The late day sun painted the reedy marshes and saw grass bronze. Gazing across the sprawling wetlands dotted with islands of palms and cypress while listening to a rustling breeze, it’s hard to believe I’m just an hour from manufactured suburbs and condos. If any place preserves undeveloped Florida, it’s Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest.
It is not a place I’d heard of until just the night before. The original weekend plans had included camping near the Everglades, but our top choices prohibited dogs or were hosting hunting season. My husband, Alan, stumbled across this 32,000-plus acre forest smack in the middle of nowhere Florida east of Fort Myers. I wasn’t convinced he’d like the flat wetlands and lack of hiking trails, but it had primitive camping and allowed dogs. We packed extra mosquito repellent and headed out.
The locals call the winding creek bisecting the forest the OK Slough. Its trees provided the timber supplying Florida’s railroad boom. Today the sawmill towns are history, as are towering cypress trees that powered them. In 2000, the state purchased the land to protect the watershed feeding the Big Cypress Preserve. Its lands safeguard habitat for several endangered species as evidenced on the highway to the forest by a rare sign: Florida Panther crossing.
No longer timberland, today’s OK Slough is popular with hunters and birders who use the remaining limestone logging roads to gain access to the remote swales and hammocks across the forest.
Our campsite is along the winding Wildcow Trail that follows the eastern border. Panther Pond is the first camping area. The 18 sites vary in size and shape, with the higher numbers ideal for backing in an RV. This weekend the campsite’s sole residents are a black snake and an alligator cruising the fill pit. After a drive to the generator sites and the closed Wildcow Primitive Campsite, Alan and I settle on campsite #5, a square patch of land backing up to the slough. The area is carpeted with pine needles perfect for our tent. Standing slash pines, oaks, and cabbage palms provide shade. Just past campsite #1 is the dumpster and freshly cleaned port-o-lets. All the sites have a fire ring and a picnic table.
We spend the evening bumping along the deserted trails of OK Slough. Along the way we run into a game officer on a swamp buggy with mammoth tires. When asked what trails are dry, he recommends the old railroad bed off SIC Island Loop. We head out that way, but don’t find the bed. Instead there’s a marked footpath with a parking area. The trail leads to a boardwalk overlooking the isolated OK Slough.
Several of the loop roads are close due to flooding. Late October starts Florida’s dry season, but the hiking and horse trails we do cross are still muddy. We stick to cruising through the hammocks and wetlands in the Jeep, spying red-tail hawks swooping through young cypress stands, vultures heading to roost, and a banded water snake crossing the road.
Owls announce the evening and as the light fades, a faint horizon glow appears to the east and west. Straight overhead the Milky Way is crystal clear, making the slough’s wide-open spaces perfect for stargazing.
In the morning we drive as far south as we can go. The land is higher in elevation here, giving way to oak hammocks and tall fields of black-eyed susans. We park at the end of Four-Section Road and continue on foot, creating hiking trails with firebreaks and old logging roads. I lean over to study a turkey track when I spot the print: dog-like, minus the claws. A Florida Panther cruised this way not too long ago. Further up the trail we find bear scat and accompanying tracks. Alan and I keep our eyes peeled but spot only orange butterflies, doves, and swallowtail kites.
For people looking to unplug from civilization, I’d highly recommend the Okaloacoochee Slough. We saw only two people the entire weekend. Birding enthusiasts would love the slough; the marshes are teeming with countless species and wildlife. Visit in the winter when the weather’s cooler, the trails drier, and bugs reduced in number. We camped at the start of dry season just after a cold front moved through with three types of mosquito repellent and still had mosquitos pecking away. If you plan to go walking, bring sturdy shoes and long pants. Keep an eye out for tracks—you never