The seat of Hardee County is a quaint small town surrounded by pastoral farmland. Flowing by, just east of Wauchula is the scenic Peace River.
This might be my favorite river in Florida, with grand bald cypresses on its banks and limestone bluffs, almost never seen in the Sunshine State.
These are packed with fossils going back tens of millions of years to when Hardee County was on the bed of a shallow sea. In Wauchula you can set off on a paddling trip to remember, or book a fossil hunting experience with a local expert.
Wauchula has a sweet little downtown area, and there’s a lot of interesting things within a half-hour drive, from a haunted old theater to exotic animal sanctuaries and an aluminum castle.
1. Paddling on the Peace River
Rising near Bartow, the Peace River flows southwards for more than 100 miles to the Gulf Coast at Charlotte Harbor.
About two thirds of the river, between Fort Meade and Arcadia, is an official paddling trail. The river flows by just east of Wauchula, and is fronted by the lovely Riverside Park.
This is the most convenient place to launch a kayak or paddleboard, especially as it had just been improved when I came by. From here you can paddle one of Florida’s most beautiful watercourses, through cypress swamps and shaded oak hammocks, all draped with Spanish moss.
Another remarkable thing about the Peace River is its limestone geology, which I’ll go into below.
2. Paynes Creek Historic State Park
On 400 picture-perfect acres by the Peace River, the Paynes Creek Historic State Park presents a compelling mix of nature and history.
The latter deals with the fractious aftermath of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and a massacre that led to the creation of the short-lived Fort Chokonikla at this site in 1849.
Trails wind through the park area, and there’s a range of outdoor recreation on offer. You can go hiking, biking, fishing, or bird-watching, while this is another great place to launch a canoe or kayak on the Peace River.
I was intrigued by the visitor center, which has well-researched interpretive exhibits exploring the lives of the Seminole Native Americans and pioneers in the 19th century.
3. Cracker Trail Museum and Village
In Zolfo Springs, five minutes south of downtown Wauchula, there’s a museum dedicated to Florida’s pioneer history.
The Cracker Trail Museum has more than 4,000 artifacts on display. Most of these were donated by the descendants of pioneers, and include farming equipment, painted portraits, photographs, hunting equipment, home furnishings, and fossils yielded by the Peace River.
Larger items, such as a 1914 Baldwin Locomotive Engine and two work wagons, are on display outside. Here, the Pioneer Village portion of the attraction features a blacksmith shop, cabin, and smokehouse.
The museum is part of Pioneer Park, a county-owned property, which I’ll come to later in this list.
4. Main Street Wauchula
Small but sweet, Wauchula’s downtown area is just a few blocks of Main Street, either side of US 17. The anchor is Main Street Heritage Park, a gorgeous public space that opened in 2000.
Here you’ll find gardens, benches in the shade, a bandstand for public events, and a mural for the county’s agricultural history.
Bordering the park are most of downtown’s businesses, including a cafe, a handful of restaurants, salons, and an antiques store. I’ll talk about some of these in more detail later.
A couple of blocks west, you’ll come to the Classical Revival-style Hardee County Courthouse, built in 1927.
5. Fossil Hunting on the Peace River
The stretch of the Peace River between Wauchula in the north and Arcadia in the south is one of the most productive fossil hunting areas in the country.
I’ll try and explain why. From what I can tell, there was a shallow sea covering this part of Florida during the Miocene, some 20 million years ago. The sediment-rich seabed preserved the remains of all kinds of animals as fossils.
The Peace River courses through this sedimentary rock, now limestone and releases those fossils via erosion. You can make all kinds of finds, but the most common are megalodon shark teeth.
A host of companies will take you to the most productive spots. It’s a real adventure, as you’ll stand in waist-deep water sifting the gravel for something special.
6. Pioneer Park
The Cracker Trail Museum is one element in an expansive park along the Peace River. Away from the developed portion to the south, Pioneer Park has a tranquil, wild appearance, with forest and lakes.
There’s a campground embedded in the woods, with 90 sites (65 with electric/water, 25 without). You’ll also find a boat ramp on the Peace River, as well a playground, sports amenities, and a hiking trail winding through the woods, and along the riverbank.
The Hardee County Wildlife Refuge is within the park, and I’ll talk about this facility below. Also be sure to check the calendar for the annual Pioneer Days Celebration, usually around February or March.
7. Streamsong Golf Resort
Golf courses may be a dime a dozen in Florida, but literally none can match the Streamsong Golf Resort for quality. The Red, Blue and Black courses were laid out on a former phosphorus mine in the early 2010s.
Designed by top architects like Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, these tracks blend with the site’s unique sandhill topography, and are commonly ranked among the best public courses in the country.
When I went to press a fourth course, The Chain, was just about to be unveiled. The facility includes 228 rooms at two architecturally striking buildings, as well as a luxury spa.
8. Hardee County Wildlife Refuge
There’s another animal sanctuary, mainly for native Floridian wildlife, by the Peace River at Pioneer Park.
The Hardee County Wildlife Refuge started out as a few enclosures, but moved into a more appropriate facility in 2001.
All of the animals, from owls to otters, emus, cougars, alligators, and raccoons, were in need of a forever home and would not survive in the wild. You can visit the refuge on a self-guided tour, which includes a section of elevated boardwalk through the canopy.
When I came, visits were available by appointment only, which is something to factor into your plans.
9. Solomon’s Castle
Twenty minutes away from Wauchula in a large swamp area is the interesting and wildly eccentric Solomon’s Castle.
Architect Howard Solomon built this well-known landmark with only aluminum newspaper printing plates, an Alamo replica, and a galleon from the 16th century. For a small fee, you can visit the castle, wander the grounds, and even meet the builder.
Guided tours are available. Along the way, you will see an assortment of unique sculptures, all with a story of their own. What I loved most of all was the sense of wit that suffuses this place, evident in the liberal use of puns on the guided tour.
A gift shop is on-site, and The Boat in the Moat Restaurant serves lunch with their signature walnut pie for dessert.
10. Giovanni’s Main Street Kitchen
The main place to eat downtown is this Italian spot, serving Italian comfort food in generous portions. No question, delicious Italian-American classics and a friendly atmosphere are in store at Giovanni’s Main Street Kitchen.
The centerpiece here is a giant authentic wood burning brick oven. For me this makes the pizza or calzones a must for first-timers. The dough is made fresh every day, and there’s a big choice of toppings with fresh ingredients.
Besides these, you’ve got a menu loaded with everyone’s favorite pasta dishes, from ravioli to lasagna bubbling from the oven. Finish up with indulgent sweet treats like cannoli, tiramisu or caramel custard flan.
11. Charlotte’s Webb Pub
By the intersection of SR 636 and SR 64, about ten minutes out of town is the welcoming Charlotte’s Web Pub.
Make no mistake, this is a dive bar, frequented by a lot of bikers. That might give some people a little hesitant, but this rustic pub prides itself on openness to all-comers.
You’ll come across a big blend of people, and there’s something fun going on most nights (except Mondays), from karaoke to live music. Happy Hour is Friday, from 5-6 pm, and the bar even has a line of merchandise.
I loved the giant live oak tree in the garden, and the chopper out front for photo opportunities.
12. Center for Great Apes
Not a visitor attraction in the traditional sense, this sanctuary is run by a non-profit organization, founded in 1993.
In 100 acres of tropical forest, the Center for Great Apes provides a home to orangutans and chimpanzees that have been raised in captivity, as exotic pets, for research, or to entertain. .
Many of the residents have links to show business—at a less enlightened time when primates appeared regularly in movies and television.
Among them Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, and the twin chimpanzees, Jonah and Jacob, which appeared in Planet of the Apes (2001).
The Center for Great Apes is not open to the general public; however, if you become a member (Hero Level), you can set up a private guided tour.
13. The Arcadia Opera House
The Arcadia Opera House is a huge draw for antique lovers, paranormal enthusiasts, and historians. This stately, well-preserved building was built in 1906 and was once a central venue for the area’s political and cultural events.
Today, it’s a large antique shop and museum and a known hot-spot for ghost sightings. Almost all of downtown Arcadia was claimed by a devastating fire in 1905, so there are interesting historical details woven into the paranormal investigations.
Antiques are on sale in 14 of the building’s rooms. Some of the historical items that are on display include old clothing, tools, glassware, and an extensive vinyl album collection.
Meanwhile the original auditorium had recently been restored when I was in town, and hosts a diversity of live events.
14. Hardee County Fair
An eight-day event, the Hardee County Fair takes place just southwest of Wauchula every February.
This is a great opportunity to get a taste of local agriculture, with a packed schedule of 4-H and FFA events. In this vein you’ve got everything from a grooming contest and poultry show to swine showmanship.
Also happening throughout the week are pageants, midway amusements, and everyone’s favorite fair food. The year I was in town the live entertainment included a Mexican-style rodeo.
15. Heartland Events
Situated in Bowling Green, Heartland Events is a farm and event venue with various activities available for families with children. A playground, jumping pillow, cow train, battlezone, and spider web are just some of the fun attractions that are on-site.