Central Florida / Historic / Road Trips

Scenic roads: A drive in Old Florida cow country

Cabin at Florida Cracker Trail Museum, Zolfo Springs

1879 John Hart cabin at the Florida Cracker Trail Museum, Zolfo Springs

Biking through Highland Hammocks State Park

Biking through Highland Hammocks State Park

The big oak at Highland Hammocks State Park

The big oak at Highland Hammocks State Park

Away from the beaches and high rises, there’s an off-the-beaten-track two-lane road through Florida’s historic cow country. Called the Cracker Trail, it offers subtle beauty and little-known history as it links Bradenton on the Gulf Coast to Fort Pierce on the Atlantic.

Each winter, dozens of people on horseback and covered wagons take the Cracker Trail in a re-creation of the life of Florida’s cow hunters, pioneers of the late 1800s. The ride is held the last full week of February each year. Photos from previous rides show what a colorful event it is.

You can take the Cracker Trail in your car any time, however. If you add in a few stops along the way, as we did on a recent ride, it makes a great day of exploring parts of Florida even long-term residents rarely see.

The Cracker Trail is a horizontal line across the state: SR 68 heading west from Fort Pierce to US 98 across the center of the state to SR 64 into Bradenton.

My experience with the trail is the central section of US 98, where I recommend several stops. You don’t have to do them all; some are mere “pull over and look around for 10 minutes” stops.

Stop #1 Take a hike

The Cracker Trail passes picturesque scenes of cattle in fields and  ranches with old houses dwarfed by ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss.  Signs mark several hiking trailheads and roads into hammocks and marshes with colorful names. (Boney Marsh, for example, is named for the pioneer Boney family, whose descendants still live nearby.)   Watch for sandhill cranes in the fields.

We stopped at a trail near the Kissimmee River and walked through pasture lands and under oak trees, meeting some very large and intimidating cows. As city folks, we weren’t sure if we should be afraid or not. (Well, we were anyway.)

Stop #2 “Ghost town” on the Kissimmee River

Pierce House along Florida Cracker Trail

One of the historic cottages on the grounds of the Pearce Lockett estate along the Kissimmee.

Fort Basinger historic landmark sign

Except for the sign, Fort Basinger is gone without a trace.

Stop on the west side of the Kissimmee River and take in the historic Fort Basinger and Lockett estate.  Fort Basinger was on the east side of the river, and there’s no trace of it now. It was settled after the Civil War, a cowboy community that had hotels, stores and a post office into the early 1900s. Its heyday was when steam ships traveled the Kissimmee River and stopped here.

The evocative 120-year-old Lockett estate on the west side was home to the pioneer Pearce family, which originated with an 1870s cattleman and steamboat captain, John Mizell Pearce. Three generations lived in this grand old house, with the last being a colorful woman named Edna Pearce Lockett, a life-long rancher and the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature, in 1949.

The estate isn’t open to the public now, but you can walk along the river and admire it and its colorful out buildings, which include the pioneer school where Edna taught. Historic preservationists are losing the battle to save this old house. Here’s a complete story on its plight from Highland Today newspaper.

Henscratch Farms Vineyard

Henscratch Farms Vineyard

Rooster at Henscratch Farms Vineyard, Lake Placid, Florida

Rooster at Henscratch Farms

Fresh eggs at Henscratch Farms Vineyard, Lake Placid, Florida

Fresh eggs at Henscratch Farms include a lovely green-tinted variety

Stop #3 Henscratch Farms

It’s worth taking a three-mile side trip to Henscratch Farms, a charming little Southern-style vineyard and winery.   The wines are sweet “country” style wine from native muscadine and scuppernong grapes, and may not appeal to sophisticated wine drinkers. But it’s worth having a taste and enjoying the farm’s ambiance.

We loved the friendly hens and roosters — Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks — that wander the farm, where you can also say hello to a pig and, depending on the season, pick strawberries from hydroponic towers. Strawberries are available December to April; blueberry season is April and May.

Stop #4 Highland Hammock State Park

One of Florida’s original four state parks, Highland Hammock State Park is four miles off the road and worth exploring. It preserves many old-growth live oak trees, which over the years acquire huge warty, personality-filled trunks and twisty branches.

The park has many short hikes, including the wild Orange Grove trail, site of a pioneer’s grove, now a forest in which orange trees are interspersed. When the trees are in bloom, they fill the forest with their scent. Another great walk: An elevated boardwalk through an old-growth cypress swamp.

We bicycled the three-mile loop drive and also enjoyed the small museum devoted to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built many of the park’s original buildings.

If you’re a camper, Highland Hammocks is a great place to spend some time.

Stop #5 Zolfo Springs and the Cracker Trail Museum

The Cracker Trail Museum is a collection of old buildings from around Hardee County — a cabin, an old blacksmith’s shop, a 1914 wood-burning locomotive, two old buggies. There’s a museum, which was closed when we visited. It’s part of Pioneer Park on the Peace River, which offers camping, boat ramps and picnic areas. The museum is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Across the street is a rustic country cafe called Pioneer Restaurant. It looks like the sort of place we love to explore and comments on Yelp make me wish we hadn’t packed a picnic and passed it up. If you check out this down-home diner, let me know.

Suspension bridge at Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Suspension bridge at Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Stop #6 Paynes Creek Historic State Park

A few miles north of the Cracker Trail is a quiet park so far off the beaten path that you won’t have to share it with many others.  Paynes Creek Park marks the site of a fort from the Seminole War era. (Don’t be put off, but the fort was abandoned because of the disease carrying mosquitos.)

The park preserves lovely little Paynes’ Creek, which flows into the Peace River. It’s fun to walk across the bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest.

Historic monument at Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Historic monument at Paynes Creek Historic State Park

The historic part of the park is a monument placed in 1895 to commemorate the deaths of two settlers at the hands of Seminole Indians.  A small well-done museum tells the story well: Basically, it was a convenience store robbery of its days. A few renegade Seminoles killed the settlers manning the trading post. Unfortunately, despite the Seminole’s tribe’s attempt to make amends — they turned in the offenders to authorities — the incident became a way to rationalize efforts to eject the Indians from Florida.

Payne’s Creek Park has many lovely hiking trails; on one, we watched a red-shouldered hawk swoop down on a snake and then struggle to fly off with the heavy load.

Cracker Trail map courtesy of CrackerTrail.org

Cracker Trail map courtesy of CrackerTrail.org

Resources:

Historic hotels near Sebring, Lake Placid and Avon Park:

This region has several historic hotels and inns. Here are three we like:

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8 Comments

  1. OFS Guy says:

    Took most of this drive with my wife and youngest son today. We started in Ft. Pierce and got as far as Zolfo Springs. It was a great drive and little traffic. We hiked the Cypress trail at Highlands Hammock. Amazing hike. The water is way up and the boardwalk was more of a bridge and extremely scenic. The CCC Museum was one of the best laid out museums I’ve been in. My father had been in the CCC and I learned much about what he probably went through (albeit in Ohio).

    The Cracker Museum at Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs was open and is jam packed with local history. I was particularly pleased to find that the original state motto of Florida was “Let us alone.”

    Lunch across the street at the Pioneer Restaurant was interesting. NOTE: THEY DO NOT TAKE CREDIT CARDS. The local ranchers and grove owners pack the place and make non-locals feel at home. Lunch was southern and Floridian. My son had deep fat fried quail and my wife and had fried mullet. The lunch vegetables were typical and included grits and peach cobbler, but lacked macaroni and cheese. The deserts looked good, but we were full.

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  4. Jeannine says:

    How many days should be planned for this? Can it be done in a weekend? Thanks for posting this-sounds like so much fun, can’t wait to plan for the family.

    • Hi Jeannine,
      We did this drive in an afternoon as we crossed the state on another mission altogether, but that time we didn’t stop at Highland Hammocks State Park, which I do recommend.

      I’d say this is one full day unless you want to take longer hikes. It’s 150 miles from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. (Google says it’s 3 hours and 10 minutes.)

      If I were planning this trip, I’d try to reserve a cabin at Myakka River State Park, which is right along the route, and a wonderful state park.

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  7. This intrigues me to visit a part of Florida I’d always missed. Great post and good information!

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