Growing up in South Florida, I saw very few hills.
Most of Miami-Dade county is within 10 feet of sea level. In fact, the highest geographic point is 35 feet.
The hill in Tropical Park is such a novelty that my high school cross country teammates and opponents were overwhelmed. I was able to finish before many runners I had not been previously able to defeat.
As kids, we were told that Space Mountain, at 128 feet, was the highest point in all of Florida. It is not, since there are a handful of natural spots in Florida topping 300 feet. Thin air alert!
With the exception of buildings and Mount Trashmores, Florida is definitely one of the flattest places on earth.
So Why Write About Florida Hills?
Most Florida visitors will never see these hills. Most visitors to Florida will explore the periphery (beaches and coastal cities) or the theme parks.
On one of my exploratory road trips through Florida, I was surprised to see some wonderful hills in the central-southern part of the state. I knew that most of highest Florida points were in the northern part of the state so this was a real surprise.
Along this scenic road trip between Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale I also saw red clay dirt roads, open citrus groves, roadside produce stands, nature preserves, and just a real sense of Old Florida.
If hills in Florida, and the other quaintness, interest you, please read on.
I started my trip at a $17 Priceline hotel room in Kissimmee. MCCOOL TRAVEL TIP: to avoid toll roads from Orlando airport, drive south on Access Road to Boggy Creek Road and then to 441/192 (Arlo Bronson Highway).
From Kissimmee, I drove highway 17 south; the road has several names including Orange Blossom Trail and John Young Highway. Fresh fruit stands appear north of Haines City.
In Haines City, be sure to stay on SR17 (S. 10th Street to Dundee) rather than US17 west. “Our” 17 rolls through seemingly endless agricultural areas.
Just south of Babson Park I wanted to find roads even smaller than SR17, so I turned left (east) onto Murray Road and was greeted with magnificent views of rolling hills.
In this area, between Lake Lenore and Lake Moody, I drove for several miles on red clay dirt roads amid hundreds of acres of grapefruit tree groves.
I learned that this area has the highest concentration of threatened and endangered species (animals AND plants) in the United States.
I also learned (these visitor centers love to educate) that the Lakes Wales Ridge is an ancient island or peninsula atop of Florida. When most of Florida was under water, this area was a sandy, scrubby habitat. That explains why many of the unpaved roads I drove in this area were white sand. Fascinating that just a few miles away was red clay dirt roads.
I spent more time exploring the small roads (including more red clay dirt paths) in the area, like Lake Reedy Blvd, Lake Arbuckle Road, Old Frostproof Road, and Rucks Dairy Road before ending up at CR64.
Driving southwest on CR64 towards 17, I found James Brown’s Famous Flames BBQ in Avon Park. Hard for me to miss a BBQ place but this sign definitely caught my eye:
Do yourself a favor and visit James Brown’s BBQ if you are anywhere near Avon Park, Florida. I had a huge pulled pork sandwich, which must have weighed a full pound. The pork was very tender and delicious. The sauces were in small containers by the register. One was not enough. Get 2! And the peach cobbler was outstanding. Moist, fresh peaches were not too sweet and the cobbler had ample breading.
Even though I only got two items, I can tell everything there would be great. I would have bought ribs but they were not available. I will return!
After a lakeside picnic (takeout from James Brown’s BBQ), I continued through Sebring and along 98 east through Lorida (proposed slogan: “Lorida, Florida. More fun to say than to visit.”). Portions of 98 follow the old “Cracker Trail” (highway 68), a trail used to herd cattle across the state. Cracker refers to the crack of the whip made by the cowboys.
What did you think “cracker” meant?
Highway 98 ends very close to the north end of Lake Okeechobee, which I had not seen before this trip. I was glad to learn about the “Big O” and its role as a transition between the northern and southern Everglades.
Have you visited the Florida Hills region?