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Exploring the Lake Wales Ridge: Central ‘highlands’ with old-fashioned flavor

Last updated on November 19th, 2020 at 02:42 pm

View along Tiger Creek Preserve Trail on the Lake Wales Ridge

Tiger Creek Preserve along the Lake Wales Ridge: How Florida used to look.  (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When folks say Central Florida, what comes to mind? Orlando, Disney, theme parks?

There is another Central Florida and it makes a delightful discovery: the Lake Wales Ridge.

Like a spine up the middle of the state, the Lake Wales Ridge is a 150-mile-long stretch of higher ground, extending from Clermont on the north to Lake Placid on the south.

How high is the ridge? The highest point is Sugarloaf Mountain near Clermont at 312 feet, so, no, you won’t need to worry about climbing any peaks.

This barred owl at Arbuckle Creek swiveled his head to follow us as we paddled under his tree. The river is located along the Lake Wales Ridge.

Barred owl at Arbuckle Creek swiveled his head to follow us as we paddled by on a visit to the Lake Wales Ridge region. (Photo: David Blasco)

But you will be enjoying some of the most beautiful rolling hills, forests, streams and quaint small towns that Florida has to offer. And it’s all within two or three hours of urban South Florida, Tampa and Orlando. The Lake Wales Ridge is, in fact, the geographic center of Florida.

The Lakes Wales Ridge is a suprisingly special environment. Several million years ago, when most of Florida was underwater, the ridge was an island where plants and animals continued to evolve in isolation. (Someday, if sea levels rise, it again will be the part of Florida that pokes out of the sea.)

Some of those ancient plants are still found in the Lake Wales Ridge area, and that’s why there are 40 species of endangered and threatened plants and animals that survive in the dry, sandy terrain of the Lake Wales Ridge.

For those who want to explore the Lake Wales Ridge, there are a number of parks and preserves. It is a terrific place to hike, kayak or canoe, camp and enjoy small towns with an Old Florida atmosphere.

View of Palmetto frond at Tiger Creek Preserve Trail along the Lake Wales Ridge.

Palmetto frond at Tiger Creek Preserve Trail along the Lake Wales Ridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Here are some highlights of the region:

Tiger Creek Preserve for top hiking on Lake Wales Ridge

The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve is one of several good hiking locations on the Lake Wales Ridge, but is less known than the state parks. It’s on the east side of the ridge and the Nature Conservancy preserves it because it holds “one of the highest concentrations of threatened and endangered plants and animals in the country.” Located about five miles north of Frostproof, Tiger Creek Preserve is 4,869 acres with about 10 miles of trails.  There are no restrooms, no water and no picnic tables, but the trails are well-marked. Admission is free. Florida Rambler on Tiger Creek Preserve.

Tiger Creek Preserve
674 Pfundstein Road
Babson Park
(863) 635-7506
Phone: (863) 635-7506

Highland Hammocks State Park, Lake Placid

Cypress Swamp Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring along the Lake Wales Ridge.

Cypress Swamp Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring along the Lake Wales Ridge. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Old-growth live oaks dripping with air plants and Spanish moss dominate the landscape throughout much of the 9,000-acre Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida’s original state parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. This park along the Lake Wales Ridge has a good loop for bicycling, many hiking trails, a CCC museum, tram tours and a great campground. Florida Rambler on Highland Hammocks State Park.
5931 Hammock Rd, Sebring
(863) 386-6094

Lake June in Winter State Park, Lake Placid

From Highlands Hammock’s sister park, Lake June In the Winter, is a 20-minute drive away. Additional hiking opportunities are available, although these trails are not as shaded as those in Highlands Hammocks. In fact, they call the lake’s sand scrub habitat “Florida’s desert,” and not without cause. In addition to trails, you can carry your kayak or canoe lakeside and enjoy excellent fishing or just a pleasant paddle. Outside the park, there are several public boat ramps.

Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park
Daffodil Road
Lake Placid
(863) 386-6094

Lake Kissimmee State Park Cow Camp entrance along Lake Wales Ridge

Lake Kissimmee State Park Cow Camp entrance, along the Lake Wales Ridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Explore Lake Wales Ridge at Lake Kissimmee State Park, Lake Wales

This big, beautiful park is full of history and wildlife. It has 13 miles of excellent hiking trails, birding, kayaking, fishing, camping. In addition, it is home to an entertaining and interesting living history exhibit on weekends, when a Cracker cowboy takes up residence at a recreated 1876-era cow camp. Wildlife, from deer to alligators to sandhill cranes to eagles, is abundant.
Florida Rambler on Lake Kissimmee State Park.
14248 Camp Mack Rd, Lake Wales
(863) 696-1112

Launch site for Arbuckle Creek near Avon Park along the Lake Wales Ridge.

Launch site for Arbuckle Creek near Avon Park along the Lake Wales Ridge (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking Arbuckle Creek, near Avon Park

Arbuckle Creek is a gorgeous wild river through an ancient cypress forest. It is full of wildlife and magnificent scenery. The river forms the border of the Avon Park Airforce Range, so it escaped development and remains quiet and pristine. The river flows into Lake Arbuckle, on whose shores there are campsites and a state forest. Florida Rambler on kayaking Arbuckle Creek.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is for explorers – folks who like to find places that aren’t in the guidebooks. Here you can hike for miles in the woods, hear only nature and have a chance to spot wildlife, including bear, bald eagles and endangered scrub jays. Its proximity to the vast and occasionally used Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range adds to its remoteness and gives wildlife room to roam.

The Lake Wales Ridge State Forest forest hugs the west side of Lake Arbuckle and adjoins a great little out-of-the-way county campground on Lake Arbuckle, a lake that’s a favorite among bass fishermen. Florida Rambler on Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

Bok Tower and Gardens on the Lake Wales Ridge is actually on hilltop.

Bok Tower and Gardens on the Lake Wales Ridge is actually on hilltop.

Bok Tower Gardens on the Lake Wales ridge

High atop Iron Mountain (the altitude is a whopping 298 feet above sea level), this place is a Florida treasure on the National Register of Historic Place, with colorful gardens and a beautiful bell tower that plays concerts. It was founded by Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who was a famous author and successful magazine publisher. There is much to see here, from scenic trails to touring the 20-room Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estate. Tickets $14 general admission; $20 with the Pinewood Estate tour.
Bok Tower Gardens
1151 Tower Blvd,
Lake Wales

Lobby, historic Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park, a small town along the Lake Wales Ridge.

Lobby of historic Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park, a small town along the Lake Wales Ridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Small towns of the Lake Wales Ridge

Several small towns — Sebring, Avon Park, Lake Placid, Lake Wales — sit atop the ridge along US 27. They were settled in the early part of the 20th Century, when men first began exploiting the potential of developing Florida real estate. The country roads around here are scenic, often overlooking small lakes, winding through citrus groves and attracting minimal traffic. All that makes the area popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists too.

Here are some points of interest:

  • Sebring is best known for its racetrack, which hosts the 12 Hours of Sebring, a sports car endurance event.

    Henscratch Farms Vineyard along Lake Wales Ridge.

    Henscratch Farms Vineyard along the Lake Wales Ridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

  • Lake Placid is a town of murals, with 50 murals painted on buildings. Nearby, it’s worth stopping at  Henscratch Farms and Winery, a funky country winery with free range chickens.
  • Avon Park has a historic downtown, where you can stay in what was the grand hotel of its day, the 1926 Avon Park Hotel Jacaranda. It’s a classic place to dine, too, especially during the holiday season, when the historic lobby is decorated in vintage style. Right off Main Street is the Avon Park Depot Museum, with a restored 1948 railroad dining car. Also in Avon Park, visitors gather on rocking chairs and enjoy the legendary orange ice cream at an old fashioned general store and farmer’s market, Maxwell Groves. The place has been there for 80 years, and it looks it.

Camping and accommodations along Lake Wales Ridge

There are excellent campgrounds at Highland Hammocks State Park,  Lake Kissimmee State Park and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.

There is an attractive little-known county campground located on the northern end of Lake Arbuckle next to the state forest . It’s close to Tiger Creek Preserve and adjoins the state forest. It has a picnic shelter and tables, restrooms and a boat ramp. The camping sites are widely spaced and shaded, some overlooking the lake. Rates for RVs are $23 per night for up to four persons with electric and water. Tents with up to four persons (without electric and water hookup) are $10.

Lake Arbuckle County Campground
2600 Lake Arbuckle Road
Frostproof, Fl 33843

Within the state forest, there are several areas designated for primitive camping. You need to bring water and register in advance.

For camping permits, visit the forest office:

Florida Forest Service
851 County Road 630 East
Frostproof, FL 33843
863/ 635-8589

There are primitive campgrounds within Avon Park Air Force Range.

There are a variety of lodges and hotels in the towns, ranging from the historic Hotel Jacaranda in  Avon Park to  a fishing-themed motel Camp Mack right outside the entrance to Lake Kissimmee State Park and a dude ranch nearby, Westgate River Ranch.

From the Editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

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