In the Peace River Valley, Arcadia is a rural city about half an hour in from the Gulf Coast. Passing by just west of the city, the river is a big attraction for quite a few reasons.
For one, it’s at the southern end of a paddling trail, coursing lazily through remote forests and cypress swamplands. You can also discover this scenery on an airboat tour, while the riverbed is famed for its fossils.
My time to come is spring, when the water is low, and you can sift through the gravel for fossils. Arcadia has a downtown that is easy to fall in love with and replete with antiques stores, while the city also has a reputation for its twice-yearly Rodeo, in spring and fall.
1. Downtown Arcadia
Mostly along about five blocks of Oak Street, Arcadia has a small but worthwhile downtown area. Almost all of the older buildings you see here are from a brief window, following a fire that claimed most of the district in 1905.
One building that I can’t help but admire is the highly ornate Rosin Arcade (1926). This wonderful early Art Deco landmark is easily spotted by its Gothic-style pinnacles and intricate moldings. It’s also home to the popular Rattlers Old West Saloon.
Among a healthy assortment of small businesses downtown are a lot of antiques stores, on three whole blocks. Literally, you could spend all day hunting for special somethings.
Finally, on the east side is McSwain Park, which is a good place to pause for a picnic, and has a splash pad for kids.
2. Peace River Paddling
In my experience, the Peace River has an accurate name. This was coined by Spanish explorers, who named it Río de la Paz, as early as the mid-16th century,
About two-thirds of this 100+ mile watercourse is designated as the Peace River Paddling Trail, stretching from Arcadia upstream to Bartow in the north.
The banks give you a taste of the Florida of old, the river twists lazily through beautiful tracts of cypress swamp, with towering trees with buttress roots and Spanish moss. Wildlife abounds, from wading birds to timid gators and even manatees on the lower reaches.
There are several places to put in near Arcadia. If you need a vessel there’s a few local rental services, a prominent one being Canoe Outpost-Peace River, Inc, on the west side of town.
3. The Arcadia Opera House
Across Oak Street from the Rosin Arcade is another worthwhile downtown landmark. This is the Arcadia Opera House, built in 1906 in the wake of the fire. The building served as a performance stage for about 30 years before being converted to a series of shops.
For a lot of its recent history, the auditorium upstairs was one of Arcadia’s many antiques stores. That started to change with a renovation that was interrupted by Hurricane Ian, but had just been completed when I wrote this article.
Now the auditorium has been reborn as an entertainment venue, with live music, comedy and movie screenings. There are also regular paranormal investigations as the building is purported to be haunted.
4. Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo
The city is known for a rich rodeo heritage, as the home of the oldest rodeo association in Florida.
The Arcadia Rodeo Association goes back to 1952, but has roots reaching back even further, to American Legion Members who put on the first event in 1929.
When I wrote this article there were two rodeos a year. The traditional one is the March rodeo, across four days, with all the iconic events, from tie-down roping to bareback bronc riding.
You’ll see the highly accomplished competitors, all aiming for the opportunity to reach the PRCA National Finals.
There’s also a Fall Rodeo taking place on a weekend in late October, with all the same categories accompanied by vendors and pre-show entertainment.
5. Fossil Hunting on the Peace River
Arcadia and everything along the Peace River basin was once at the bottom of the ocean. Vertebrate fossils spanning millions of years from the late Miocene to the late Pleistocene end up on the riverbed thanks to erosion.
If you’re fascinated by this natural history, the river is an especially fertile hunting ground for fossils, from megalodon teeth to parts of Ice Age mammals.
But that means you need to get into the water and sift it out. So as you can imagine, this is an activity best done when the water level is low, in springtime.
You also need a Florida Fossil Hunting Permit. That’s the case if you’re doing it independently, which is why I’d recommend a charter.
6. Joshua Citrus, Inc.
Founded in the 1980s, this citrus farm is run by a family with 140+ years of local growing history.
Joshua Citrus, Inc. is on the southeastern edge of the city and has a farmstand open throughout the season, from early October to the start of June.
You can head here for farm-fresh citrus, especially oranges and grapefruit. There’s also delectable soft serve ice cream, jellies, jams, sauces, and a range of other citrus or Florida-themed gifts.
In particular I couldn’t get enough of the freshly squeezed OJ, and you can turn it into a float if you want a treat.
7. Arcadia Peace River Charters
No doubt, the Peace River is Arcadia’s main draw, and you don’t need to be an intrepid adventurer to experience it.
If, like me, you’d rather let someone else take care of all the little details, you can always book a tour. The main operator is Peace River Charters.
They offer private and public airboat tours that include a knowledgeable local captain and guide. Charters typically include chances to see lots of wildlife, especially gators, while learning about the area’s compelling natural prehistory.
Sunset tours are offered too, and charters can be tailored to the ages and interests of guests. You can also take buggy rides through the swamp, while the company’s quaint country store has baby alligators to hold.
8. Morgan Park
There’s a picturesque passive park, with almost 250 acres of nature by the Peace River on the west side of town.
A paved trail runs the length of the park and is appropriate for strollers and those who use wheelchairs. Dogs are allowed in the park as long as they’re kept on leashes and cleaned up after.
The trails wind their way past the river, and through native vegetation, from soaring bald cypresses to lush saw palmettos and sabal palms.
As this place is all about nature, amenities are sparse, but include picnic shelters, and a boat ramp that had just been installed when I was here.
9. Slim’s Bar-B-Q & Grill
On the south side of downtown, on US 17 Slim’s Bar-B-Q & Grill is adownhome-style BBQ joint with a long history. Remarkably this spot has been open since 1957, and run by the same family for all that time.
There’s an extensive menu, comprising market-fresh grilled fish, burgers, and vegetarian options. Still, I reckon all first-timers need to be all about the BBQ. This is smoked as slow as possible, using blackjack oak, and a family-secret basting sauce.
Get a plate, preferably ribs, and this comes with slaw, grilled garlic bread, and your choice of baked beans, potato salad, baked potato or steak fries.
10. Lions, Tigers & Bears, Inc.
A short trip into the countryside north of Arcadia will get you to a remote animal sanctuary. Lions, Tigers & Bears provides a forever home for non-releasable wildlife, and unwanted exotic pets.
Also on this 40-acre campus, cloaked in an upland oak hammock and pasture, is a rehab facility for rescued animals. Run by a non-profit and funded by donations, this is a private facility, but does offer tours by appointment.
As the sanctuary is not a visitor attraction, these are highly personalized experiences. You’ll get lots of information about each of the residents, as well as all the background what it takes to keep a facility like this going.
A few of the animals when I was here were several monkey species, as well as big cats, exotic cattle, a bear, goats, to name a few.
11. Brownville Park
Ten minutes north of downtown Arcadia, this park stands out as a place to launch a canoe or kayak on the Peace River.
When I compiled this list there was a small fee ($2) for day visitors. Awaiting you is a scenic 75-acre riverside parcel, with magnificent live oaks, a loop trail and picnic sites near the water.
If you’re launching here you can paddle north against the gentle current and then glide back downstream. Barred owls roost in the live oaks and make themselves heard at night, while sharks’ teeth can be found on the river’s fossil beds here.
12. Solomon’s Castle
In the middle of nowhere, about 20 minutes northwest of Arcadia, I was not prepared for this fairytale castle rising from the swamps.
A self-built labor of love taking shape since 1974, Solomon’s Castle is the work of Howard Solomon, rising three stories tall and measures 12,000 square feet.
Something I’ve neglected to mention is that it’s made from shiny aluminum, salvaged from printing plates discarded by a newspaper.
This is the largest of many creations around the property, composed of recycled material. That goes for the 80 awesome stained glass windows, a chair composed of some 90 recycled cans, and an elephant made from oil drums.
Tours take place Tuesday – Sunday, October through July.
13. Arcadia Municipal Golf Course
For a fuss-free, affordable round of golf, I doubt you can do better than this muni course in the north of the city.
The Arcadia Municipal Golf Course is a par-71, with Bermuda grass and a variety of sand and water hazards to keep even the most seasoned golfers on their toes. Aside from some contouring and a few palms, there’s a flat, open layout with no unpleasant surprises.
Do expect some wildlife encounters on your round, with gators and wading birds by the lakes.
Generally, rounds can be completed in three or four hours, and there are a variety of tee boxes to accommodate children, seniors, and women who prefer to play from the red tees. The course is open every day of the year, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
14. Arcadia Peace River Campground
Though the summer weather around Arcadia can be oppressive, for much of the year, it’s perfect for being outdoors.
For people with RVs who prefer the open-air breezes and stars to pricey hotels, the Arcadia Peace River Campground is a good fit.
The nearly 80-acre grounds are set amid a scenic stretch of the Peace River, and popular nearby activities include kayaking, fishing, biking, and bird-watching. There are 225 full hook up sites here (50/30/20 amp), including ‘buddy’ sites accommodating up to four RVs.
Amenities include abundant showers and bathrooms, built-in BBQ grills. Bikes and golf carts are available to rent as well.
15. DeSoto County Fair
No matter where I find myself across the country, I’ll always make time for a county fair. You get an insight into rural communities, great activities, tasty food, and an all-around family-friendly atmosphere..
The DeSoto County Fair takes place in February when the weather is pleasant and mild. It’s a nine-day event, which means you can visit multiple times.
The fair includes lots of livestock events, midway rides and shows, pageants, live music, and even bull riding. Since most of the vendors are local, the majority of money spent on-site will stay in the community.