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Lake Kissimmee State Park: Away from it all and back in time

Lake Kissimmee State Park is big, beautiful and full of history and wildlife

Far from cities and crowds, Lake Kissimmee State Park preserves a Florida from 150 years ago, where old live oak trees create cathedral ceilings over trails, deer and turkeys are often seen and Cracker cattle and ponies live in a pioneer cow camp.

Located outside Lake Wales, Lake Kissimmee State Park is two to three hours from the major population centers of South Florida, Orlando and Tampa Bay. There’s not much nearby; the closest Publix is a half hour away over country roads.

The boat launch basin at Lake Kissimmee State Park is one of the scenic spots to sit on a bench and take in the peaceful beauty. It's also popular with fishermen. (Photo: David Blasco)
The boat launch basin at Lake Kissimmee State Park is one of the scenic spots to sit on a bench and take in the peaceful beauty. It’s also popular with fishermen. (Photo: David Blasco)

A big part of the magic of Lake Kissimmee State Park is its vastness (6,000 acres) and its remoteness. It encompasses three lakes — the smaller Lake Rosalie and Tiger Lake plus Kissimmee, Florida’s third-largest lake.

It’s name is misleading; it’s almost two hours from the town of Kissimmee and you’ll have to take a hike to get even a glimpse of the lake.

Lake Kissimmee State Park is home to several Cracker cattle, a hardy breed pioneers raised, who are on display at the 1876 Cow Camp where historic re-enactors are "cow hunters" on weekends in the winter season. This photo was captured by Beverly Matthews Keeter.
Lake Kissimmee State Park is home to several Cracker cattle, a hardy breed pioneers raised. They are on display at the 1876 Cow Camp where historic re-enactors are “cow hunters” on weekends in the fall to spring season. This photo was captured by Beverly Matthews Keeter.

What you will find are these eight good reasons to go to Lake Kissimmee State Park:

  1. One of the most beautiful campgrounds in a Florida State Park.
  2. Miles of hikes through majestic woods and 12 distinct natural communities, full of wildlife.
  3. A fun and Instagram-worthy living history experience on winter weekends at the 1876 Cow Camp.
  4. A challenging kayak trail if you bring your own kayak, and an easy out-and-back if you rent from the concessionaire.
  5. Several miles of paved roads with little traffic that are a pleasure to bicycle.
  6. Two other contrasting camping options: Glamping tents that come with air conditioning, furniture and electricity, as well as two primitive hike-in campsites.
  7. A sprawling shady picnic area with a playground and a tower to climb to peer out over the prairie to catch a peak at Lake Kissimmee.
  8. Thanks to its distance from civilization, the skies are dark at Lake Kissimmee State Park, making it popular for star-gazing. A favorite spot is from the three-story tower near the picnic area.
Hiking at Lake Kissimmee State Park: There are 13 miles of trails. While hiking through the towering live oaks strung with Spanish moss, you might see deer, turkeys, armadillos or gopher tortoises, all of which are commonly seen. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Hiking at Lake Kissimmee State Park: There are 13 miles of trails. While hiking through the towering live oaks strung with Spanish moss, you might see deer, turkeys, armadillos or gopher tortoises. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Hiking at Lake Kissimmee State Park

It’s a pleasure to find a state park where you can have not just one 6- or 7-mile hike, but two.

Our visit was a lesson in adjusting to changing conditions, however. The 6.7 mile Buster Ridge Trail, which is the most popular trail, was closed because of a prescribed burn.

We took the 6-mile Kristen Jacobs Trail, which had beautiful sections and was well-marked. It did have a section that was very muddy, however, where we went off-trail to get around the muck.

A three story tower, reachable along the Gobbler Ridge Trail or from the picnic area, has a sweeping view of the prairie and the distant Lake Kissimmee. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A three story tower, reachable along the Gobbler Ridge Trail or from the picnic area, has a sweeping view of the prairie and the distant Lake Kissimmee. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The 2.8 mile Gobbler Ridge Trail is the only trail that takes you close to Lake Kissimmee. We took this beautiful trail as it passes through the Youth Camp (really nice group camping facility!) and out to the lakefront. High water, however, put the section of trail along the shoreline under water, so we hiked it as an out-and-back rather than a loop. It was lovely, though.

The Lake Kissimmee State Park Cow Camp

Lake Kissimmee State Park Lake Kissimee State Park Cow Camp Lake Kissimmee State Park: Away from it all and back in time
On weekends from October through April at Lake Kissimmee State Park, historic re-enactors demonstrate life in a pioneer cow camp circa 1876. Clockwise from top left: The “cow hunter” shows his worthless Confederate money, the sign at the entrance to the camp, one of the Cracker cattle and, at bottom, a Cracker pony. The sign says “No touching my horse.” But the horse had other ideas.(Photos: Bonnie Gross)

A special feature of the park is its historic recreation of an 1876 cow camp. Rangers and volunteers dress as cow hunters, as these pioneers were called. They keep a campfire burning and talk with visitors about their life.

The cow hunter stays in character as he gives a tour of his campground and answers your questions. He has a wagon outfitted with the necessities of the day and nearby, a herd of Cracker cattle — hardy looking creatures with big Texas-style long horns. They’re descendants of cattle first brought to Florida in the 1500s by the Spanish. They’re fun to observe for city folks, who rarely see cattle up close.

As you walk toward the Lake Kissimmee State Park Cow Camp, this sign helps you prepare. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
As you walk toward the Lake Kissimmee State Park Cow Camp, this sign helps you prepare. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

As we approached, the cow hunter greeted us, calling out: “Are you here to buy cattle or sell ’em?” He’d buy a cow for $10, which fetched $14 when it was driven to Punta Rassa (near Fort Myers) for loading on ships to Cuba. He explained he was paid $1 a day and that his dogs were the secret to finding and herding the cows. He showed us a fist full of Confederate dollars, payment during the Civil War, but worthless now.

Visitors ask questions (“What do you do about mosquitos?”) and try out the rope bed. Some sit on a log and spend some time enjoying the evocative setting.

The cow camp operates October through May 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and most major holidays. Groups should call the ranger station, 863-696-1112, to make arrangements.

Tent camping at Lake Kissimmee State Park near Lake Wales. (Photo: David Blasco)
Our tent at Lake Kissimmee State Park near Lake Wales. All of the sites are spacious, surrounded by vegetation and shaded by trees. (Photo: David Blasco)

Camping at Lake Kissimmee State Park

The campground at Lake Kissimmee State Park is among the best in the state. Located in a forest of large live oaks, every site has shade, vegetation, water and electricity. The sites are large and feel private.

There are 60 sites in two camping loops, each with clean and spacious rest rooms, showers and laundry facilities at the center.

On a February weekend, we were one of a half dozen tent campers. It’s no surprise that northern snowbirds in RVs reserve many of the sites. In years past, it wasn’t hard to book a campsite here. Now, you have to plan weeks or months ahead to get a weekend or several days in a row in the winter.

Shhh! Be warned: While the lake is not nearby, the drone of airboats in the distance does break the solitude and it may continue into the night. When there are airboat races or special events, it can be loud enough that campers should come prepared with ear plugs. (There’s even a Guinness record for most airboats — 592 on Lake Kissimmee on May 25, 2002.)

Camping fee is $20 per night plus a $7 daily utilities fee for RVs, taxes and a one-time $6.70 charge for booking. For reservations, book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 1-800-326-3521.

Primitive camping: Want to really get away? There are two primitive camping sites you reach via a several mile hike. Primitive campsites are available for $5. To reserve a primitive campsite, call the park at 863-696-1112.

Deer along the trail at Lake Kissimmee State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)
Deer along the trail at Lake Kissimmee State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

Lake Kissimmee State Park kayaking and canoeing

For a pleasant paddle, you can rent kayaks or canoes at the park and paddle on the Zipprer Canal toward Lake Rosalie.  Here’s information on boat rentals.

For a challenging 11-mile paddle, try the Buster Loop Trail, which combines three lakes, two creeks and a canal, all in a loop. Here’s our guide to paddling the Buster Loop Trail. 

The "Pioneer (glamping) Tents" at Lake Kissimmee State Park are cute and well located in the campground. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The “Pioneer (glamping) Tents” at Lake Kissimmee State Park are cute and well located in the campground. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Glamping at Lake Kissimmee State Park

Lake Kissimmee does not offer cabins in the park, but there is an alternative to camping — glamping. The luxury tent experience is priced at $120 a night.

The 100-square-foot Pioneer Tents, as they’re called, come equipped with a queen bed, linens, electricity, rugs, chandeliers, a K-cup coffee maker and a heating/cooling unit.

The glamping tents are located in the middle of the each camping loop, with parking a bit of a distance away. The advantage, though, is that the glamping tents are only steps from the restroom facilities and are surrounded by lovely forest and well-separated from the other campsites and the road.

Reservations and glamping info at Lake Kissimmee State Park.

The Gobbler Ridge Trail takes you to the shores of Lake Kissimmee. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Gobbler Ridge Trail takes you to the shores of Lake Kissimmee. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Important information for planning a visit to Lake Kissimmee State Park

Lake Kissimmee State Park
14248 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales FL 33898
863-696-1112

Lake Kissimmee State Park state park website

If you’re not camping, there is a fishing-themed motel right outside the park entrance, Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey lodge.

Map of Lake Kissimmee State Park
Map of Lake Kissimmee State Park

Things to do near Lake Kissimmee State Park:

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