If you take a minute to look beyond the beaches and palm trees, you’re also likely to find a glimpse of Florida’s cowboy heritage. Years ago, but not as long as you might think, Cracker Cowboys herded cattle across the state traveling through Florida’s vast prairies. You can experience the land as it once was at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, a stunning frontier wilderness.
Situated in the middle of the Florida peninsula northwest of Okeechobee, east of Bartow and west of Vero Beach, the park is home to the largest stretch of dry prairie remaining in Florida. Only ten percent of this prairie ecosystem remains in state, so you won’t want to miss this treasure.
The Kissimmee Prairie Park is fairly remote but with a trusty map or GPS, you’ll locate the spacious 54,000 acres of central Florida wilderness just off State Road 60 -15 miles east of Lake Wales. Once found, you’ll be awestruck by sweeping vistas of Sabal Palm hammocks standing amidst tall grasses, flowers and saw palmettos. Especially dazzling are the colors and the subtle orange and pink hues of the Florida prairie during dawn or dusk.
Many people don’t realize that until the middle of the 20th century, cattle roamed freely throughout these open Florida prairies. Believe it or not, Florida, not the American West, is the original birthplace of the American cowboy. Before the west was settled, Florida’s Seminoles, early Spanish colonists and pioneers herded cattle across Florida. The cowboys snapped or “cracked” their long, leather bullwhips while driving cattle through the rugged terrain and became known as Florida Crackers.
Cowboy tradition, or should I say Cracker tradition, continues in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. With more than 100 miles of trails, it is one of the most ideal parks for horse riding, hiking or biking, and equestrian camping.
So, you don’t want to ride a horse, take a hike - literally. The palmetto-lined trails are well shaded by oak trees but open fields are abundant. Wildflowers burst with color and deer leap through the grasses and between shrubs. A popular birding destination, the Prairie is home to more than twelve endangered or threatened species flying above or between the palmettos. Butterflies float amongst the wildflowers and if you are there in the Spring or Fall, you are in for a showcase of Florida’s floral finest.
If you are a stargazer, this park is perfect for viewing the night sky away from city lights. A dazzling display of stars covers the sky on clear, dark nights. Or, when the moon is full, you can even walk the trails without a flashlight.
No matter what you choose to do, this is a Central Florida park well worth an off-the-beaten-path visit.
Do yourself a favor and take in a little “Old Florida” and experience it like the earliest cowboys, as the Crackers once did.
For accommodations, one of the most convenient places to stay is the Westgate River Ranch, a 1,700 acre family-style dude ranch. Adjacent to 400,000 acres of state and federally protected wetlands and located nearby off Highway 60, the resort offers the weary traveler a restful stay with a range of comfortable lodging choices. Guests can select from several alternatives such as cottages, cabins or even tent camping. A unique offering called “glamping” or glamour camping, is available, featuring well-furnished comfortable outdoor canvas dwellings.
There’s plenty to do at Westgate, too with a wide range of amenities running the gamut from horseback riding to a kid’s petting zoo, trap and skeet shooting, swamp buggy rides, boating and everything in between. You may want to try the one-hour guided airboat ride on the Kissimmee River. It is a refreshing glide over the Kissimmee River with beautiful views and spectacular birds and wildlife.
This unique Florida adventure is ideal for a day trip, a weekend away or even an extended stay, and it may become one of your most treasured Authentic Florida memories yet.
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