Amateur astronomers love this place in the heart of Florida’s cow country. So do photographers. Must be its star power.
With 54,000 acres of wide-open prairie almost 30 miles from the nearest town, suburban light pollution does not exist, making the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve one of only a few accessible destinations in Florida for stargazing.
There is a catch: Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park closes at sunset.
If you want to observe the twinkling night sky, camping here is your best option. There are three campgrounds: a family campground, another for equestrians, and a restricted area for astronomers known as the “red light district” with five tent sites. There are also three primitive sites along trails for backpackers.
Not a camper?
We met a couple from Tampa who booked a campsite solely for the purpose of photographing the night sky. They were staying in a motel 25 miles away, but reserving a campsite was their only option to obtain the entrance gate combination for nighttime access.
After-hours permits are available but limited to holders of a Florida State Parks Family Annual Pass ($120), who must still obtain a permit in advance from the park office. Card-carrying Friends of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve may also be allowed entrance after dark by calling ahead, according to a ranger we talked to.
In the alternative, the Vero Beach-based Treasure Coast Astronomy Club sponsors outings to the preserve and other locations for night viewing.
Sunrise and sunsets are also an amazing sight above the endless sea of prairie grass, occasionally dotted with shady hammocks of live oak, cypress and sabal palms.
But this spectacular park is not just for astronomy buffs.
Bird lovers flock here to photograph the rare and endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow or pay homage to the extinct Carolina parakeet, the only parrot species native to the southeastern United States whose last known nesting site was on this prairie.
“As with all locations, you need to pack your patience,” says photographer Dick Scott, who visits the prairie often from his home in Tampa. “There is always something to photograph, but you sometimes have to look for it. If you went to KPPSP for night photography, and the clouds roll in, practice some light painting.”
The colorful Crested Caracara is a big attraction for bird lovers, and you may spot a burrowing owl, Redwing blackbird and seasonal visits of the the swallow-tailed kite and rare white-tailed kite.
“When you are walking the wildlife trails, be very quiet and look carefully and you’ll find many hidden treasures. From tiny flowers to all kinds of insects and small creatures,” Scott said.
“Look at everything, and you’ll come up with some amazing pictures.”
The preserve boasts the most butterfly diversity of any state park in Florida, a broad range of resident and migratory butterflies.
Spring and fall bring bursts of wildflowers throughout the preserve.
Visitors can obtain field guides for plants, butterflies and birds at the ranger station, or download them online from the Friends of the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve’s web site, kissimmeeprairiefriends.org.
You can also sign up for a Spring Wildflower Walk on April 27 on the Friends’ web site. Space is limited, so you’ll need to register ahead of time.
If you go it alone into this wilderness, it’s always a good idea to stop by the ranger station for trail maps, prairie conditions and warnings.
Best time to visit? For night-sky photography and stargazing, shoot for the new moon, when the sky is at its darkest.
Bring shade. A wide-brimmed hat if you’re hiking, riding a bike or a horse. A pop-up canopy is a good idea if you’re setting up for a day of photography while quietly waiting for the wildlife to come to you.
Wear boots if you are venturing off onto the 100-plus miles of multi-use trails for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians. Many trails go deep into what is technically a “dry” prairie but laced with wetlands and standing water at any time of year. During the summer wet season, even “dry” prairie gets soaked.
All this water feeds an abundance of prairie grass, tree hammocks and wildflowers before draining off into the nearby Kissimmee River and its tributaries, through Lake Okeechobee and eventually through the Everglades, taking a year for its slow flow to Florida Bay.
While the preserve’s park roads offers miles of excellent bicycling, most of the off-road multi-use trails are sandy and, being shared with horses, can sometimes see a lot of churn, a challenge to all but the most experienced off-roaders.
Bicycle rentals are available at the park office for $2 per hour, $6 for 4 hours.
Our visit to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve
We had no idea what to expect when I made a reservation for a campsite at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, other than our anticipation for diving deep into cattle ranch territory and viewing the night sky.
I didn’t even know about this place until I saw a sign pointing to it on an earlier ramble along U.S. 441. I made a point to return on another day, and that day came in early March, a few days before the new moon, prime time for stargazing.
As it turned out, the stars that night were partially obscured by cloud cover, but my disappointment was tempered by the dramatic prairie views and a sense of being alone in the middle of nowhere.
Little did I know how far the preserve was from that simple sign on a remote stretch of U.S. 441, about halfway between the city of Okeechobee and Yeehaw Junction.
You have to drive 22 miles east through a procession of cattle ranches, and when you finally reach the main park gate, you’ll still have to drive another five lonely miles on a shell-rock road through the prairie to the ranger station and campgrounds.
Camping in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve
The three main campgrounds are clustered around the ranger station and include 16 RV/tent sites in the family campground, 14 equestrian sites for RVs with unshaded paddocks for the horses, and five astronomy pads for tents only.
All of the sites in the family and equestrian campgrounds have water, electric, fire ring and a picnic table. Firewood is available at a lean-to in the campground for $7 a bundle. Proceeds support the work of the Friends of the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.
The astronomy pads are a restricted space known as the “red light district,” where only red spectrum lights are permitted after dark so as not to interfere with telescopes or photography.
Interestingly, the red-light theme seems to carry into the family campground, where RVs and tenters voluntarily follow the protocol.
Despite being in the middle of an open prairie, the family and equestrian campgrounds are quite shady, harbored in a large hammock of live oaks and sabal palmetto, Florida’s state tree and popularly known as the cabbage palm.
All are reservable up to 11 months in advance online at ReserveAmerica.com or by phone, (800) 326-3521. Sites are $16 per night plus tax and a $6.70 booking fee.
Florida State Parks
Friends of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve
Treasure Coast Astronomy Society
Where cowboys once roamed