The oldest settlement in Polk County, dates back to the tentative peace of the mid-19th century following the Second Seminole War.
Fort Meade is set just west of the Peace River. This spellbinding watercourse is a major attraction, flowing southwards through mysterious cypress swamp and past archeological sites.
At Fort Meade you can embark on an unforgettable journey via the Peace River Paddling Trail. I found outfitters hard to come by, but if you have your own canoe or kayak there are several places to launch on the edge of the city.
Fort Meade is in an area associated with phosphate mining. Many of my favorite places nearby are former open pit mines given a new role. This goes for the highly prestigious Streamsong Resort, one of the most prestigious golf destinations in the United States.
1. Fort Meade Historical Society
Located on North Tecumseh Avenue downtown, the Fort Meade Historical Society is housed in what may be the city’s finest building. This is the Old Fort Meade Schoolhouse, built in 1885 in the Frame Vernacular style.
It’s the perfect first stop for new visitors, brimming with items donated by families with roots in the area going back to the mid-19th century. I was pleased with the volunteer staff, sharing entertaining anecdotes about the town.
Though donations are gladly accepted, admission is free, and the museum is the anchor for a lot of seasonal events.
2. Peace River Paddle Trail
Fed by springs and rainwater, the 106-mile Peace River rises a few miles from Fort Meade, northeast of Bartow, and flows into the Gulf at Charlotte Harbor.
For millennia, Native American peoples used the Peace River for trade, and there are archeological sites all along the banks.
If you want to navigate this historic and beautiful watercourse, Fort Meade is at the north end of the 67-mile Peace River Paddling Trail. The scenery is astounding, as the river weaves through cypress swamp and primeval hardwood forest, with branches laden with Spanish moss.
One of my favorite things about the river is its geology. Rare for Florida are limestone outcrops and bluffs, which are particularly dramatic when the water is low.
These yield a lot of fossils, although collecting is prohibited between Bartow and Wauchula, 15 miles south of Fort Meade.
3. Patterson Park
On the north side of downtown, Patterson Park is a delightful public space developed in the late 1980s.
I was amazed to learn that this place, on three connected lakes, was previously an open pit mine. The paved trail on the shores beckons you under moss-draped boughs to a series of observation areas on the water.
The park also has a boat ramp that’s suitable for small boats, and since gasoline engines aren’t allowed. The lakes are popular with kayakers and people doing some fishing. As with almost any lake in Florida, alligators, turtles, and beautiful wading birds are never far away.
Patterson Park sets the scene for a lot of seasonal community events. A highlight for families is the costume contest on the Saturday before halloween.
4. Streamsong Resort
Plan in advance and you can play a round at one of the country’s most treasured golf destinations.
Streamsong Resort, with four extraordinary courses, is open to non-resort guests, provided you’re flexible and can adhere to a designated booking window.
The resort opened in 2012 on top of what used to be an enormous phosphate mine. When I went to press the Red, Blue, and Black courses were available, while the fourth, The Chain, was a few months from completion.
Red is known for its sweeping lakes and natural dunes and bunkers, while Blue has spectacular elevation changes, with wild grasses and loft dunes.
Black was unveiled in 2018, instantly winning awards, with a layout evoking the Sand Belt Region around Melbourne, Australia.
5. Fort Meade Historic District
Since you’re in the oldest town in Polk County, I think it’s work taking a little time for a tour. The historic district is centered on the intersection of Broadway St and Charleston Avenue (Hwy 17), anchoring downtown.
Still, much of the history can be found on Fort Meade’s sleepy but pretty residential streets, lined with magnificent live oaks.
There are more than 150 buildings contributing to the Fort Meade Historic District so there’s much to see. The local history museum has created a driving tour, pairing sights with historical info.
Some of my picks are the Second Train Station (1891), the Christ Episcopal Church (1889), the Rev. Wm James Reid House (c. 1900), and the W.O. Williams/R.C. McClellan House (c. 1898). The latter was once owned by Florida Congressman, W.O Williams (1873-1920).
6. Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area
On the city’s eastern outskirts, there’s a restful space by the Peace River. If you have your own vessel the Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area is a convenient place to launch. From here you can start a magical trip along the 67-mile Peace River Paddling Trail.
For a short but rewarding paddle you could float downstream between the cypresses as far as the Peace River Hammock.
The park itself covers 120 acres, and I can see why people visit for cookouts and parties. There’s a picnic area with lots of tables under mature trees, as well as three playgrounds for children.
7. Mosaic Peace River Park
A short drive north of Fort Meade is almost 500 acres of cypress floodplain forest on the banks of the Peace River. This place shines as a place to do some birdwatching, with an astonishing assortment of species.
To name just a few, you might see hooded mergansers, limpkins, blue-headed vireos, pelicans, and raptors like red-tailed hawks, and swallow-tailed kites.
You can traverse the park on almost eight miles of trails, including a mile of boardwalk cutting through the steamy cypress forest.
In 2022 Hurricane Ian inflicted some damage on the park, and the boardwalk was awaiting repairs when I hiked here.
8. Peace River Hammock
There’s a chain of conservation lands along the Peace River just east of Fort Meade. This property covers a little more than 40 acres and is a great spot for a walk in nature, minutes from downtown Fort Meade.
The 1.5-mile Peace River Trail leads down to the riverfront through an overstory of grand oaks, cabbage palms and hickories.
The park is another place to launch on the Peace River Paddling Trail, and if you’re passing through along the river, the launch has been designed to serve as a little rest site. Wildlife includes alligators, wading birds such as limpkins.
As with all of the nature around Fort Meade, I think it’s common sense to apply insect repellent before stepping out of your car.
9. John’s Drive-In
Hard to miss for its A-frame design, this old-school drive-in restaurant is right on Charleston Avenue downtown. In case you can’t tell, the building is a former Whataburger, transformed in the 1980s.
John’s Drive-In is all about American comfort food classics, with a Southern twist. By that I mean burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, chicken livers, steaks, and seafood from fried catfish to crab cakes.
If I had to pick one thing for newcomers to try it would be the grouper sandwich, or the ½ lb Miner Burger. Among the sides are fried green tomatoes, fried okra, coleslaw, hushpuppies, and yellow rice.
10. Nasgrass at Florida Flywheelers Park
Now, for something totally different there’s big-time lawnmower racing a short way east of Fort Meade. In fact, Nasgrass is America’s longest-running lawnmower racing club, promising high-speed dirt-racing action during the season.
Races take place on the second Saturday of the month, September to mid-May. When I was in town the track had just relocated from the Avon Park Mower-Plex to the Florida Flywheeler’s Antique Engine Club at 7000 Avon Park Cutoff Rd in Fort Meade.
I was impressed with the new facility, and the spectator turnout, with people tailgating before the races.
11. Homeland Heritage Park
There are some interesting things to check out if you head north out of Fort Meade on US 98. My favorite is this outdoor historical museum, no more than five minutes away in Homeland.
Greeting you at the Homeland Heritage Park is a small but wonderfully preserved snapshot of pioneer life in Polk County. In a picturesque wooded setting there’s a school from 1878, a church from 188, a preserved log cabin from 1888, and the 1880 Raulerson House.
The museum opened in the mid-1980s, and can be enjoyed on a self-guided walking tour, with interpretive signs and artifacts to pore over.
The seat of Polk County can be reached with a short drive from downtown Fort Meade. I can think of plenty of reasons to make the short trip. For one, you can learn all about the county’s past at the Polk County Historical Museum, in the marvelous old courthouse from the 1900s.
Another attraction that draws visitors from miles around is the Wonder House. Visitable by appointment, this architectural wonder was built in the 1920s by a Pittsburgh businessman who came to Bartow for his health, having been given a year to live. He survived until 1971.
Bartow also stands out for its events, namely the Fall Festival in September, and Bloomin’ Arts in March, dating back more than half a century.
13. Paynes Creek Historic State Park
If you’re intrigued by the area’s tumultuous mid-19th century history, this park is at the site of a massacre and then a fort.
After the Second Seminole War a reservation was established for the Seminoles a few miles south of modern Fort Meade. This was served by trading posts on its edges.
In 1849, when one of these trading posts encroached too far onto Seminole land it was promptly raided and burned.
Paynes Creek Historic State Park is at the site of Fort Chokonikla, built in response to the massacre. The fort was short-lived—not because of violence, but disease caused by mosquitos at this swampy location
The visitor center has museum exhibits recounting this story, and you can hike the trails and launch a kayak/canoe on the Peace River.
14. Hardee Lakes County Park
A little further out, Hardee Lakes County Park is southwest of Fort Meade, near Streamsong Resort. If you want some time in unspoiled nature, camping, fishing, horseback riding or hiking, this is the place to be.
Over 1,200 acres the landscape at Hardee Lakes County Park is commanded by a string of four large lakes. Fishing is permitted in all four lakes, the largest of which is the namesake Lake Hardee at 120 acres.
Trails curl through the woods and lead to sections of boardwalk by the lakeshore. If you want to stay overnight there are 60 RV sites and 15 primitive sites, all among the palms and pines on the western shore of Deer Lake.
15. Alafia River State Park
An easy road trip from Fort Meade, Alafia River State Park can be reached within half an hour. If you’re into mountain biking, then I think this place needs to be on your radar.
With 20 miles of single-track trails, it’s places for MTB riding in the entire state. The elevation changes are part of the fun, in what was once a phosphate mine. Indeed, you’ve got super-fast banked turns, breathtaking drops and roller coaster hills.
On your adventure you can pause to appreciate the views over lakes and the Alafia River. Around the park you’ll come across picnic pavilions, a playground, and even a full-service bike shop.