Whether you prefer land or water, you are sure to find “the real Florida” at this nature preserve near Sarasota.
By Sally B. Weigand
Picture yourself canoeing or kayaking on a twisting river framed by sabal palmetto trees, grasses, and live oaks sporting wispy Spanish moss that sways gently in a tropical breeze. Sleek alligators draw your attention to the marshy banks while the lilting songs of birds pull your interest skyward.
You are not concerned about the gators; they keep a wary eye on people and often wiggle away into the river with their powerful tails if they spot someone. Gators already in the river silently sink below the surface when their personal space has been invaded. Birds and the long-mouthed gators ignore each other when both occupy the same territory, as fishing is uppermost on their agenda. Squawking loudly, great blue herons often fly ahead of your boat, scolding you for daring to be in their territory.
The Myakka was designated a “Florida Wild and Scenic River” by the Florida State Legislature in 1985. Fourteen of its tranquil miles flow through the park that bears its name. With additional features such as two shallow lakes, rare Florida dry prairie, and rich marshland, Myakka River State Park is a welcoming home for alligators and birds. Visitors like us never tire of the sights and sounds, returning year after year.
The gentle Myakka River makes an easy canoe or kayak trip, and boaters can take frequent breaks to quietly observe wildlife. Launch your own boat from one of the picnic areas along the main road, and then paddle upstream or downstream. Or, rent a watercraft from the concessionaire on Myakka Lake. To paddle the river from there, you must portage over the weir a short distance to the south — an easy feat.
People who prefer a greater mass of boat between them and the water, or who simply wish to leave the driving to someone else, avail themselves of the airboat tour around the lake. The tours are offered from mid-December through the end of May; prices in early 2015 were $12 for adults and $6 for ages 6-12. Although they are the world’s largest airboats, these craft can access the shallow areas for up-close viewing of the critters that partake of the shoreline’s riches. Meanwhile, the captain relates the region’s history.
Aquatic appeal is just one aspect of Myakka River State Park. It also offers a 39-mile portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail, so that hikers can explore the “real Florida.” Watch for epiphytes (plants that live without soil, such as Spanish moss and air ferns) adorning the trees, and churned-up ground, evidence of wild hogs foraging for food. Shy deer may observe you from the shady woods. On a five-mile hike, you travel through old moss-covered oak trees and swamps. The format for this trail is a series of stacked loops. By following the outer edges, you get a sampling of the native Florida wilderness that Myakka encompasses. Only 30 people each day are permitted to take the six-mile round-trip hike to Deep Hole, which is alligator heaven. The trail offers a good chance of seeing otters, deer, and wild turkeys.
An unusual feature at Myakka is the Canopy Walkway. Completed in 2000, it is the first public treetop trail in North America. After ascending the steps, you can take in an overview of the Florida habitat as you traverse the 100-foot-long walkway. You’ll feel a bit unsteady as you tread the bouncy bridge 25 feet above the ground. From there, if you wish, climb the 74-foot tower, from which you look down on the treetops and over the green wetlands and hammocks.
From mid-December until May 31 each season, a Tram Safari takes visitors through pine flat woods, marshland, hammocks, and prairies. Riders learn about this environment and observe wildlife. The tram fee is the same as the airboat. Others options are to drive your own vehicle or ride a bike along the seven miles of paved roads.
Linking land and water is the long boardwalk over Upper Myakka Lake. White ibis, with their long, curved beaks; brown-spotted limpkins; soaring bald eagles; wood ducks; sandhill cranes; and herons are some of the birds you can observe with binoculars. Distinctly shaped beaks and a lush pink color make roseate spoonbills exciting to see. They sweep their long, spoon-shaped bills from side to side to sift food from shallow water.
Visitors Center And Services
Before going very far at Myakka, it’s helpful to study the wildlife and habitat displays at the visitors center for background on what you will encounter. The visitors center also offers five short movies about the park. It’s located in a former horse barn built 80 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Saturday night campfire programs, offered from Thanksgiving to Easter, are another opportunity to learn about the region; or, join a ranger on one of the weekly bird walks. Almost 100 species are commonly sighted within the park boundaries. (In all, 200 species spend time here.) Not only does a full moon brighten the landscape, but music fills the air at concerts one Friday evening per month through the winter.
Another option is to join an expert-led small group on a Wilderness Preserve Adventure, offered on Friday mornings from November through April by Friends of the Myakka River State Park. The cost is $20.
A park hub is the Myakka Outpost, where you’ll find bike, canoe, or kayak rentals; fishing and camping supplies; souvenirs; and fresh meals that include gator sandwiches and gator stew, as well as traditional dishes.
What you may mistake for logs floating in the lake or river are most likely alligators. With 17,000 in the park, you can’t miss them. Usually they are visible from bridges over the river as they glide along, often with only their bulging eyes above water. The golden sun colors the sky and water at sunset, a special time to be at these locations.
Once endangered but now thriving, the American alligator lives in fresh water in the southeastern United States. Scientists say the species is 150 million years old. Alligators achieve a length of 10 to 15 feet and live up to 50 years in the wild.
My only frightening experience with them occurred while rounding a bend in the river in my kayak, unable to see the hidden terrain beyond. I was close to shore, and a resting alligator and I surprised each other. As it lumbered up on short legs, I froze in place and watched it propel itself toward me. Fortunately, it was only interested in getting into the water, where it could rapidly swim away. Gators prefer to dine on fish, snakes, small mammals, and turtles. Not people. People’s pets are targets if the opportunity presents itself, however.
An alligator and crocodile are different in several ways. An alligator’s head is wider and shorter, and its body is darker in color. The croc’s upper and lower teeth show when the mouth is closed, but the gator’s lower teeth are hidden. American crocodiles need warmer weather than alligators, and so tend to live in the Everglades region and points south.
Although the gators are probably not pleased to share their fish with humans, anglers drop their lines into the water from a wheelchair-accessible platform where Upper Myakka Lake joins the river. Also at this location, an interpretive exhibit offers the opportunity to test your knowledge of the park’s natural world.
Other Sites Around Sarasota
With the park situated close to Sarasota, here are some ideas for other fun things to see and do.
- Venture into town to stroll Main Street with its small shops and eateries.
- Admire the vast collection of antique cars at the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
- If you visit in March or early April, check out a Baltimore Orioles spring training game at Ed Smith Stadium.
- Do you remember a circus thrilling you as a child? Relive that happy experience at the Ringling Circus Museum, part of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, or, simply called The Ringling. This complex includes Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringlings’ magnificent mansion home, as well as the Museum of Art, the Historic Asolo Theatre, and 66 acres of gardens.
- Visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which boasts 20,000 plants from around the globe. A conservatory is packed with opulent orchids, and the Children’s Rainforest Garden will interest youngsters and adults. Other garden areas are set aside to highlight bromeliads, epiphytes, butterflies, ferns, bamboos, and banyans.
- Follow the causeway across Sarasota Bay to posh St. Armands Circle and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. This world-class research facility shares its fascinating amenities with the public. Whether rehabbing sea turtles, rescuing dolphins, or conducting manatee research, Mote scientists provide exhibits and activities popular with all ages. Arrive early for a less-crowded visit.
- Unwind with a beach walk and relax on one of the white-sand borders of the barrier islands of Sarasota County, or swim in the usually calm water of the Gulf of Mexico. Kiteboarders skim the surface of fast-moving water and ascend into the air on Sundays at the southern tip of Lido Key. Although no lifeguards are on duty at South Lido Beach Park, weekends often find overflowed parking lots and people boating, picnicking, playing volleyball, fishing, and luxuriating in the superb views.
If You Go
Myakka River State Park is nine miles from Interstate 75, via exit 37. Travel east on State Route 72 to the entrance, where a volunteer will collect a fee of $6 per vehicle (with two to eight people) or $4 for a vehicle with a single occupant.
Camping is available at the park in three campgrounds. RVs up to 45 feet in length are accommodated at Palmetto Ridge Campground, which also has sewer hookups. All three campgrounds have 50-amp electrical service and water. Reserve a site online at www.reserveamerica.com, or by calling (800) 326-3521 up to 11 months in advance of your visit.
Fall, winter, and spring are the best seasons to visit. In summer, the potential flooding of the river, plus heat, humidity, and biting insects, make life uncomfortable.
For more information, contact:
Myakka River State Park
13208 State Road 72
Sarasota, FL 34241