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Remnants of desert sea islands 2.3 million years old host the hundreds of lakes along Florida's Lake Wales Ridge. This large area encompasses a broad swath across the East Central, West Central and South Florida tourism regions. Called the 'spine' of the Florida peninsula, the ancient Lake Wales Ridge was once only a series of mid-ocean sand dunes until receding waters uncovered the rest of the state. This unique ecology has created a valuable glimpse into an environment that remained isolated for millions of years, allowing plants and animals to evolve here, completely separated from outside influence.
Even the many smaller lakes along 'Florida's Attic' are somewhat unique: many are 'sink' lakes - collapsed sinkholes where rainfall percolated easily through the surface sands to dissolve caverns in the underlying limestone. Eventually, the surface 'roofs' of these sinks collapsed, leaving lakes that have existed in some cases for 50,000 years. And, although most lakes atop the narrow ridge are small, the underlying aquifer and drainage system created several very large lakes around the edges of the 100-mile-long ridge. Some of Florida's most famous lakes are a part of this ridge drainage system, including Lake June in Winter, Crooked Lake, Lake Kissimmee, Lake Walk In Water, Lake Wales, Lake Istopoga, Lake Arbuckle, Lake Apopka, Lake Tohopekaliga and many smaller lakes where residents and visitors play, fish and relax.
Between four and ten miles wide, the Lake Wales Ridge is a desert environment and the highest point in the state. The Ridge itself is still dry, and the ancient sands support the famous Florida 'scrub' ecology of plants, animals and birds that are found nowhere else. Off the Ridge, typical tropical Florida climate provides plentiful water for citrus groves, cattle ranches, growing cities and recreational villages. The bounty provided by Lake Wales Ridge helped to make Florida the chosen vacationland of millions of visitors and the citrus capital of the United States.
Stretching southward from the Orlando area, the Lake Wales Ridge area of Polk and Highland Counties provides such crowd-pleasers as Cypress Gardens, the famous 71-bell carillon at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, and favored vacation destinations all the way down to Lake Okeebechobee. The marshes along the Lake Wales Ridge feed both the massive lake and the Everglades beyond.
Crooked Lake, or Lake Caloosa as it was previously known, is typical of some of the larger lakes along the Lake Wales Ridge. Nestled in a mix of farmland and residential areas, Crooked Lake is reputed to be nearly 7000 acres; recent official figures reduce that number to 3552 acres. This isn't unusual as early estimates of lakes almost invariably over-estimated size, and the size of the lake is highly variable due to rainfall trends. Although used for irrigation purposes in the past, water levels are being protected currently and have increased since 1990. Maintaining higher water levels is considered critical to protecting the underlying aquifer to prevent the encroachment of seawater into this important water source. Still, 3500 acres is a large body of water and contains plenty of wetlands along its shore to provide habitat for water birds and spawning fish. Populated areas along the shore include Babson Park, Hillcrest Heights and Crooked Lake Park, but the lake is claimed by the larger town of Frostproof a couple of miles to the south.
Spring-fed Crooked Lake is a favorite among fishermen, and a number of fishing guides make their living leading visiting anglers to the 'best bass fishing in central Florida', as claimed by the locals. Reported to have some of the best water quality along the Lake Wales Ridge, Crooked Lake is especially noted for monster largemouth bass and crappie, although bluegill and catfish are also caught. The southern basin of the lake is sometimes called Little Crooked Lake and has a public boat launch. A number of private vacation rentals along the shore offer the perfect vacation location, with sandy beaches for swimming and plenty of room for water skiing, boating, jet skiing and paddle sports.
At the south end of the lake, the Crooked Lake Prairie Preserve provides over three miles of marked walking trails among Ridge dunes, hills and prairie grasslands. Only a couple of miles to the east, the Walk-In-The-Water section of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest provides hiking trails, a wildlife management area, year-round campground and access to Lake Wechyakapka , better known as Lake Walk-In-Water. Areas around Crooked Lake and the State Forest tract are home to a variety of birds and wildlife such as bald eagles, turkey, deer, gopher tortoises, scrub-jays, and an array of wading birds.
Almost 85% of the Lake Wales Ridge landscape has been altered from its natural state by a hundred years of farming, citrus orchards and cattle grazing. As people have become more aware of how the natural environment creates inter-linking systems of water quality, water tables and micro-climates, efforts have increased to preserve as much of the unique Lake Wales Ridge habitat as possible. A number of research projects, private donations of land, and state and federal purchases are slowly building a base of habitat preservation for such rare or endangered wildlife as the scrub jay. Found nowhere else in the world, this relative of the common bluejay lives among the unusual scrub vegetation growing along the ridge such as scrub lupine, scrub mint, pygmy fringetree, scrub plum and the exceedingly rare Florida ziziphus. The legless sand skink 'swims' just below the surface of the sand, leaving wavy trails on the surface. Burrowing owls and other variations of desert creatures such as the gopher tortoise inhabit this rare environment. Some species are so rare that the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge has several sections of protected land that is not open to the public. Maintaining the scrub environment requires proscribed burning of the surface plants at intervals. One reason the scrub environment has been reduced is human control of fire. In these closed environments, fire can be used to maintain the necessary delicate balance between plants, animals and their environment.
A number of state and federal tracts have been developed with hiking and interpretive trails to allow ecology-conscious visitors the chance to experience the ancient ecosystem and perhaps get a glimpse of the elusive scrub jay. Visitors can see Lake Wales Ridge scrub at The Nature Conservancy's Catfish Creek, Tiger Creek and Saddle Blanket Lakes Scrub Preserves in Polk County and at their Lake Apthorpe Scrub Preserve in Highlands County. Some of these preserved areas contain examples of the many small sink lakes. The Archebald Biological Station near Lake Placid offers interpretive videos and a wealth of information on Lake Wales Ridge ecology and scientific study. The casual tourist can see examples of Lake Wales Ridge scrub lands a few miles either side of US 27 between Lake Wales and Lake Placid where the low shrubs and exposed sands are visible directly from the car windows. Lake Kissimmee State Park, Lake Arbuckle State Park and Lake Arbuckle State Forest all contain examples of ancient Lake Wales Ridge scrub.
Although new development has been curtailed on most of Lake Wales Ridge itself, there are still areas around the perimeter and in existing towns that have real estate available. Some of the most charming selections are often the older lakefront bungalows and cottages built during the early half of the last century. These homes exude the type of rustic ambiance seldom found in new construction - an ambiance that seems a perfect fit for the Central Florida lake landscape. New condos and developments are also available and offer every amenity. Many private rentals can be found for a week or a season of relaxation in unhurried Southern style.
The entire Lake Wales Ridge is within an hour or so of the famous amusement kingdoms around Orlando, the mysterious and seemingly endless Everglades, and a huge number of smaller historical and entertainment destinations that will please all ages. Campgrounds, RV parks, public beaches, excellent freshwater fishing, golf courses, horseback, cycling and hiking pathways, and numerous canoe and kayak trails assure that visitors can experience the vacation of their dreams. Numerous small fishing camps, Mom-and-Pop resorts, motels and hotel chains offer lodgings catering to every need. Central Florida and the Lake Wales Ridge area are truly a Lakelubber's paradise. Won't you come and explore the Florida scrub and experience the special ambiance of life on one of the many lakes? Don't forget the fishing gear!
*All statistics refer to Crooked Lake
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