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 Florida 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 year, during the last full week of February, 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 takes nine days to cross 140 miles across Florida from Bradenton to Fort Pierce.
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
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 fighting to save this old house. Here’s a bit of history about it.
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 Highlands Hammock State Park
One of Florida’s original four state parks, Highlands 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, Highlands Hammocks is a great place to spend some time.
Stop #5 Zolfo Springs and the Florida Cracker Trail Museum
The Florida 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 scenic 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.
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 Historic State 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.
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.
Resources for a trip down the Florida Cracker Trail
- Henscratch Farms
- Florida Rambler on Highlands Hammock State Park
- Highlands Hammock State Park official website
- Paynes Creek Historic State Park
- The Cracker Trail Museum
- Every winter, horseriders retrace the cross-state cattle drive along the Cracker Trail. Florida Cracker Trail Ride Facebook page
Historic hotels near Sebring, Lake Placid and Avon Park:
This region has several historic hotels and inns. Here are three we like:
- The Seminole Inn in Indiantown might be on your route if you’re coming from South Florida. It’s a great place for a fried-green-tomato-and-bacon sandwich in an historic hotel.
- The 1926 Jacaranda Hotel in Avon Park.
Things to do nearby along the Lake Wales Ridge
· Bok Tower Gardens: Beautiful oasis atop Florida ‘mountain’
· Lake Wales Ridge State Forest for hiking, camping, exploring
· Kayaking Arbuckle Creek, unexpected wild beauty at a bombing range
· Lake Kissimmee State Park: Where Old Florida lives on
· Tiger Creek Preserve: Nature Conservancy preserve hikers’ heaven
· Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: Camp under starry dark skies
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.