Fishing, boating, and relaxing fill winter days in central Florida.
By Lazelle Jones
Like the names of so many places across North America, Kissimmee is an American Indian word that melodically resonates on the tongue. (It’s pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.) The word is thought to mean “long water” in the original. Lake Kissimmee is also a place that offers easily accessible and genuinely delightful destinations that are a perfect fit for the motorhome enthusiast.
Plenty of spots with access to the lake beckon at the southeast end of this long, long body of water (it is nearly 35,000 acres in size). Several are only an hour south of Orlando, an hour east of Tampa, and an hour west of Vero Beach. Specifically, it’s in the southern end of Polk County and a mere 30-minute drive east of Lake Wales on State Route 60.
You’ll find other people there in RVs each winter who enjoy the litany of activities that go hand-in-hand with being near a lake. The informal word-of-mouth RV network portrays this area as a great leisure spot. If you like to fish, hike, boat, observe wildlife, bird-watch, tour on swamp buggies and airboats, enjoy fresh fish and Southern cuisine, and bask in the mild climate Florida is so well known for during the months that lie on either side of the winter solstice, then read on.
Grape Hammock Fish Camp
The folks at Grape Hammock Fish Camp are fully prepared to support the RV lifestyle and many of the RV passions noted above. The campground has 65 full-service RV campsites (some with 50-amp hookups) and a copious amount of space to accommodate those who are trailering a watercraft. A boat launch is there, too, and should the committed landlubber decide to try his or her hand in the marine world, Grape Hammock also rents boats for fishing or sight-seeing. The bait shop at the boat launch offers fresh bait (shiners), ice, fishing lures, and accessories.
Whether it’s Grape Hammock or one of the other three spots to be discussed momentarily (Camp Mack’s River Resort, Westgate River Ranch, or Kissimmee State Park), the fishing on this lake and its surrounding and connecting waterways is renowned for largemouth bass and an abundance of panfish and catfish.
At Grape Hammock you also can book an airboat tour that takes you out into the swamps and grassy areas surrounding the lake, places that are teeming with wildlife (birds, mammals, and reptiles). Grape Hammock is east of Lake Wales via State Route 60, and then a 10-minute drive north on Grape Hammock Road. It’s as easy as that. Contact information, along with that of the rest of these spots, is listed at the end of this article.
Westgate River Ranch
Go a few hundred yards farther east on State Route 60, past the turnoff to Grape Hammock, and you’ll find the upscale resort called Westgate River Ranch and River Ranch RV Resort. River Ranch RV Resort offers a full-service RV campground that features sites with full hookups and cable TV.
At Westgate you can launch a boat (fishing boat or powerboat) and a full-service marina is on-site. Westgate features its own quaint fish-camp-style restaurant that overlooks the marina, an eatery that serves excellent Florida-style fare and fish camp specialties. The riding stables offer you a chance to learn or hone your equestrian skills, and enjoy guided horseback rides out across the 1,700-acre ranch. This destination comes complete with a chapel that often is used to host weddings, and a private airstrip that lets people fly in to spend a few days “” or simply to enjoy lunch or dinner.
If you don’t already know this, central Florida is cattle country, with a long and colorful cowboy history that dates back almost 150 years. The folks at Westgate River Ranch do a nice job helping their guests get in touch with Florida”˜s very own wild, wild West. Every Saturday night they host a rodeo, and throughout the week visitors can enjoy more of the western side of Florida by viewing the buffalo herd and the Watusi bovine (a breed of cow that originated in Africa and has unbelievably huge horns). Yes, even today central Florida is big cattle country, and it is no surprise to find a large-scale ranch such as Westgate there.
Westgate River Ranch also offers guided airboat tours that transport passengers to places along the Lake Kissimmee waterways where huge alligators lazily sun themselves on the shore, just waiting to do whatever alligators do. The ranch has a 9-hole golf course and a miniature golf course; a pool and spa; tennis courts; an arcade; a saloon; and a general store. A huge horse sculpture located along State Route 60 lets you know it is time to turn right (you are almost there).
Lake Kissimmee State Park
Heading east from Lake Wales on State Route 60, turn left onto Boy Scout Camp Road, then right onto Camp Mack Road, and in about 10 minutes you are at the entrance to this 6,000-acre Florida state park. The park’s 60-site RV campground has electric and city water hookups (a dump station is located near the entrance to the park), and the sites are located in what is referred to as an oak hammock, which affords much privacy.
What activities are available? Try 13 miles of hiking trails and another 6 miles of horse trails. Wildlife viewing is plentiful, too, and includes bald eagles, white-tailed deer, bobcats, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, and whooping cranes.
A boat launch and a marina are available as well, so visitors can ease into the waterways that lace their way around and between the lakes (Kissimmee is one of several lakes that form the headwaters of the Everglades). It’s also a perfect place to kayak or canoe. There is no boat rental concession at Lake Kissimmee State Park, so you must bring your own watercraft.
Remember how central Florida has a long and rich history with cattle ranching? Between the months of October and May, Lake Kissimmee State Park offers a living history presentation with an 1876-style Cow Camp, where locals re-enact the lifestyle of those bygone days. At the end of a short trail, you find the camp, where a cow hunter (that’s what they called cowboys back then) has built a settlement. While he prepares traditional cow-camp fare, makes cowboy coffee, and takes care of his scrub cows (the cattle he is tending), he shares stories and tales about the times when Florida was one big ranch.
Camp Mack’s River Resort
Across the road from Lake Kissimmee State Park is Camp Mack’s River Resort. Many fishing tournaments, including the Accent Marine Tournament in January, are hosted there, because of the great fishing on Lake Kissimmee. At Camp Mack’s fishing tackle and live bait shop, you can purchase fuel for your boat, buy a fishing license, and arrange for the services of a local fishing guide. These specialists are intimately familiar with Lake Kissimmee and Kissimmee River fishing.
Camp Mack’s also hosts nature tours where you will get up close and personal with bald eagles, limpkins, egrets, ospreys, black ducks, wild turkeys, and great blue herons, along with deer, otters, and the ever-present alligator.
Camp Mack’s campground includes full hookups (30 and 50 amps, water, and sewer). You can purchase propane there, too, and amenities include showers, telephones, and picnic tables. Cable television is available. And, yes, they also have a laundry house.
Camp Mack’s River Resort
14900 Camp Mack Road
Lake Wales, FL 33898
(800) 243-8013, reservations
Rates start at $36 per day and include full hookups, as well as a variety of available amenities.
Grape Hammock Fish Camp
1400 Grape Hammock Rd
Lake Wales, FL 33853
Rates start at $20 per night, depending on RV length, and include water and electricity. Cable TV, rest rooms, and laundry facilities are available.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
14248 Camp Mack Road
Lake Wales, FL 33853
(800) 326-3521, reservations
(863) 696-1112, information
The park has a $5-per-vehicle admission fee. Camping is $20 per night, plus tax, including water and electricity.
Westgate River Ranch RV Resort
30529 River Ranch Blvd.
River Ranch, FL 33867
(863) 692-1116 “” campground
(800) 266-2927 “” campground
(863) 692-1321 “” ranch
This destination ranch admits all types of motorhomes (A, B, and C). Rates for full hookups begin at $50 per day, depending on the season and available site. Amenities include swimming pools, line dancing, a petting zoo, horseback riding, a golf course, and much more.
Other Fun Stuff
Should you feel compelled to spend a day at Walt Disney World, visit Fantasy of Flight (a museum in northern Polk County), snoop around antiques shops in Lakeland, or play for a day on the “left coast” of Florida or up in Daytona Beach, this Lake Kissimmee vacationland in southern Polk County is ever so close to everything. Duffers will want to know about the 10 golf courses within 30 minutes of these Lake Kissimmee destinations. And Bok Tower Gardens is a must-see botanical wonderland, located just 30 minutes away in Lake Wales.
The gastronomic side of getting away and the fun associated with exploring new bistros and eateries should not be missed. Among those I have personally researched and recommend are the following: Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn, which features an excellent filet mignon (863-676-6011; www.chaletsuzanne.com/); the Blue Palmetto Café at Bok Tower Gardens, with excellent soup du jour and daily entrees (863-676-1355, ext. 2228, hwww.boktowergardens.org/); and the Cherry Pocket Steak and Seafood Shak, a water’s-edge restaurant at Cherry Pocket (863-439-2031, www.cherrypocket.com/). The latter is exactly what one would imagine a 1930s fish camp bistro to look like. Their freshly prepared daily catch is delicious.
Whether you dine at a fancy spot or fry your own fresh panfish, you’ll agree with what RVers already know: the entire Lake Kissimmee region is well worth your time.