Take a Hike!
Late winter and early spring is a perfect time of the year to hike the 941. And with so many options – from leisurely one or two-mile walks through and under live oak canopied hammocks to good-stretch-of-the-legs multi-terrain hikes through natural, wild and exotic wetlands, prairies and pinelands – there’s a trail and road less traveled for everyone.
The 68-mile long Myakka River is central to a number of these parks and preserves and that’s not just because of geography, although it begins at the Manatee-Hardee county border and flows though Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte counties until it empties into the Charlotte Harbor and Gulf of Mexico. It is still, thankfully, largely undeveloped and in most cases along its course, protected, indeed, in the 1980s the Florida legislature officially designated it a Wild and Scenic River.
Myakka River State Park
With nearly 39 miles of loop trails and back country roads through shady live oak hammocks, pine sand hills and pine flatwoods, scrub forests, dry and sun-soaked prairies, and wetlands including freshwater marshes and cypress domes, Myakka boasts one of the most diverse and fascinating wild Florida environment, for hikers and walkers, bikers and even trails by horseback. The park features a canopy walkway – a suspension bridge and tower that provides folks with sweeping views of the forest canopy and above-the-treetop view of the park.
But it’s not just the flora that’s breathtaking, the fauna is equally impressive, indeed, animal and bird species’ at Myakka is unparalleled: deer, opossums, feral hogs, raccoons, and bobcats; reptiles a plenty; stunning wading birds, wood storks, Sandhill cranes, and even the rare roseate spoonbill; birds of prey including eagles, hawks, osprey, barred owls and vultures. And then there’s the alligator. One particular hiking trail at Myakka (actually in the Wilderness Preserve located across SR 72 from the main entrance) leads to Deep Hole, a prehistoric sinkhole rimmed with dozens, possibly hundreds of ‘gators. It’s a fascinating, if unsettling, destination. Special permits are required to enter and are limited to about 30 a day. Stop at the ranger station for more info. And before you set out on a Myakka hike, check for conditions. Some trails may be under water, especially in the rainier month of March. And always carry water and make sure to douse yourself with insect repellent with plenty of DEET.
Myakka River State Park is located at 13208 SR 72, Sarasota. For more information, call 941-361-6511 or visit FloridaStateParks.org/Park/Myakka-River
Oscar Scherer State Park
More than 15 miles of hiking trails through scrub flatwoods, where you’re likely to see the imperiled Florida scrub jay, make a trek through the pines and palmettos of Oscar Scherer State Park a one-of-a-kind experience. Six marked trails help visitors to access remote areas of the park. And for folks that are looking for a slower pace, perhaps to ramble rather than hike, each trail is peppered with benches. The 1,381-acre park features wheelchair accessible trails; the barrier-free Lester Finley Nature Trail and the Lake Osprey Trail, the latter offers visitor’s views of the uplands enveloping artesian-spring-fed waters.
Oscar Scherer State Park is located at 1843 South Tamiami Trail in Osprey. For more information call 941-483-5956 or visit FloridaStateParks.org/Park/Oscar-Scherer
Jelks Preserve With habitat that closely resembles a Myakka River State Park hike, the 614-acre Jelks Preserve is a publicly-owned land that borders the wild and scenic river. Jelks Preserve is a quieter locale and not as populated as Myakka and provides an 8-mile network of trails – with a 3.3-mile outer loop – that traverse canopied hammocks, pine flatwoods, marshes and wetlands. Encounter swallowtail butterflies, swallow-tailed kites, gopher tortoises, charming Carolina jessamine and coral bean wildflowers. The hiking trails are unpaved but accessible and trail intersections are marked with numbered trail markers. Be aware there is limited parking.
Located at 2300 N. River Road in Venice. For more information call 941-861-5000 or visit ScGov.net/NaturalLands/Pages/JelksPreserve.aspx
Hike the beach and bonus, sharks teeth. Caspersen Beach is famous for its shells and sharks teeth. But it’s also a lovely place to hike with trails that take folks through brackish marshes, mangrove ‘forests’, and tidal flats on sandy paths but also primarily on raised boardwalks over the dunes designed to at once protect and provide stunning views and vistas.
Caspersen Beach, a National Healthy Beach certified by the Clean Beaches Council, is bounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Caspersen Beach is located at 4100 Harbor Drive, Venice. For more information call 941-861-5000 or email ParksOnline@Sgov.net.
South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve
With almost eight miles of hiking trails that meander through tidal swamps, tidal marshes, coastal hammocks and mesic and scrubby flatwoods, the South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve offers hikers and walkers the chance to encounter bald eagles, river otters, gopher tortoises and the Florida scrub-jay in terrain covered with mangroves and grasses, oaks and Curtis’s milkweed. Many trails include boardwalks. All are unpaved but clearly marked and include a 1.6-mile long scenic trail across the restored wetland slough.
The South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve is located at 5472 Kenisco Road, Venice and 6200 Osprey Road, Venice. For more information, call 941-861-5000.
Deer Prairie Creek Preserve
Also located along the Myakka River, the 6,439-acre preserve includes 70 miles of hiking and walking trails portions of which provide scenic overlooks along the banks of the Myakka River and Deer Prairie Creek.
Wildlife includes gators, river otters and wild turkey and flora includes St. John’s wort, tarflower and pine lily. The trails are designed for hikers, bikers and for horseback-riders and most are considered ‘primitive’ and rank from easy to navigate to moderately difficult.
For more information about Deer Prairie Creek Preserve, call 941-861-5000 and ask for Natural Resources.
Lake Manatee State Park
The park’s 1.7 miles of trail loop takes hikers through mesic flatwoods, depression marshes, hardwood forest and sand pine scrubs where an encounter with marsh rabbits, gopher tortoises, snakes bobcats, gray foxes, hawks and eagles are not uncommon. The park itself extends three miles along Lake Manatee and despite its name, visitors will not encounter manatees given the dam blocks access. Hikers will encounter wild, natural Florida.
Lake Manatee State Park is located at 20007 State Road 64 East in Bradenton. For more information call the park at 941-741-3028 or visit FloridaStateParks.org/Park/LakeManatee.
Rye Preserve is a 145 acre property located just northwest of the Lake Manatee Dam. The preserve features 3 miles of hiking and horseback trails which take visitors through sand pine scrub, xeric oak scrub, oak hammocks and the river community habitats. Hikers might encounter gopher tortoises and the Florida scrub-jay. The preserve is very much a throwback to Manatee County pioneer history and remnants of that history include the Rye Family Cemetery.
The Rye Preserve is located at 905 Rye Wilderness Trail, Parrish. For more information call 941-776-0900.
The Duette Preserve, consisting of more than 21,000 acres, is the largest preserve in the Manatee County natural resource preserve system and is primarily contained within the northeastern portion of the Lake Manatee Watershed. The preserve is rich in natural resources but also historic and cultural resources. Flora includes native plant communities and fauna includes the burrowing owl, snowy egrets, the gopher tortoise and the endangered/threatened Florida scrub jay and the eastern indigo snake. There are 3.5 miles of trails to enjoy. Note that the preserve is closed on hunt weekends.
Duette Preserve is located at 249 Rawls Road, Duette. For more information call 941-737-261.
Emerson Point Preserve
The 365-acre Emerson Point Preserve is nestled at the tip of Snead Island in western Palmetto. Its trails take walkers and hikers through a Florida that is at once prehistoric and historic, a place to explore – via shady, winding multi-use and raised boardwalk trails in tropical hammocks –the Portavant Temple Mound, southwest Florida’s largest Native American Temple Mound and the flora and fauna of tidal canals and Terra Ceia Bay. Note that at Emerson there’s one paved trail at the entrance of the preserve which covers the whole habitat ending at Emerson Point and the North and South Restoration Trails are packed shell. Emerson Point Preserve is located at 5801 17th St. West, Palmetto. For more information call 941-721-6885.
Be sure to check out both Sarasota and Manatee counties parks and preserves web pages where you’ll find myriad information about all the trails including equestrian, birding and hiking in the parks and preserves that pepper both counties.