Cows, orange groves, country roads and old-fashioned downtowns. That's the Florida you find when you get off the highway and head into the rural area above Lake Okeechobee.
It's not the Florida of beaches and high rises. It's slower, quieter and older, and that's why some seek it out. You can discover gracious hotels built 100 years ago, where rooms go for $70 a night, or explore one of Florida's oldest state parks with trees so grand that area residents wanted it to be a national park.
To discover this part of Florida, you take the Cracker Trail, a road Florida's pioneers used during the early 1800's to move cattle to ports along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast. Today, the Cracker Trail spans parts of State Road 66, State Road 64 and U.S. Highway 98. It runs 120 miles east-west from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. Here's a map.
For 25 years, adventurous Floridians have brought history to life during the last week of February, crossing the state on horseback in the annual re-creation of the Cracker Trail Ride. Their ride takes days, but you can organize your own Cracker Trail tour via a day trip by car. Here are seven stops on or near the Cracker Trail that help you discover a forgotten Florida.
• Stop 1: Highland Hammocks State Park near Sebring: Highland Hammocks became a park in 1931, four years before there was a Florida state park system, because area residents campaigned for the land to be preserved. Improvements were made during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the CCC story is now told in a charming small museum in the park.
Sarah Taylor, a realtor from Port St. Lucie, finds a respite from city life by camping and hiking at Highland Hammocks State Park, which eventually became one of the four original Florida state parks.
"I love the place," Taylor says. "You are just enveloped in nature. With the old oaks and huge towering cypress trees, it is just gorgeous."
Highland Hammocks is terrific for bicycling and hiking. "There is a great paved loop that winds under the huge oak hammock trees and will keep you shaded," Taylor says.
Many short walking trails wait to be explored, but the most memorable is the Cypress Swamp Trail, which starts as a boardwalk and eventually narrows to a "catwalk" series of planks over the swamp.
"I remember going here as a kid and being scared out of my wits on this trail," Taylor says. "But as an adult, it seems shorter and less intimidating."
One of the park's more popular activities is a free, ranger-led one-hour tram tour into remote areas, where visitors will see alligators, turtles and wading birds. Tours are scheduled at 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (Availability may vary according to staffing and seasonal demand.)
• Stop 2: Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery: Henscratch Farms is a funky little Southern-style vineyard and winery. The wines are sweet "country-style," from native muscadine and scuppernong grapes, and may not appeal to sophisticated palates. But it's worth having a taste and enjoying the farm's ambiance.
Families love the friendly hens and roosters -- Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks varieties – that wander the farm, where you also can 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. Every August, Henscratch holds a "grape stomp."
•Stop 3: Historic hotels in Avon Park and Sebring: Two of the small towns off the Cracker Trail have historic hotels. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places and each is reasonably priced with a unique story.
The Hotel Jacaranda in downtown Avon Park has been hosting guests and serving meals every day since it opened in 1926. It has welcomed Babe Ruth and Clark Gable as guests, housed hundreds of military pilots during World War II and was home base to dozens of St. Louis Cardinals during baseball spring training. Today, you're likely to find members of the Red Hat Society meeting for lunch and visitors lining up for the Sunday Grand Buffet.
One reason the Hotel Jacaranda still is going strong is that, in 1988, it was purchased by South Florida State College, which operates it and uses one wing as a dorm.
The expansive lobby is a step back in time, with paintings by the Florida Highwaymen on the walls, an old piano played daily during winter season and an antique writing desk.
The rooms – rates start at $70 a night in season – are reached by an old-fashioned elevator operated by an attendant and are decorated with quilts and feature picturesque old-time plumbing fixtures.
The Jac is a bargain for lunch, too, with a dozen choices at $6.29. (We recommend the homemade potato chips as a side!)
Ten miles away, the Kenilworth Lodge was built in 1916 by George Sebring, who founded the town that bears his name and that he hoped would become a utopian community. The Kenilworth was a seasonal hotel, open in winter. George Sebring was friends with the president of the Seaboard Atlantic Railway, and every train stopped in Sebring. The Mediterranean Revival-style hotel has a grand staircase and a 4,000-square-foot lobby.
Today, it offers comfortable, moderately priced rooms and has found a special niche among bicyclists, who use it as a base for several bicycle-touring events each year. Wally Vickers comes every Labor Day to join hundreds of bicyclists who stay at the Kenilworth to participate in the annual Tour of Sebring.
"I look for areas to ride that have low traffic volume and that is what first attracted me to Sebring," Vickers said. "What keeps me coming back is the Highland Pedalers Bicycle club and the Kenilworth Lodge."
The Kenilworth is located on Lake Jackson, and a drive or bike ride around the little lake takes you past historic buildings and scenic views.
• Stop 4: Lake Placid's murals: The town of Lake Placid has a novel way of sharing its history – on its walls. With a population of about 2,200 and 44 wall murals decorating its downtown, Lake Placid may win the prize for most murals per capita.
The Winn-Dixie at Route C-621 & US Highway 27 in Lake Placid, for example, is bursting with pictures of cattle and cowboys. The painting of the Florida Cracker Trail ride is 175 feet wide and 30 feet high. The Lockhart Service Center on Interlake Boulevard has a 60-foot wide mural of caladium fields because Lake Placid grows 95 percent of the world's caladiums, a colorful landscaping plant.
The best way to see the murals is to start at the Lake Placid Chamber/Mural Gallery, located at 18 N. Oak St. and open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., except holidays. A 10-minute video answers most visitor questions. You can buy a mural tour book for $3. It provides a little history and a hint about a "hidden" feature each artist incorporated into their murals. Here's a three-minute video about the mural project.
• Stop 5: A ghost town on the Kissimmee River: There's not a lot left here except memories. Fort Basinger sat on the east side of the Kissimmee River, and all that's left is a historic marker and the Lockett estate on the west side of the river.
Fort Basinger was settled after the Civil War, a cowboy community with hotels, stores and a post office into the early 1900s. Its heyday was when steamships traveled the Kissimmee River and stopped there.
The evocative 120-year-old Lockett estate on the west side of the river was home to the pioneer Pearce family, built by 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 lifelong rancher and one of the first women elected to the Florida Legislature.
• Stop 6: Zolfo Springs and the Cracker Trail Museum: The 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 buggies. In this part of Florida, families go back several generations and the museum is a way for residents to preserve the stories of their grandparents. Fortunately, there's a lot to see without entering the museum, which is not open on weekends. The museum is part of Pioneer Park on the Peace River, which offers camping, boat ramps and picnic areas.
• Stop 7: 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. 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. The story is told in a well-done museum that adds a modern perspective.
The Cracker Trail itself is a two-lane road across the state – a low-key scenic route past fields of grazing cattle, moss-draped live oaks, orange groves and old wooden buildings with rusting tin roofs. The speed limit is 60 miles per hour and there are few people or houses along the route.
It's a trip through a Florida many thought was long gone – but is still well worth seeing and experiencing.
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.