If you want to feel the warmth of Florida without the hustle and bustle of big crowds, then make plans to visit Hendry County. Situated between the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, with 1,153 square miles of land and 37 square miles of water, this untamed section of the Sunshine State puts on a sugar festival, boasts eclectic shopping selections and whisks visitors away to swamp adventures on big-wheeled swamp buggies or wetlands excursions aboard airboats.
Southern Florida Fun
Hendry County can be found in southern Florida between two forts — Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic coast and Fort Myers on the Gulf coast. It’s easy to get to from Interstate 75, which runs just south of the county in an east-west direction. The county’s slogan is “The True Nature of Southern Florida,” which is abundantly apparent once you see the vast swaths and wetlands found throughout the county.
On the county’s northeast corner lies Clewiston, a friendly community that sits on the southwestern shore of huge Lake Okeechobee. To the west, LaBelle, the county seat, takes visitors back to the early days with a charming downtown area to walk and shop.
As you might expect, there is a lot to do in Hendry County if you’re an outdoors type. Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and the second largest in the contiguous United States. It encompasses 730 square miles and you can access it from Clewiston. Lake Okeechobee is recognized as one of the best spots in the world for largemouth bass and black crappie fishing. Thrill seekers can go for high-altitude adventure; several outfitters offer bucket-list skydiving adventures.
Riding the Current
If you’d rather just float, you can do that in Hendry County, too. Bring your kayak or rent one and take a leisurely float down the Caloosahatchee River. This 67-mile waterway connects to Lake Okeechobee through a series of canals. This is a perfect place to go bird-watching or practice your wildlife photography skills. If you’d prefer dry land, you can hike on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, a mostly paved route around the lake that runs through Clewiston.
Fast Boats and Big Buggies
Local outfitters take visitors on swamp expeditions using vehicles that are purpose-built for the terrain. Airboat tours whisk passengers across the surface of the water on flat-bottomed boats powered by propellers mounted on the back. Riders can feel the wind on their faces as they skim across the water to see wildlife and exotic plants. Swamp buggies, in contrast, traverse the landscape on raised, four-wheel-drive tractor tires that can handle muddy, swampy terrain. Although these vehicles are slow, the elevated position of the seats allows riders to get sweeping views of the scenery.
In the county’s south, the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation welcomes visitors to enjoy buggy and horseback rides along with stories of the past told around evening campfires. Try your luck at the slots in Seminole Casino Big Cypress — don’t forget to take a break and enjoy local delicacies like frog legs, gator tail nuggets and traditional Seminole fry bread.
Of the 566 Native American Tribes recognized by the Federal Government, the Seminoles hold a unique distinction as being unconquered by colonization. You can learn about this and many other stories at the Smithsonian affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Today the Seminoles welcome visitors to explore their undisturbed world. Visitors can take a close look at authentically made Seminole structures, including a giant palapa for community gatherings.
Events and Festivals
Hendry County’s festivals have cemented the region’s reputation for quirkiness. Snowbirds can check out the Swamp Cabbage Festival, held in LaBelle at the end of every February. Named after a distinctive plant that grows in the area, the festival features a parade, a food festival, a car show and the ever-popular Armadillo Race. The Clewiston Sugar Festival, held the third weekend in March, celebrates the area’s abundant sugar industry with music, exhibits and sweet treats. Home to one of the largest sugar cane manufacturers in the United States, Clewiston goes by the nickname, America’s Sweetest Town.
Cattle ranching also has deep roots in the region. The area was named after Francis A. Hendry, a cattle rancher who founded the city of LaBelle. He named the town after Hendry’s two daughters, Laura and Belle. That ranching legacy is celebrated during the Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival Ranch Rodeo, held in conjunction with the Swamp Cabbage Festival in February in the LaBelle Rodeo Grounds. The event features some of the top ropers and riders in the nation along with Florida cowboys and cowgirls whose horse- and cattle-handling skills have been passed down from generation to generation.
While you’re in Hendry County you’ll want to set aside some time to check the many small-town niche stores and restaurants that serve up the unique flavor of the area. Several antique shops in the county sell historical treasures that shed light onto “old Florida.” Check out the Country Peddlers Antique Mall for a trip into the Sunshine State’s colorful history.
Wild in Hendry County
About 18 miles south of LaBelle, you’ll find a land that time seems to have been forgotten. Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest once was a logging site and then a cattle ranch before nature reclaimed it. The 32,000-acre forest is a pristine example of the pre-Columbian landscape that once defined South Florida. The Florida panther, black bear, sandhill crane and gopher tortoise inhabit the area. Break out your binoculars for a day spent spotting graceful winged creatures at Devils Garden Bird Park near Clewiston. This spot is home to more than 100 species, including rare and endangered birds.
For More Information
Hendry County Tourist Development Council