Florida is pretty synonymous with the beach, and with good reason: the state boasts 1,350 miles of sandy coastline. But if you're looking for the authentic Florida experience, take a trip inland to explore the cypress swamps, stands of mangroves, citrus groves, and rugged, grassy cattle lands of Old Florida. The Ocean to Lake Trail cuts through inland Florida, from the beaches of Hobe Sound through the pristine, virtually untouched Florida landscapes until it ends at the lush Lake Okeechobee. Along the way, experience hiking, stargazing, camping, boating, and other adventures!
Jonathan Dickinson State Park is a true Florida gem. Whether you're camping out and spending a full weekend exploring, or just stopping by for a day, it's a must-visit when in the area. Paved and off-road trails, boat and paddle board rentals (honestly, nothing beats paddling through a Florida swamp on an excursion), developed campgrounds, the view from atop Hobe Tower, guided tours and an Environmental Education and Research Center mean you won't need to suffer a single moment of downtime on a visit here (if you don't want to, that is!) The park is home to a bevy of unique wildlife, including wild hogs, deer, alligators, and armadillos, as well. The most unique feature here is the guided tour of Trapper Nelson's Cabin. Trapper Nelson was a local staple throughout the 1930s and 1940s, running a small zoo of exotic animals. When he died in the 1960s, his cabin was added to the park... and rangers eventually found that he had hidden treasure in the chimney! Explore for yourself and see if you can't dig up some more history here.
Just to the northeast of Jonathan Dickinson State Park is the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Here, you'll see the sand pine scrub and mangrove stands from the park slowly morph into actual beach. It's hard to believe, but roughly 90% of the sand pine scrub that once existed in Florida has been lost to development, so the refuge plays an important role in preserving land. Because it's undeveloped, the beach here almost feels like a secret beach. The Hobe Sound Nature Center is also a great stop while here. It offers displays and exhibits, as well as events and presentations, all dedicated to educating the public on the preservation of this ecosystem. If you're visiting between late May to mid-July, make sure to reserve a spot on one of the nighttime sea turtle walks, where you can actually witness endangered loggerhead sea turtles laying eggs.
Before heading inland, make one last stop on the coast, at Hobe Sound Beach. This public beach has lifeguards on duty and features other amenities (showers, picnic tables, bathrooms, ample parking), but is still far enough away from the more developed beaches that it won't be crowded. If you happen to see any turtle trails, remember to not touch!
As you head further inland, you'll start to see the landscape turn into, as the locals put it, cattle and citrus country. Indiantown is a charming rural community that shows off what the "real, authentic" Florida is like, outside the beachy kitsch. The Seminole Inn is the perfect place to immerse yourself in this unique atmosphere. Stay the night in one of the vintage-inspired rooms, or just stop by to grab lunch at the Inn. The inn’s specialty, though, is Sunday brunch. It's an old-school affair, with an omelet bar and mini Belgian waffles, along with a carving station, a hot bar serving fried chicken and all the fixings, fresh fruit, pastries, and a salad bar.
As you make your way closer to the lake, the landscape morphs into remnant Everglades marsh and piney flatwoods. You can explore 21,875 acres of it at the DuPuis Reserve. When you hear people talk about citrus and cattle, this is exactly what they're talking about, as the land was a ranch for Dutch white-belted cattle, sheep, and goats until recently. In addition to 22 miles of hiking trails, there's a visitor center with a butterfly garden and a great equestrian campground. Pro tip: since this area is pretty rural, the reserve offers some great stargazing once the sun sets.
About a mile east of Lake Okeechobee is the Barley Barber Swamp. All that remains of a once-vast Bald Cypress forest and waterway in the Greater Everglades watershed is this 450-acre patch of land, surrounded by Florida Light and Power's power plant. The old-growth cypress swamp is home to bald eagles, American alligators, North American river otters, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and one of the oldest bald cypress trees in the entire Southeastern U.S.; it's estimated to be over 1,000 years old and stands 88 feet tall, with a circumference of 33 feet. There's also a sand mound that was used as a trading site by Native Americans long ago; archaeologists have dug up pottery shards and other remnants. Stroll the raised boardwalk through the jungle-like setting and appreciate the taste of ancient Florida.
Once you reach Lake Okeechobee, you might want to set up camp and enjoy the lake for a bit. J & S Fish Camp is a great home base. They have sites for RVs and tents as well as cottages for rent, or you can simply stop by here to grab a cold drink at the tiki bar. You can rent boats at the marina as well, since Okeechobee is best experienced from the water. The lake, which is the second-largest freshwater lake in the contiguous US, offers great fishing, and the folks at J & S will help you make the most of your trip here.
You don't have to rent a boat or get in the water to appreciate Okeechobee, though. The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail encircles the body of water. It's a whopping 109 miles long, but even hiking or biking a small part of it offers a lovely view of the lake. It's free and much of it is paved, making for a nice and relaxing stroll. It passes by some lovely little towns, parks, and camping areas. If you're not sure where to start, head to the Herbert Hoover Dike, built for flood control between the 1930s and 1960s. It's especially pretty at sunrise and sunset!
It's a refreshing change of pace to immerse yourself in the part of Florida that isn't beachside. Lake Okeechobee might be overshadowed by the ocean, but it's a hidden gem worth exploring, and the Ocean to Lake Trail is the best way to do it!
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Natural beaches, shady drives and quaint downtowns are just the beginning of what makes the communities of Martin County unique. From the charm of Stuart and Hobe Sound to the surfing vibe of Jensen Beach to the organic farmlands and rich history of Indiantown, there’s no place like Martin County.