The state of Florida has a wonderful haven for nature lovers called Polk County. Polk County is right in the heart of Central Florida, nestled between the Florida metropolises of Tampa and Orlando. Here are six natured-themed venues in Polk County, Florida, that are worth your time:
Lake Kissimmee State Park: Cruising Nature, Pontoon Style!
Savor a pontoon boating tour in Polk County around Lake Kissimmee State Park and the giant lake itself with Captain James’ Southland Scenic Tours. Captain James looks a bit like John Lennon, but has a distinctive Southern accent, and is very friendly and knowledgeable about this great Florida eco-system.
Lake Kissimmee is a 35,000 acre fresh water lake east of the park that Native Americas used for hunting and fishing for many centuries. It makes up some of the headwaters for the Florida Everglades, which are farther south from Polk County. In 1969, 5,000 acres were purchased for a state park. Park officials strive to maintain the park in much the same way it looked when the European explorers arrived hundreds of years ago in today’s Polk County, and because of this, visitors will see a feast of great plant and animal life. The lake itself is dark in its look because of tannic acids that come from the cypress swamps via the waters that flow into the lake.
The Florida Scrub Jay can be found flying around the mesic and scrubby pine flatwoods. Wild turkeys call home in the wet pine flatwoods of the park. Alligators can be spotted off the shorelines and they actually do a big favor for the other species of animals, when they aren’t eating them! Alligators make caves in the bottoms of the swamps, which may provide the only water for wildlife when a drought is on.
The largest plant communities are to be found in the wet and dry prairies. Birds like Sandhill Cranes, egrets, vultures, and bald eagles, and the Crested Caracara (a member of the falcon family) may be spotted while taking one of Capt. James’ four hour tours (his most popular request).
His tour will take you through such waterways like Tiger Creek, Zipper Canal, and Tiger Cove, which opens up into Lake Kissimmee. Capt. James’ knowledge of the area is incredible, and if you ask him what kind of plant, bird, or animal you just spotted, he’s got a ready answer. His favorite area in Polk County is Tiger Creek, saying (paraphrased) this is what the real natural Florida is truly like in his mind. Plants such as the Primrose Yellow, the Spatterdock (which is a yellow lily) give vivid color to the creek, on whose banks you might spot cattle grazing off of, because it’s part of a private ranch.
Yes, the Park Service even runs a circa 1876 cattle camp, which educates visitors on the lifestyle and conditions of herding cattle in Florida at that time.
The park offers hiking, camping, boating, and fishing opportunities. Six of the thirteen miles of trails are available for horseback exploring.
Lake Kissimmee State Park: Contact Tony Morrell or Earl Roberts at 14248 Camp Mack Rd., Lake Wales, FL 863-696-1112 (Earl is at 863-324-7277). http://www.floridastateparks.org/lakekissimmee/default.cfm
Southland Scenic Water Tours: 1329 Seminole Rd., Babson Park, FL 863-638-2295. Admission charge for tour.
Historic Bok Sanctuary: 1000 Shades of Green
Polk County has one of the first tourism venues in Florida in Bok Sanctuary. Located on the highest point of the Florida peninsula (298 feet above sea level), Historic Bok Sanctuary is a National Historic Landmark. It features 128 acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. that were once an arid sandhill, known as “Iron Mountain”. Thousands of loads of rich black soil were needed to make it more fertile.
Edward W. Bok, an immigrant from the Netherlands, was instrumental in saving Niagara Falls. His editorship/leadership of The Ladies Home Journal would make it the first million subscriber periodical. Bok wanted something more than just beautiful gardens, so he commissioned Milton B. Medary to design and build the great edifice, inspired by Neo-Gothic churches and towers of Europe, but marble sculpture by Lee Lawrie, with art-deco-influences, adorn the tower.
The tower is made of Florida coquina stone and Georgia marble, and has been fascinating visitors for over 75 years. It houses one of the world’s great carillons (60 musical bells weighing from 16 pounds to 12 tons), and is the sanctuary’s big attraction. The grave of Bok is at the base of the tower. Bok was a noted author and philanthropist, and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Americanization of Edward Bok, published in the early 1920’s.
Here are some notable things to see, while at times being dazzled by the strong aroma of orange blossoms, since the sanctuary is near orange groves:
– The Reflection Pool is where you can see reflection of the great tower.
– The 3/4 mile Pine Ridge Trail contains endangered species of plants and animals like the Gopher Tortoise, Longleaf Pine, and Turkey Oak.
– The circular Endangered Plant Garden is ¼ acre, and has an analemmatic sundial in the middle, and contains such species of plant life like the Okeechobee Gourd.
– Thousands of other plant life reside here including palms, oaks, ferns, and pines, which make up the tall foliage. The natural flower show around the sanctuary contains “Jungle Gold” ginger, azaleas, camellias and magnolia blooms. Thirteen paid gardeners help to maintain the area, as well as a slew of volunteers.
– Pinewood is the great 12,900 square foot Mediterranean-revival estate at the Sanctuary, named so because the home offers great views of surrounding pine trees. No two sets of doors in the house are designed alike, and the walls are 18-24 inches thick throughout the house to help keep it cool. This was the former home of the Buck family, whose patriarch was a big shot at Bethlehem Steel.
– Carillon Café is located in the Bok Sanctuary, and offers indoor and outdoor dining options. I ate a Greek salad there, and it was all right, but my neat moment came when I had the counter person fill my cup half way with fresh lemonade. Then I filled the rest with Coca-Cola Classic at the self-serve area. It had a great zingy taste. I heard that famed basketball coach Bob Knight likes this concoction, so I just had to try it myself! Yes, this trip to Polk County knocked off another thing on my “To Do List Before I Die!”
Historic Bok Sanctuary 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, FL 33853 863-676-1408 www.boksanctuary.org Admission Charge.
Circle B-Bar Reserve: Birds! Birds! Birds!
This writer had never been on a bird outing before experiencing one at the Circle B-Bar reserve, as the closest excitement I had over “birds” were certain girls named Robin or Robyn in my adolescent past! Bird lovers are really into their hobby, and can spot birds in distant trees with amazing accuracy! I’ve never seen so much excitement spawned over the sighting of a bald eagle in its nest by Polk County residents!
The 1250-plus acre property of the Circle B is a must for bird watchers! Volunteers during the course of one year actually spotted well over 160 species of birds just on weekend trips. This former cattle ranch turned bird heaven is located off of the 5,000 acre but rather shallow Lake Hancock, whose depth reaches only around six feet in places, but is home to another great Florida creature: the alligator.
Take a hike on the elevated 2.5 mile Marsh Loop Trail, where you may even see one of those gators, as well as wood storks and egrets. The Oak Hammock Trail is a bit over a mile and connects to the above trail. The trails are partly shaded by Florida’s official state trees, known as Cabbage Palms.
Here’s just a sampling of the birds one may see while exploring the reserve: Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Least Sandpiper (called that because of its very tiny size), four species of doves including the Mourning Dove, and the American Pipit.
The preserve is also made up of shallow wetlands, where a variety of plant, insect, and animal life abound. Some 500 acres of marshland, known as the Banana Creek Marsh, is where White Pelicans and ducks can be spotted.
Circle B-Bar Reserve: No official physical address currently, but it’s off State Road 540 on the drive between Winter Haven and Lakeland. Though it’s open year round for hiking, contact the Environmental Lands Program for more information at 863-534-7377.
www.polk-county.net (Under “How Can We Help You?” click “Environmental Lands”)
Babson Park Audubon Center: Going to the birds, plants, and even the tortoises.
The Audubon Society isn’t just about the education and protection of aviary species in Florida and elsewhere. Because of the interdependence among species of animals and birds, advocacy on the behalf of land-only animals and the land itself is also necessary.
Since 1966, the Babson Park Audubon Center in Polk County has been in the mode of helping to protect some of Florida’s most endangered wildlife, especially the Gopher Tortoise, who burrows holes that can be some 40 feet long by 10 feet deep, and whose shelter provides refuge for more than 350 species!
While the center manages some 50 acres of sandhill, the walking trail covers some 3.5 acres and gives visitors a glimpse of those Tortoise burrows as well as some other plant life of note like the Yucca, whose fiber is very strong for rope. The Prickly Bear Cactus abounds here, and has a bright yellow flowery bloom in the midst of all its needles. It’s considered a “meet market” for insects! Some other plant life you’ll see on the trail includes the Long Leaf Pine and Palmetto. This particular Polk County trail itself is made up of sand, and it is a bit of an adventure to walk on. I felt like I was sinking with every step. The Center conducts a variety of educational programs for students and the community. Its gift and bookshop offer up many books on Florida plants, birds, and hiking, as well as several free informational brochures.
Babson Park Audubon Center: 200 N. Crooked Lake Dr., PO Box 148, Babson Park, FL 863-638-1355. www.ridgeaudubon.org Free Admission.
Tiger Creek Preserve: Ancient Islands inside Polk County
When you think of a Florida sandhill in Polk County, does the connotation bring up a lively place for natural miracles to be in existence? Well, sandhills do foster many kinds of plant and animal life! Exploring the Tiger Creek Preserve’s close to 5000 acres of protected Florida sandhill is definitely worth the effort. The preserve makes up part of Lake Wales Ridge (that runs roughly 100 miles long by 10 to 15 miles wide), once islands in the middle of water millions of years ago. Because of this, it has the same kind of characteristics as the Galapagos Islands, in that certain kinds of plant and animal life can only be found here because they adapted. At one time, almost a million acres of the Lake Wales Ridge existed in natural form, but over time, it’s been lost greatly in part to man’s commercial development.
Some of the rare species you will find here are the Florida Mouse, who isn’t related to mice in North America. His closest cousin is in Southern Mexico and Central America. The Florida Scrub Jay is a another rare species found here, who needs low-growing oak trees and sandy soil to survive, which is why this bird is on a high priority list to be saved as encroaching development still threatens the species.
This area in Polk County has the distinction of receiving more lightning strikes than anywhere on the continent, which is good for the area, because the ensuing fires leave fertile ground for plant life to spring up, though the people of the Preserve help in managing burns and educating the public about fire safety.
Scores upon scores of plant life are grow on these sandhills including ones with names like the Blazing Star, Seaside Goldenrod, and Broomsedge.
The staff at the Preserve is very helpful, and has an array of information to help you make the most of your visit there.
Tiger Creek Preserve: Contact Tricia Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org) 155 Pfundstein Rd., Babson Park, FL (863) 635-7506 Free Admission. www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/florida/preserves/art5524.html
Cheers and Deliverance Meet on the Banks of Lake Pierce, Florida!
Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak at Cherry Pocket Fish Camp is on the banks of Polk County’s Lake Pierce. It’s one of the most interesting places to eat in Central Florida. Visitors and diners alike may even spot a gator nearby; after all, the mascot of the establishment is a gator. After exploring the grounds a bit, this Yankee likes to think of the area as a Florida hybrid of “Cheers” meshing with the edge of “Deliverance”!
The Steak & Seafood Shak features yummy and filling seafood and meat dishes. Both their Beer Batter Fried Mushrooms and Shrimp are really tasty, thanks to THAT certain ingredient in the batter, which makes the fried skin have a real smooth and distinct taste. The “shak” features live music and karaoke on weekend nights.
The Fish Camp contains over 25 acres with cabins for rent. Boating and plenty of fishing are done in the midst of Hydrilla and Peppergrass. The surface of Lake Pierce has over 13 miles of shoreline and covers 3700-plus acres.
One of the people who discovered this place had the surname of Cherry and because the land lays with the canals in a pocket-like way, it was named Cherry Pocket, where such activities as cock-fighting, gambling, and gator wrestling have been known to take place in this Florida venue.
3100 Canal Rd. Lake Wales, FL. Call for info/ reservations at:
(863) 439-2031 www.cherrypocket.com