Weekend Backpacker: Orlando
Sitting along the far southern shore of one of the state's largest lakes, Lake Kissimmee State Park offers an unusual degree of diversity in its plant and bird communities. Sawgrass savannas edge the lakes; hammocks rise out of a wiregrass prairie once used to graze herds of cattle for the Confederacy. Delicate butterfly orchids drip off ancient live oaks, gnarled and bent, decorated with a green coating of resurrection fern; bromeliads cling to turkey oaks.
Birding is big here, with more than 200 species passing through the park. Keen-eyed birders have caught the Florida scrub jay, whooping cranes, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes. It's not uncommon to come across a gray fox, or to flush a few wild turkey out of the underbrush. White-tailed deer graze in the meadows. Along the canals, alligators and red-eared sliders sun themselves in the grass.
To enjoy an overnight backpacking trip, aim for one of the two primitive campsites along the Buster Island Loop Trail. There are three major trails in the park, which you can string together for 18 miles or so of hiking the Buster Island Loop is 6.4 miles, and the campsites sit under the shade of fern-covered live oaks.
From Orlando: Follow I-4 west to Haines City. Head south on US 27 to SR 60 at Lake Wales; follow SR 60 west about 15 miles. Watch for signs. After you pass through Hesperides, turn left on Boy Scout Camp Rd; turn right at the"T." The park entrance is about six miles down the road on the right. Driving time: 1.5 hours.
Check in at the ranger station to let them know you want to use the primitive camping area. State park day-use fee applies.
Simple trail maps are available from the ranger station. You can order a detailed map, WC-7 Lake Kissimmee State Park Trail, through the Florida Trail Association; visit their Web site for an order form.
This park is a popular fishing destination and has a small camp store near the canal put-in. An observation tower allows you to look out over the lowlands to Lake Kissimmee. On weekends, the park hosts a unique bit of living history the 1876 Cow Camp, where the so-called Cracker cowmen from the postCivil War period delight in presenting a little slice of what life was like herding cows on the Florida prairie. [Though today the term "cracker" carries unavoidable racist connotations, it was at one time a purely descriptive term applied to some early Florida settlers. Ed.]
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication