On an early August morning, seven hikers set out from River Ranch near Lake Wales for a four-and-a-half mile hike in the woods at KICCO Wildlife Management Area. Morning dew lit up the numerous spider webs and made our shoes damp, and the hot sun hadn’t reached its “boiling point,” but we were armed with sunscreen and water bottles nonetheless.
Led by experienced hikers Sandra Friend and John Keatley, both members of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association which was having its annual conference at Westgate River Ranch in Polk County, the hikers were in expert hands. Friend has written numerous hiking guide books and SmartPhone hiking applications, as well as a book about sinkholes.
KICCO consists of more than 7,000 acres along the channelized Kissimmee River in Polk County south of State Road 60. About 13 miles of the Florida Trail traverse the area through oak hammock, scrub, cypress strand, and pine-palmetto flatwoods, and we watched for orange trail markings to keep us on the right path.
Wildlife is abundant along KICCO and includes white-tailed deer, alligators, feral hogs, bald eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, wading birds and sandhill cranes. The threatened crested caracara has been observed on the area, and we were lucky to see one flying overhead on our morning hike at our turnaround point where the tree canopy had ceded to blue sky.
Cattle also roamed freely, mostly in small groupings. Their presence seemed appropriate given that KICCO stands for Kissimmee Island Cattle Company which operated here from 1915 through the late '20s. KICCO contributed to the development of central Florida towns such as Kissimmee and Sebring which depended on beef production and river trade. At one time, the KICCO settlement had homes, a bunkhouse, mess hall, company store, ice house, power plant, schoolhouse and even its own steamboat landing, according to the website http://myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/wmas/cooperative/kicco.
If hikers prefer to hoof it along a soft road for a bit, that is an option. The 9-mile shell KICCO Grade road also offers an excellent biking opportunity atop hybrids and mountain bikes.
Horseback riding, hunting and camping information is provided at https://my.sfwmd.gov.
Trail users may wish to remember their fishing rod. Bass lurk in the waters of the C-38 canal and the oxbows of the Old Kissimmee River.
Access to the KICCO trail is provided from the public boat ramp off Hwy. 60 and at two trailhead/parking areas. The first access point is on the east side of River Ranch Blvd. about three miles south of the junction with Hwy. 60. The second is at the north end of KICCO Road which is about one quarter mile past the Westgate River Ranch Resort guard house at the south end of River Ranch Blvd. For more about this resort, visit www.wgriverranch.com.
To get there from Lake Wales: Take Hwy. 60 east for 21.1 miles to Westgate River Ranch Resort. From Yeehaw Junction (junction of 441 and 60) go west 19 miles on Hwy. 60. Look for the Westgate River Ranch sign on the south side of the road.
View http://myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/wmas/cooperative/kicco and download gate codes when you get your free trail pass. Although nearly 100 years has passed, KICCO enables the feel of "old Florida." In this region, you will enjoy a rich patchwork of habitat extremes from scrub to marsh.