Florida panther kittens, found on Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest
Florida panther kittens, found on Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is a 32,039-acre property in Collier and Hendry Counties. Okaloacoochee Slough is upstream of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Okalaoacoochee Slough is a 13,382-acre pristine slough, oriented north/south in the forest that surrounds it. Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is one of the few areas of South Florida outside Big Cypress and Everglades National Park where visitors can still walk in and observe pre-Columbian Florida. Among the threatened and endangered species that call this forest home are the Florida panther, sandhill crane, Florida black bear, gopher tortoise, wood stork and American alligator. You might also find white-tailed deer, wild turkey and feral hog on the property.

The forest is composed of a mix of natural communities including cypress swamp, marsh, slough, pine flatwoods, wet prairie, oak and oak-palm hammock. Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest offers 39 miles of former logging roads for hiking, biking and horseback riding enthusiasts. The forest also offers fishing, hunting and primitive camping. Equestrians must present the results of a current negative Coggins test before unloading their horses and riders under the age of 16 must wear a helmet at all times when on a horse. Canoeing and kayaking are near impossible considering that only during times of extremely wet weather is there enough water anywhere to support the floating of a boat.

In the early 1900's, this whole area of South Florida was forested. The timber around Okaloacoochee Slough was particularly suited for the manufacture of railroad ties. As the railroad system was rapidly expanding in those days, sawmills popped up and small towns grew around them. As usual in the Florida forest, though, wildlfire was common and when areas burned, the sawmills and towns went in and out of business. Eventually, the Atlantic Land Improvement Company, Inc. invested in two portable sawmills and moved them around as needs dictated. They were referred to as the Twin Mills and remnants of their sawdust piles can still be seen near Twin Mills Grade.

Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is located about 30 miles east of Fort Myers. Most folks access the area via County Road 832: the various self-service pay stations mark the entrances. A large portion of the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is contained within the Okaloacoochee Slough Wildlife Management Area and is cooperatively managed by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Division of Forestry and the South Florida Water Management District.