Lake Wales

Lake Wales is a small city located in eastern Polk County, Florida. The city is in the middle of a long, narrow region known as the Lake Wales Ridge. The Lake Wales Ridge was the first part of the Florida Peninsula to rise above sea level, beginning as a series of small sandy islands not unlike the Florida Keys today. It is a unique environment from its surrounding and home to several endemic species, such as the gopher tortoise and scrub jay. The city of Lake Wales lies at the southern foot of Iron Mountain—the second-highest point on the Florida Peninsula at 295 ft (90 m)—and is home to famous Bok Tower Gardens and its Singing Tower. Near the center of town lies Lake Wailes. The city is small, but much of the rural area extending east and southeast of town is considered as part of Lake Wales and included in this guide.



The city was first surveyed in 1879 by Sidney Irving Wailes, who changed the name of a lake—then known as Watts Lake—to Lake Wailes. The city was incorporated in 1911 as Lake Wales (the lake remains known as Lakes Wailes). In the 1920s, the town became a popular winter home for affluent residents from northern states. This resulted in the construction of many historical buildings which remain today in downtown and also in the construction of Bok Tower Gardens.


Lake Wales' climate is much the same as the rest of Central Florida (except coasts). Summers are hot and humid, with highs around 90-95°F (33-35°C) and lows around 74-78°F (23-26°C). During the summer, onshore winds from both coasts travel inland, heat up, rise and build into thunderstorms, usually along a rough line. Lying in the center of the state, the lines of storms (each called a "seabreeze") sometimes collide, resulting in strong thunderstorms with frequent lightning and tornadoes (small EF0-1s...not like the powerful tornadoes in the Plains states), 50+ mph winds, and hail possible. Strong storms are usually preceded by cooler winds caused by the rain-cooled air (cold air sinks) rapidly flowing away from the storm. The temperature after a strong thunderstorm passes can drop from 95°F (35°C) to 75°F (24°C) and since the storms can be fairly small, you can drive 5 miles and the temperature will drop/rise 20°F (10°C) between rain-cooled and surrounding areas.

Winters are mild, with highs in the 70s (°F; 21-27°C) and lows in the 50s (°F; 10-15°C). Lows in the 30s (°F; 0-5°C) are common after cold fronts and there are usually a handful of lows below freezing each winter, although that requires clear skies, so it usually warms very rapidly after sunrise (30°F/−1°C at 6AM, 55°F/13°C by noon is typical). Cold fronts occasionally pass by as squall lines, so tornadoes in December or January are not unusual. Snow is extremely rare; the last measurable snowfall was in 1977, although sleet/wintry mix fell in an unusually cold January 2010.

Spring and fall are transition periods, with spring tending to be the driest months of the year.

In 2004, Lake Wales was hit by three hurricanes: Charley, Frances, & Jeanne. It was the first time in recorded U.S. history that 3 hurricanes passed through the same county (Polk County) in the same year, with Lake Wales and other southern Polk County towns lying closest to the path of these hurricanes' eyes.

Get in

By car

Lake Wales is located at the crossroads of U.S. 27 and State Road 60. U.S. 27 is a heavily-traveled 4-to-6-lane divided highway running north/south through the center of the peninsula, heading south to Sebring & Miami and running north to Clermont, Ocala, & Gainesville. State Road 60 runs east-west across the center of the state from Clearwater, Tampa and Brandon in the west to Vero Beach in the east.

From Orlando

Lake Wales is easily reached from the Orlando/Kissimmee area by taking Interstate 4 west to U.S. 27 (exit 55) and heading south about 25 mi.

From the Tampa Bay area

Take Interstate 4 east and exit on the Polk Parkway east (exit 27). Follow the parkway for 10 mi (toll: $1.25/car cash or $1/car with Sunpass) before exiting onto U.S. 98 (exit 10). Head south to Bartow, follow U.S. 98 left at the traffic light as it joins S.R. 60 east (Van Fleet Drive), stay right after turning and at the second traffic light, follow the signs to remain on S.R. 60 east to Lake Wales (U.S. 98 goes straight at light and continues a couple hundred feet to an intersection with U.S. 17).

From South Florida

Take either U.S. 27 north or take Florida's Turnpike north to SR 60 and head west.

By bus

Winter Haven Area Transit (WHAT, , +1 863 534-5500) provides public bus service in eastern Polk County. Route 30 () connects the Eagle Ridge Mall to southeast Winter Haven (including Legoland) and downtown Winter Haven. From the Eagle Ridge Mall, Route 35 () runs south through Lake Wales, continuing on to Babson Park and Frostproof. Route 25 () runs from Lake Wales Plaza to Bartow. Adult/youth fare is $1.50/ride with no free transfers. Seniors (65+) and the disabled ride for $0.75, with proper ID and no free transfers. Children under 7 ride free with an adult. A day pass for adults costs $3 (or $27 for a 10 pack) and is good for 24 hours from activation on bus. Senior/disabled day pass costs $1.50 (or $15 for a 10 pack). Weekly ($12) & 31-day passes ($47) are also available. A bike rack located on the front is available to put your bike at no additional charge. All regular buses are equipped with a wheel chair lift.

By train

Lake Wales lies close to the Amtrak Silver Star & Silver Meteor routes, but does not have a station. Winter Haven (Code: WTH; ; 1800 7th Street SW) is the nearest station along the daily Amtrak Silver Star and Silver Meteor routes. If you plan to arrive by train, you should have friends/family at the station to pick you up or have the phone number for a taxi to call when you arrive. The station is a poorly-maintained covered platform with a small office and is in a fairly unpleasant area beside a warehouse. Fortunately the trains arrive during daylight, but it's not a very great place to wait for hours. To reach Lake Wales by public transportation (WHAT, see "By bus" above), you can take Route 22XW south to Bartow, then switch to Route 25 to head east to Lake Wales. You could also take Route 22XW north to the downtown terminal, then Route 30 to the Eagle Ridge Mall, and Route 35 to Lake Wales.

The Amtrak station in Sebring (Code: SBG; ; 601 E Center Ave) is also reasonably convenient to the Lake Wales area. The Sebring station is served by both the Amtrak Silver Star and Silver Meteor routes. No public transportation connects Lake Wales and Sebring.

By air

The nearest commercial airport is Orlando International Airport (IATA: MCO) in Orlando, located about an hour away. Tampa International Airport (IATA: TPA) in Tampa is located about an hour and a half away. Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (IATA: LAL) in Lakeland was served by the small airline Direct Air for a time, but currently (as of Feb 2013) does not have any regularly scheduled commercial flights.

Lake Wales Airport (FAA LID: X07) is located just 2 mi west of downtown. There are no currently scheduled air carrier, commuter, or air taxi services. The airport is used for skydiving flightsLake Wales being the skydiving capital of Florida.

Get around

By car

Car is by far the easiest way to get around town and pretty much the only way to reach the various nature parks east and southeast of town.

There is only one rental car agency in town:

By bus

Lake Wales is served by Winter Haven Area Transit (WHAT, , +1 863 534-5500). Adult/youth fare is $1.50/ride with no free transfers. Seniors (65+) and the disabled ride for $0.75, with proof and no free transfers. Children under 7 ride free with an adult. A day pass for adults costs $3 (or $27 for a 10 pack) and is good for 24 hours from activation on bus. Senior/disabled day pass costs $1.50 (or $15 for a 10 pack). Weekly ($12) & 31-day passes ($47) are also available. A bike rack located on the front is available to put your bike at no additional charge. All regular buses are equipped with a wheel chair lift.

Route 35 (route map) is the only route through town, running from the Eagle Ridge Mall south to downtown Lake Wales, then east along S.R. 60, through some neighborhoods, before heading south along Scenic Highway (S.R. 17) to Babson Park and Frostproof. Route 30 connects the Eagle Ridge Mall to southeast Winter Haven (including Legoland) and downtown Winter Haven. Route 25 runs from Lake Wales Plaza to Bartow.

By taxi


Bok Tower.


Lake Wales lies on the edge of an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. All these parks lie several miles to the east of town, off S.R. 60. Lake Kissimmee State Park is the most popular park and offers many miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. The area is home to dozens of species of birds for birding enthusiasts to check out. The lakes and swamps are home to thousands of alligators. Alligators are largely nocturnal and are usually hard to spot during the day as most lay hidden in vegetation or submerged in lakes, but they can sometimes be seen sunning themselves on shore or—with a careful eye—submerged and barely sticking the top of their head out of the water. Airboat rides are a great way to view the animals of the marshes and swamps and are probably the best bet for spotting alligators, which may be hard to find from shore (be careful of how close you get!). KICCO Wildlife Management Area, stretching south from Lake Kissimmee along the Kissimmee River, is a great destination for hunting, be it deer, feral hogs, wild turkeys, ducks, or small game and has camping sites as well as trails/roads suitable for hiking and mountain biking. KICCO also contains 13 mi (21 km) of the Florida Trail, a 1400 mi (2100 km) wilderness backpacking trail across Florida, from the Everglades to Pensacola. Lake Rosalie Park, North Walk-in-Water Creek, & SUMICA are county-operated parks on environmentally sensitive land tracts which the state has purchased to save from development (under the Florida Forever program). These parks are large, but don't yet offer a lot of amenities beyond a parking lot, short trails, and primitive camping sites.

Lake Wales shares its name with the Lake Wales Ridge—a sandy, scrub environment home to several endemic species, such as the gopher tortoise and scrub jay (a bird). The Lake Wales Ridge is a long, narrow tract of land running mainly through Highlands & Polk Counties (but sections can be found further north in Osceola, Orange, & Lake Counties) on lands that were once islands and the first lands of the present Florida Peninsula to rise from the ocean. Despite their names, the Lake Wales State Forest () is located in nearby Frostproof and the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge () consists of four small tracts of land—two in Highlands County, one near Winter Haven, and one near Poinciana/Haines City, none of which are open for public use.

  • A popular attraction at the park is Cow Camp, a living history demonstration taking you back to 1876 to discover the life of the Florida "cracker"—the early ranchers so named for the crack of their whips. At the end of the trail, you will meet with a Florida Cow Hunter resting in a frontier camp along the route of a cattle drive. He will be glad to tell you stories of life on the frontier, if not busy cooking or tending to the cattle. Cow Camp is open weekends Oct-Apr and all major holidays year round 9:30AM-4:30PM or upon request year-round for groups of 15 or more. There is no separate charge after entry into park.
  • Four categories of camping sites are available in the park: Full facility, primitive, equestrian, & youth. Sixty campsites with electric & water hookups are available with nearby dump station, boat ramp, marina, playground, & observation tower. The full facility sites are shaded in an oak hammock and can be booked up to 11 months in advance either online or by calling +1-800-326-3521 (8AM-8PM). Full facility sites are $20/night for tents or RVs (up to 20 ft). Two primitive campsites ($5 per person, per night) are available off trails in the park for up to 12 campers per site. Each site has two picnic tables & two grills, but everything else (including water) must be provided by the campers, who should follow leave-no-trace camping practices. Primitive equestrian campsites are also available. Youth camping sites ($1 per youth, per night; $5 per adult/chaperone, per night) are secluded just off the beaten path (under 200 ft/60 m from parking) and offer restrooms, cold showers, picnic tables, benches, & a fire pit. A minimum of 12 campers (and maximum of 25) are required to book a youth campsite. A guided overnight backpacking trip is also available between Nov-Mar upon request (minimum 4 backpackers). A Park Ranger accompanies the group on a guided 3.5 mi (5.6 km) hike to a primitive campsite Saturday afternoon, where participants camp overnight, finishing with a guided 3.5 mi (5.6 km) hike on Sunday morning. To reserve a primitive, equestrian, or youth campsite or book a guided overnight backpacking trip, call +1 863 696-1112.
  • A unique way to travel through Lake Kissimmee State Park is by Segway, with tours available through Back Trail Adventures (; +1 863 514-3474; Th-Su 8:30AM-3:30PM; Adults (14+ only): $40). These tours begin with 20 min of training before a 70 min guided tour through the park.
  • Guided horseback rides are available between Nov-Mar and must be booked in advance (minimum of 4 participants, maximum 10). Participants must bring their own horse (the park does not have horses for public use), which must have proof of a negative Coggins Test. Park rangers lead riders on a 6.7 mi (10.8 km) guided trail ride around Buster Island. Tours last around 2 hr and must be booked through the park office by calling +1 863 696-1112.
  • Backtrail Adventures,  +1 863 696-4888. Sa-Th 8AM-5PM, F 8AM-6PM. Camp store & concessions offering firewood, ice, general camping items and ice cream. Kayaks rentals are also available.
  • Pavilions are available to rent. One large pavilion can host up to 100 people and has electrical outlets ($60+tax). Three small pavilions are available with a maximum capacity of 25 people. To reserve a pavilion, call the park office at +1 863 696-1112.


For the ultimate adrenaline rush, few thing come close to jumping out of an aircraft at over 13,000 ft (4000 m) and free-falling at 120 mph (200 km/h) prior to opening your parachute! Lake Wales is considered the "Skydiving Capital of Florida". Your first experience will be a tandem jump, where you will be harnessed together with an experienced skydiver who will lead you through the process and take care of the technical details (eg. opening the parachute!)—leaving you free to enjoy the experience and take photos. Also check out the Wikivoyage travel topic: Skydiving.

On the water

Airboat tour.

Polk County is home to 554 lakes and considered the "Largemouth Bass Capital of the World". Lake Wales is close to many of the best lakes in the county for nature viewing (birds, alligators, turtles, and more) and some of the best bass fishing to be found anywhere. Take an airboat ride to explore the side of nature those on foot or boat don't see. Several businesses in the Lake Wales offer airboat tours and boat rentals to explore the lakes east of town. Public boat ramps in the Lake Wales area can be found at Coleman Landing (S.R. 60), Lake Rosalie Park (S.R. 60), and Lake Wailes (Lake Shore Blvd.).


Florida is the golfing capital of the United States and golf courses abound everywhere. Located in the heart of Florida, Lake Wales is no exception to this. Lekarica Hills and Oakwood are public courses. Lake Ashton is set among a private development, call their office for details about non-member use. For more information about golfing on vacation, check out the golf travel topic page.

Other activities

Spook Hill

Spook Hill (From S.R. 17, turn right onto J.A. Wiltshire) Put your car in neutral and watch as your car appears to defy gravity and roll uphill. Legend has it that ages ago, an Indian village on the banks of this swamp was plagued by raids from a huge alligator living in it. The village's great warrior chief and the gator were killed in battle, with the chief buried on the north side. When pioneers later traveled through here, they found their horses labored going "downhill" and called it "Spook Hill". Is it the gator seeking revenge or the chief protecting his land? Officially, this is a gravity hillwhere the visual horizon is such that you appear to be going uphill, when in fact you are moving down a slight incline.

A good ol' American rodeo is held every Saturday night at Westgate River Ranch Resort (; Off S.R. 60 about 25 mi (40 km) east of Lake Wales, near Kissimmee River.; Adults $15.50, children $8). Shows begin at 7:30PM and feature trick riding, calf roping, barrel racing, bull riding, and rodeo clowns.

There is one skate park in town, located at Kiwanis Park (1000 N Lake Shore Dr).

Festivals & Events

Lake Wales is host to two monthly community events. The first Saturday of the month is an antiques, art, & oddities fair on the streets of downtown between Stuart & Park Ave (8AM-2PM, ). The Lake Wales Car Show is held the forth Saturday of the month along Stuart Ave in downtown (4PM-8PM, ).


Chalet Suzanne Restaurant & Inn


Bed and Breakfast

RV resorts


Public internet access is available at the public library as well as at the Food Court of the Eagle Ridge Mall.

Stay safe

Polk County Sheriff: +1 863 533-0344 (Emergency: 911)

Stay healthy

There is one small hospital in Lake Wales and an urgent care facility.


Go next

Downtown Lake Wales lies just 15 min from Legoland Florida in southeast Winter Haven. For nature lovers, the Lake Wales Ridge continues south into Frostproof and there are thousands of acres of scrub and forests east of Frostproof for hunting, driving off-road vehicles, and fishing (such as Crooked Lake and Lake Arbuckle). For history buffs or just lovers of quaint little towns, head west to Bartow or Fort Meade.

Routes through Lake Wales

Ocala Dundee ← Jct (to Winter Haven)  N  S  Frostproof Miami
Haines City Dundee  N  S  Frostproof Sebring
Tampa Bartow  W  E  Jct N S Vero Beach

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, March 20, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.