Exploring the Headwaters of the Everglades

Everglades National Park.
Everglades National Park. Franco Tobias
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Most people have heard of the Florida Everglades—the vast, protected region of tropical wetlands towards the state’s southern tip. Though laypeople might refer to the area as “swampland,” ecologists prefer to think of it as a delicate ecosystem made up of sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, estuarine mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, and more.

A huge part of what makes the Everglades, well, the Everglades, are the region’s headwaters, which begin in the Orlando area with Lake Toho and span down toward Lake Okeechobee. Here, we’ll explore those headwaters, better known as the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and share some tips to help you discover their hidden beauty for yourself.

Getting the Lay of the Land

The headwaters of the Everglades start in the Orlando area and encompass the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.
The headwaters of the Everglades start in the Orlando area and encompass the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. Florida Fish and Wildlife

Encompassing over 80,000 acres of water, the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes watershed is a collection of more than 20 lakes—but it's known mostly for the octet made up of Lake Kissimmee, Lake Tohopekaliga (known also as “Lake Toho,” “Big Lake Toho” or “West Lake Toho”), East Lake Tohopekaliga (“East Toho”), Lake Hatchineha, Lake Marion, Lake Cypress, Lake Gentry, and Lake Jackson. Listed here in order from largest to smallest, Lake Kissimmee offers almost 35,000 acres for freshwater fishing and paddling, while the comparatively tiny Lake Jackson spans 1,500 acres and providing a quiet allure.

The chain inhabits Orange, Polk, and Osceola counties, starting with Cypress Lake and making its way south toward Florida’s iconic Lake Okeechobee, beneath which the Everglades Wildlife Management Area and National Park can be found. The watershed also includes tributary streams as well as the Kissimmee River. The area’s lakes, marshes, flatwoods and prairies are all critical parts of a delicate ecosystem sustaining a host of wildlife, and its beauty (not to mention its abundance of bass) bring visitors from all over the world, intent on experiencing its harsh yet calm natural beauty.

Paddling the Waters

Paddling is a popular way to explore the headwaters of the Everglades.
Paddling is a popular way to explore the headwaters of the Everglades. Miguel Vieira

To get out onto the water and discover the lakes’ charms, the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek is a great place to start. Renting out canoes, single and tandem kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards, the center has something for everyone craving a day in the sun exploring the headwaters of the Everglades.

For a moderately challenging but comprehensive introduction to the area, consider renting a kayak or canoe from the concessionaire at Lake Kissimmee State Park and making the 10-mile trek around the Buster Island Loop Paddling Trail. After a short walk from the rental pickup to the water, you’ll put in at the Zipperer Canal and make your way through Rosalie Creek, Tiger Lake, Lake Kissimmee and back around to your starting point in a perfect loop, which can take up to a full day to complete.

While in the park, you can go horseback riding or explore on foot through 13 miles of nature trails filled with Live Oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Weaving through the park’s pathways, you’ll encounter up to 200 species of birds, from the bald eagle to the whooping crane, and wildlife including the bobcat, grey fox, white-tailed deer, otter, and wild turkey.

Guided Eco-Tours

The Everglades offer a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
The Everglades offer a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Daniel Zimmermann

The variety of vegetation in the region makes for a rich wilderness filled with a vast array of plants and animals, not the least fascinating or precious of which are those on the endangered species list. For an expert tour of the area with special attention paid to the balance between the environment itself and its inhabitants, try a guided eco-tour through your lakes and creeks of choice.

The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek isn’t just ideal for paddling rentals, it also hosts a menu of tours to familiarize yourself with the watershed’s ecosystem. Its 2-hour eco-tour guides guests through a serene cypress forest and even offers jump seats for children as young as 4 years old, giving them an immersive and engaging nature experience. There’s also a 5-hour eco-tour that includes an exploration of the preserve on Mackinaw Island, best suited for intermediate kayakers comfortable stretching their skills with the help of an instructor and going out on the open water to reach an enclave of natural beauty that relatively few people have the privilege of seeing.

Adventures in Florida offers an array of guided excursions in nearby waters, including a special bioluminescence tour that shouldn’t be missed by those craving an up-close encounter with the “living lights” of Florida’s eastern coast. It also hosts a three-lake tour of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes starting in Virginia Lake and lasting two or three hours as it navigates through cypress, palms, and subtropical flowers galore. Check out Peace of Mind kayak tours or Waves of Wellness eco-tours, for alternative experiences originating in the same place from fellow outfitters, both of which will allow for an up-close-and-personal experience with the waters informing the Florida’s Everglades and the adjacent area’s unending majesty.

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