lake Okeechobee, we passed dozens of run-down fishing camps on U.S. 98 after leaving the serene Dupuis Wildlife Management Area near Port Mayaka.
The east side of Lake Okeechobee doesn’t have much to offer except shabby-looking fishing camps along the lake’s rim canal, so it was with some relief when we arrived at the well-groomed Okeechobee KOA in Okeechobee.
Long an agricultural and ranching center with one foot in the door of fishing tourism, Okeechobee is emerging from its shell.
This winter, the town was host to 35,000 people attending the three-day Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, and they promise to return next year. Meanwhile, conservationist and artist Guy Harvey will soon be putting down roots for his Guy Harvey Outpost RV Resort, Marina and Restaurant at Okee-Tantie.
As for places to stay right now, the Okeechobee KOA is a bright spot on the trail around the north side of the lake.
Okeechobee KOA: Fishing is the mission
With 750 campsites with full hookups, the Okeechobee KOA is the largest KOA in the country, sitting on 117 manicured acres with its own nine-hole golf course, driving range and putting greens.
A small city within a city with resort amenities: two swimming pools, tennis courts, a fitness center, lunch cafe, a large convention center and a tiki bar overlooking a small lake.
There’s plenty of room to ride your bicycle, and you can even escape the campground and, less than a half-mile away, ramp up on the Okeechobee Scenic Trail, which encircles the lake atop the dike maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
My wife and I are between travel trailers, so we opted for a Deluxe Cabin with a bathroom for $110 per night, a notch above the bare-bones $68/night Kamping Kabin you find at KOA’s around the country.
For RV sites, rates vary based on amenities, such as a large waterfront patio site. The basic 2016 rate for an RV site ranges from $54.25-$77.25. A deluxe pull-through patio site goes for $60.25, all with full hookups. Discounts are available for longer stays. Tent sites are $36.25-$40, including electric.
Even though we usually go for more woodsy, natural environments, we thoroughly enjoyed the campground and spent the evening sitting outside on our patio enjoying a cool breeze and people-watching, as well as the nearby opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Things to Do Near Okeechobee KOA
Jaycee Park: Fishing, Boating, Kayaks, Hiking, Biking, Birding — You don’t have to travel far to find the glory of nature spread out before you with beautiful views of Lake Okeechobee. Jaycee Park is a quarter-mile away, straddling the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the lake.
From here, you can access the multi-use Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail for bicycling, hiking, skateboarding and roller skating.
Or you can trot out to the end of the 400-foot fishing pier, a platform popular with both fishers and bird watchers, who scan the grassy wetlands before them for rare and exotic species of birds. Here’s the ebird.org checklist with 146 species spotted here since 1990.
As for fish, the lake is home to more than 40 species, but it is known far and wide for its world class large-mouth bass.
At the west end of the park is a sandy beach area, parking and a busy boat ramp. You can launch your kayak or canoe anywhere along the shore, although it may be easiest to break through grass near the ramp.
Keep in mind that lake levels are carefully managed, and during droughts, this area can go bone-dry.
When I visited, the lake was the highest it’s been in years.
Okee-Tantie Recreation Area — This 112-acre park and marina at the mouth of the Kissimmee River is undergoing a major facelift under the guidance of artist and conservationist Guy Harvey.
The Guy Harvey Outpost Resort will include 370 new RV pads, 60 cabins, a renovated restaurant and marina bar, a new 75-slip boat barn and a new 40-slip floating dock, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Meantime, the popular boat launch and marina continues to be a hot spot for boaters setting out onto Lake Okeechobee for a day of fishing, or heading north through a lock into the upper Kissimmee River.
The Kissimmee River is the primary waterway that feeds the lake, and visitors to Okee-Tantie benefit from an unobstructed view of the lake.
The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail detours across the U.S. 78 bridge at Okee-Tantie, and the park provides excellent access to the trail for bicycles and hikers.
The four-mile segment of the trail from Okee-Tantie to Jaycee Park (or vice versa) is a popular and scenic stretch easily managed by bicyclists.
Across State Road 78 is another county park, the C . Scott Driver Recreation Area, which also has very nice boat ramps and an enclosed pavilion that serves as the base for bass tournaments on the lake.
Birders flock to Okee-Tantie and the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail for viewing opportunities. According to ebird.org, 111 species of birds have been identified at Okee-Lantie,
Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) — Some of the best views of the Lake Okeechobee can be found along the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail right here on the north side of the lake.
The 110-mile trail, which circles the 750 square-mile lake, is popular with hikers and bicyclists.
Much of the trail on the southern half of the lake is closed as the Corps of Engineers beefs up the dike, but the trail is wide open on the north side near the Okeechobee KOA.
Take a ride: This is cow country — The city of Okeechobee is the anchor community of a cattle region that ranges far and wide to the north and east.
Take an afternoon to drive or cruise on your motorcycle along State Road 70 (east) or U.S. 441 (north) and explore the wide-open prairies that support ranches, large and small, that sprawl to the horizon dotted with all breeds of cattle.
Or scoot over to the east side of the lake to discover the road that time forgot, the Martin Highway, a 12-mile stretch of Martin County Road 714 shaded by hundred-year-old oaks framed by pastures, citrus groves, swamps and woods.
The Martin Highway, known locally as the Martin Grade, is a designated Florida Scenic Highway.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.