Abundant Old Florida Treasures Await in the Shadow of Mickey
2013 Geico Challenge Cup, Lake Istokpoga, Oct. 22 - 27, 2012
Permitted use provided by: MajorLeagueFishing.com
Ask most Americans to describe Florida and a number of iconic images come to mind.
There's Mickey Mouse and the sprawling Disney empire. There are t-shirt shop filled beach towns that explode with spring breakers every March. There's the glitz and glamour of Miami's South Beach. And there are dozens of golf courses filled with snowbirds who have retired to the state's winter sunshine and warmth.
But to reduce the Sunshine State to those images is to miss the very best that this remarkable place has to offer, much of what Ponce de Leon discovered when he first stepped foot onto this peninsula five centuries ago.
Pay a visit to Lake Istokpoga, the nearby hamlet of Lake Placid, and the surrounding beauty of Highlands County, Florida, and you'll find the essence of the state, the quiet appeal of "Old Florida" that so many still seek.
Old Florida? Absolutely. From roadside hamburger stands to wild surroundings where Spanish moss rustles in the breeze to gators and largemouth bass filled lakes to the guttural cries of sandhill cranes, there is much more to this state than a pair of felt mouse ears in a souvenir shop.
Take Lake Placid for instance, a community of just under 2,000 residents lying northwest of Lake Okeechobee, north of the Everglades, and south of the sprawling Megalopolis of Orlando.
Pull a block or two off of U.S. 27 and you'll discover a beautiful small town right out of a Norman Rockwell Americana painting where the local Green Dragons play high school football on autumn Friday nights.
American Bald Eagle
A short distance from the Green Dragon's home turf is the Old Lake Placid Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot, a National Register of Historical Places building where whispers from a time gone by can still be heard in the "Caladium Capital of the World."
You'll also find plenty of mom-and-pop shops in the quaint downtown district filled with storytelling murals that quietly speak of the region's history. All of that as the 270-foot Happiness Tower and Toby's Clown School and the American Clown Museum loom and laugh nearby.
The town's business district teems with eateries, two local newspapers and businesses like the full-service Lake Placid Marine where area fishing, boating and water craft enthusiasts come to buy gear from Norman Lee and company.
No wonder Reader's Digest once named Lake Placid as one of America's most interesting towns.
But there's much more to Lake Placid than Main Street businesses, historic train cars, clowns, murals and tall towers.
Step away from the community and you'll find 29 named freshwater lakes in the Lake Placid vicinity, including Lake Placid, Lake June in Winter, and sprawling Lake Istokpoga.
In many ways, Istokpoga is the crown jewel of Highlands County's untamed lands. At nearly 28,000 acres, this oblong, shallow-water body teems with black crappie, bluegills, redear sunfish and huge largemouth bass. No wonder it's a Fish Management Area for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.
With two islands, ample reeds and aquatic vegetation, and an amazing array of alligators and bird life, this lake - the fifth largest natural lake in Florida - is one of the great aquatic treasures of the Sunshine State.
But Istokpoga isn't the only great fishing and boating spot in the area, mind you. Drive a short distance from Lake Placid and you'll find plenty more lakes in Highlands County, some 95 in all that literally teem with game fish populations and surrounding wildlife.
Surrounding the lakes of Highlands County is a semi-tamed land filled with mysterious cypress trees, semi-tropical plants, screeching ospreys and eagle, and strutting Osceola turkeys. On many days, you'll detect the faint aroma of ripening oranges and ocean salt on an afternoon thundershower's breeze, not to mention sunsets to die for that are painted almost daily on the Creator's canvas.
One place to discover the wild beauty of Highlands County is at Highlands Hammock State Park. First opened to the public in 1931, this outdoors gem near Sebring features an elevated boardwalk over an old-growth cypress swamp, nine hiking trails, a three-mile bicycling path, plenty of picnic spots and the Civilian Conservation Corps museum.
Another option for outdoors enthusiasts are the hiking trails, biking paths, equestrian trails, kayaking and canoeing venues, camping areas and picnic spots at Boney Marsh, Bluff Hammock and Hickory Hammock Recreational Areas that are scattered around the Highlands County area.
If birding is your thing, then make sure that you visit Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park. An oasis for the sand-scrub "Florida desert" terrain of the region, the state park is a literal birding paradise. It's also home to numerous treasured and even endangered species including the Florida scrub-jay, the Florida scrub-lizard, the Florida mouse, the gopher tortoise, and even some of the nation's most diminutive white-tailed deer.
In nearby Avon Park, hikers will find literal mile after mile of hiking trails, boardwalks, and equestrian trails at the Wildflower Wayside Shrine Trail and at a variety of lands found upon the Avon Park Air Force Range (Editor's Note: Of the APAFR bombing range's 106,000 acres, approximately 82,000-acres are reportedly open for public recreational use).
If you love the outdoors world, once you have explored all that Highlands County has to offer, then and only then, don't hesitate to make a day trip to the south of the region. That's where you can explore the semi-tropical wilderness of the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Everglades Wildlife Management Area, Everglades National Park, and the world renowned backcountry of the Florida Keys.
If venturing into the wild outdoors world isn't necessarily the preferred cup of tea for every member of your family, then keep in mind that Lake Placid and Highlands County can serve as a gateway to many of central and southern Florida's attractions.
In Sebring itself - where plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options await - is the world famous Sebring International Raceway built a half-century ago. With three different tracks, the raceway is home to the annual spring running of the Gran Prix style "Twelve Hours of Sebring." Numerous golf courses dot the region too, giving visitors a chance to enjoy a day on some of the country's best public and private links.
Barely more than an hour's drive to the east of Lake Placid is the Atlantic with numerous ocean side communities and beaches waiting. Head an hour to the west and you'll find stunningly beautiful Gulf of Mexico beaches with some of the whitest sand and bluest water on earth.
Just more than an hour to the north is the sprawling Orlando area with Disney World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios, Sea World and Cypress Gardens to name a few attractions. A similar distance to the southeast lies the bustling metro area of Miami with its beaches, restaurants, cultural treasures and endless entertainment possibilities.
But visit these areas only after sampling all of the richness and variety that the Lake Placid area of south-central Florida has to offer.
Because while numerous other Florida landmarks and hot spots attract the attention of vacationing visitors, few can compare with the natural beauty, outdoors recreational opportunities, and the rich small-town cultural heritage of Highlands County.
It's the very heart and soul of "Old Florida," the way that this wonderful state was and in many ways still is.
Stop by and visit on your next trip to the Sunshine State and see if you don't agree.