Let’s face it: there are certainly some nice, picturesque places to camp, hike, canoe and whatnot south of Lake Okeechobee, but there are not too many places in south Floridian neck of the woods with big, wise oaks, and peaceful, meandering rivers. As a matter of fact: you can count on one hand the number of rivers there actually are in south Florida. One of these rivers runs from Highlands County, meanders through Glades County and finally empties into Lake Okeechobee: I’m writing of the famed Fisheating Creek (FEC.)
Now, I use the word “famed” in the context of you herpers out there: although many others have certainly enjoyed FEC, herpers have a special connection with the place – a connection we’ll talk a little bit more about later, but I digress. FEC is a deep, tannin-stained creek running through a variety of habitats, though the most abundant of these habitats (at least in the lower reaches) is cypress. The old cypress that borders the creek not only provides for highly enjoyable viewing, but also excellent habitat for wildlife. Because of the long established trees unyielding dominion over the light that might otherwise meet the forest floor, very few exotic plants thrive along the FEC system. In fact, the Creek looks very pristine all in all: and it is, botanically at least.
Invasive species are prevalent, however, when it comes to the animal kingdom: Cuban treefrogs (Osteopilus sp.) are most certainly the most abundant frog, and a plethora of different cichlids dominated the fish samples that I’ve collected there in the past. That said, if you’re an angler, native catfish and bass do abound here, the latter likely even benefit from the cichlids via free food. Don’t get me wrong, FEC is no case study in the “great terrors of exotic species”: other native animals are also abundant. FEC boasts an impressive species list including Florida Panther (Felis concolor coryi,) as well as being one of the half-dozen or so places with a sizeable Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) population in the state.
Though FEC is a state Wildlife Management Area, the campground itself is actually privately owned and bears the name “Fisheating Creek Resort.” Most of the sites in the main area are geared towards RV’s, and there used to be “cabins” as well (our refrigerator in the “small cabin” was an old bait fridge complete with nightcrawler prices, etc.) The cabins, for better or worse, have been removed. But if you’re a tent/primitive camper, make sure you get a site at the “back” of the campground (the north side) – the RV area isn’t anything special but the primitive area is exceptionally beautiful. To get there, you have to drive down a short road passing through some beautiful scrub habitat, a habitat type that is rife with endangered plants and animals. Once passing the scrub you get to the primitive camping area, the whole of the area shaded by big Florida live oaks and sitting right up next to a small (perhaps 1 acre) swimming/fishing hole. The camping area is surrounded by the aforementioned scrub on two sides, the swimming hole on another, and backs up to a serene cow pasture. Fisheating Creek is Florida camping at its finest.
Hiking and Photography
Fisheating Creek is a little bit lacking in trails: but what is there is pretty cool and relatively untrodden. For the best vistas, of course, I’d suggest canoeing or kayaking the creek, but that’s not always an option. For hoofing it, go to the sprawling metropolis of Palmdale, Florida. Take the main road to Palmdale until you get to the last north/south road and take it south where it will dead end at a boat ramp. This is your “trailhead.” The best time to hike this area, for wildlife viewing at least, is at night. That said DO NOT try it without having a GPS (make sure you have extra batteries as well) and marking your beginning point, it is extremely easy to get lost in and amongst the cypress. First, go up on the levee and through the gate. Hike this until it ends: it’s a very short trail (probably a quarter mile when all is said and done) but offers some nice views of the cypress swamp on the opposite side of the creek’s tributary, I once shined a nice bobcat doing this. Also be sure to keep an eye in the water for turtles, snakes, etc. The levee trail ends where this creek tributary meets FEC proper and offers a cool view of the creek with its coffee-brown water.
When finished with the levee trail, go back to the boat ramp and hit the trail that heads west. This is where you’ll need your GPS as the trail is more of a guideline than an actual trail. I often embark into the cypress to the right and stomp around. There’s no trail here but it is very open: there are, however hazards of cypress knees and the numerous spiders that like to build their webs betwixt these knees. When I hiked it one in August, the swamp was full of Cuban treefrogs and caterpillars.
Issues and Mysteries
If you’re a hardcore hiker, FEC with its small number of trails might not be the place for you: but if you don’t mind day-tripping there’s certainly a lot more hikes to the north in Highlands County. There’s not too much by way of restaurants nearby, so you’ll have to bring most of your food in for yourself. That said, for a good getaway from civilization with some top-notch vistas: this is the place for you. That would be reason enough to go, in my book, but I find myself drawn to the Creek for another reason: Fisheating Creek is (or was, at the very least) home to the rarest snake in North American: the South Florida Rainbow Snake (Farancia erytrogramma seminola.) But, we’ll talk about them next time. . .