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The Chain of Lakes & the Watersports to Enjoy There

   February 19th, 2020   Posted In: Articles  

Chain of Lakes, Florida

In the heart of Central Florida, there’s a special place and a not-so-well-kept secret – The Chain of Lakes. Located almost entirely in Winter Haven, but also crossing into Lake Alfred, and Lake Hamilton, “The Chain”, as the locals call it, is a series of natural lakes interconnected by a canal system. In all, there are 26 lakes divided into two separate chains, the Northern Chain and the Southern Chain, with a manmade canal and lock system between Lakes Hartridge and Conine connecting the two chains. But the Northern and Southern Chains are not the only lakes; there are actually 50 lakes within, or close to, Winter Haven’s city limits.

A Quick History on the Chain of Lakes

chain of lakes

“Winter Haven.” Winter Haven CoC | Winter Haven, FL

Winter Haven used to be home to various Indian tribes, like the Seminole Indians. They were able to live off the land and made their homes close to the water’s edge. In 1845, the first settlers made their way to Winter Haven just 23 years after Florida became a state. And between the 1860s and 1880s, the first deeded landowners began making their mark on the city[1]. Once the settlers started coming, they didn’t stop, and by 1911 the city was finally named Winter Haven. Many of the first settlers, especially those that came from the north, saw the area as a kind of “winter resort[2],” which ultimately led to the city’s name.


In 1915, an organization was created called the Twenty Lakes Boat Course Club with the purpose of connecting a handful of the lakes by creating a canal system. Many of these lakes are close together and had swamp or wetland in between them, though these weren’t navigable waterways. Between 1915 and 1919, the canal system was dug, creating The Chain.


Central Florida has always been an excellent environment for growing citrus and, even early in the city’s history, citrus growers have taken advantage of the climate and soil composition with citrus groves scattered throughout the region. Until major development began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you could drive for miles and not see anything but citrus groves on both sides of the road. There are still a handful of places like this, but they are dwindling as more people move to the area. One of the drivers for creating the Twenty Lakes Boat Course Club and connecting lakes by canals was to help citrus growers transport their crops via waterway from the fields to the rail yards. The result was a more efficient method for the citrus growers and a vast connected waterway system for recreational users.


By the time the work on The Chain was finished, these are the lakes that had been connected – South Chain – Lake Winterset, Lake Eloise, Lake Summit, Lake Lulu Lake Roy, Lake Shipp, Lake May, Lake Howard, Lake Cannon, Lake Mirror, Lake Idylwild, Lake Jessie, Lake Hartridge; and the North Chain – Lake Conine, Lake Smart, Lake Rochelle, Lake Haines, Lake Fannie, Lake Hamilton, Lake Henry, Middle Lake Hamilton, and Little Lake Hamilton.


chain of lakes

“Winter Haven Chain of Lakes.” Image courtesy of Visit Central Florida.

As you can imagine with this type of lake system, there are plenty of opportunities to explore and reasons to get on, and into, the water. And, since this is Florida, the water stays relatively warm and can be enjoyed year-round with the help of a wetsuit. In the middle of February, when I’m writing this, the water temp is 59° F.

Waterskiing and Wakeboarding

Winter Haven and The Chain are known to many as the water ski capital of the world, thanks to the famous Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team. In the mid-1930s Dick and Julie Pope opened Cypress Gardens, now Legoland Florida, as a botanical garden. Cypress Gardens is situated on the shore of Lake Eloise, the Southern Chain’s largest lake. Over time, the Pope’s built this into one of the largest tourist attractions in Florida and incorporated water ski shows as a form of entertainment. These shows are expertly choreographed storylines set to music showcasing some of the best water skiers in the world-building human pyramids while being pulled and performing tricks on skis. More than 50 world records have been broken by the Cypress Gardens Water Ski team throughout the years[3].


You can still catch these shows multiple times a day by either visiting Legoland Florida or by watching from boat or kayak on the water. The professional skiiers associated with the Legoland ski shows live in the area and train on these lakes regularly and, if you’re lucky, sometimes you can catch them practicing new tricks they’ll incorporate into the shows.


The love of water skiing doesn’t stop with Cypress Gardens. Because of the number of lakes and the ability to water ski all year, The Chain is home to multiple water ski schools, attracting skiers from all over the world. On any given day, you’ll see multiple boats in the water pulling skiers. Even during the winter months plenty of people put on their wetsuit and jump in. Also, The USA Water Ski Foundation Headquarters and the World Wake Association office are in the area just a short drive from The Chain of Lakes.


As watersports began to evolve and people began pushing the limits with watersport technology, people on The Chain were early adopters. Wakeboarding became a go-to activity for many seeking a different kind of challenge than water skiing. Also, things like air-chairs (a seat on top of a ski with a hydrofoil attached to the bottom), tubing, wakesurfing, fly-boarding, and paddleboarding have become popular.

Boating and Kayaking

A favorite past time for residents and visitors of The Chain of Lakes is to spend the day boating or kayaking, going from one lake to the next. It is easy to spend several hours exploring the scenery and watching the wildlife. Most of the time, these lakes are calm and lend themselves perfectly to a relaxing day on the water. Almost all the lakes on The Chain are surrounded by homes and docks where people can leave their boats in the water or on a lift making it easy to go for a cruise.


If you take your kayak to Lake Eloise and paddle around the shoreline, you’ll experience natural Florida, riding beneath the massive Cypress trees that are filled with Spanish Moss, dodging the Cypress Knees along the way. You’ll likely see plenty of wildlife, too – native birds, fish jumping, and maybe an alligator or two watching from the weeds along the shore. Ride through Lake Jessie and you may get to see a seaplane taking off or landing at Jack Brown’s Sea Plane Base. Then when you finish your day on the water, head over to Lake Shipp for lunch or dinner at Harborside, or to Lake Howard and go to Tanners Lakeside or Old Man Frank’s. All which have just as much boat parking as car parking.


The Chain of Lakes is home to a large population and a variety of fish, including Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, Redear Sunfish, and Black Crappie. There are several organizations that hold bass tournaments on the lakes year-round, and you can also see people out fishing almost any day. Since fishermen often like to get an early start, the boat ramps on The Chain can be a busy place on a clear morning as people are backing their boats into the water and speeding away to their favorite fishing hole. Lake May, Lake Mirror and Lake Hamilton are all popular lakes to fish, though you won’t go wrong in any of them. Whether you fish from the shore, a boat, a kayak, or paddleboard, you’ll have a great time on the water.

Final Thoughts

The Chain in Central Florida has so much to offer and provides a different experience than the typical Florida beach vacation. The surrounding area is full of large oak trees, orange groves, and pastures with cattle and horses with lakes scattered throughout. To me, this is an accurate representation of true Florida because takes you away from the tourist attractions and allows you to be in touch with nature. Take advantage of any opportunity you have to take a boat ride, paddleboard, or kayak around any of these lakes. You won’t be disappointed.


[1] “Winter Haven History.” City of Winter Haven,

[2] “Winter Haven History.” City of Winter Haven,

[3] “Cypress Gardens.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Jan. 2020,

Garrett Durham

Garrett Durham

Garrett grew up on the Chain of Lakes in Central Florida, spending afternoons and summer days wakeboarding, jet skiing and enjoying time in the sun and on the water with friends and family.Now, he likes to spend time traveling, learning new cultures by experiencing them as a local, and of course, getting pulled behind a boat whenever possible.
Garrett Durham

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