After we left Manatee Park on Thursday, it was a short drive East on SR80 to the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam on the Caloosahatchee River and part of the Okeechobee Waterway. We stopped in the Visitor’s Center and spent about an hour talking with the volunteer staff member, who grew up in Okeechobee and watching a DVD about the history of the lake and the waterway.
Located in central and southern Florida, Lake Okeechobee covers 730 square miles (half the size of Rhode Island) and is exceptionally shallow with an average depth of only 9 feet. The 154 mile long Okeechobee waterway which runs through the lake extends from the Atlantic Ocean at Stuart, to the Gulf of Mexico at Ft. Myers. The waterway consists of the Caloosahatchee River to the west of the lake and the St. Lucie Canal to the east of the lake. The Army Corps of Engineers manages and operates 5 navigation locks and dams along the Okeechobee Waterway – St. Lucie Lock & Dam at Stuart, Port Mayaca Lock & Dam near Canal Point, Moore Haven Lock & Dam at Moore Haven, Ortona Lock & Dam near LaBelle and W. P. Franklin Lock & Dam near Ft. Myers. The W. P. Franklin Lock is the one that we visited on Thursday. Click here for more details on each lock.
We spent an hour or so watching several boats come through the locks and talking to other spectators as well. One power boat was from Minnesota; another power catamaran was from Annapolis. There’s only a 3 foot water differential here at Franklin so it only takes about 15 minutes for the boats to go through. This lock has a 56′ width.
It was interesting to learn that the Army Corps of Engineers built a dyke around most of Lake Okeechobee primarily to prevent the water from being pushed out during hurricanes and flooding the surrounding lowland terrain. There is a 110 mile long trail for walking or biking around the circumference on the rim of the dyke.
In regard to the waterway, its traffic is 90% pleasure and 10% commercial and in addition to the locks there are several bridges many which have to be manned and opened for tall boat traffic. The actual transit of Lake Okeechobee itself can be via a 35 mile run basically straight across or via a 50 mile perimeter passage which is more protected and easier to navigate. According to the film we viewed, the nearly featureless lake can become very disconcerting as the sky and the water blend into one. We also heard from the volunteer at the visitor center, that as with any large body of water, the conditions on the lake can become extremely severe in certain weather patterns.
On Sunday we visited the locks at Ortona and Moore Haven. If you are visiting the lock system, Moore Haven and especially Ortona are not very land visitor friendly and it is difficult or impossible to view the lock operations, so Franklin is your best bet where they have an informative visitor center and a nice viewing platform.
Franklin, Ortona and St Lucie locks all have Army Corp of Engineer campgrounds on the opposite shore bank. The campground at Franklin seems particularly inviting as it is basically an island and each site is waterfront. Sites can be booked online via recreation.gov although this time of year it is near impossible to get a land site there on short notice. At Franklin there are 28 land sites with 50/30A electric and water and 8 boat “moorings” each with 50/30A service and water. Site fee is $24 or half that rate with a Nat’l Parks senior pass.