Weekend Backpacker: Orlando
Forty-five square miles. Seventeen thousand alligators.
This is one heck of a state park!
Myakka River State Park, just outside the burgeoning metropolis of Sarasota, is Florida's largest state park and one of its oldest. It protects an immense region of wetlands, lakes, prairies, and subtropical forest. You'll think you've vanished into the depths of the Amazon when you stumble across the Myakka River (designated one of Florida's two official Wild and Scenic Rivers). Flowing 14 miles through the park, its shallow waters twist and turn tightly though deep forest. Sabal palm trees crowd the channel, graceful live oaks dip their Spanish moss-covered branches toward the water.
But you're here to hike, right? And Myakka has just the cure for the backpacker's blues 39 miles of blazed trail through the park's backcountry. Except for the Florida Trail, seriously challenging chunks of backpacking don't come along in this state very often, which makes Myakka a true find. The path is not well blazed. The well-meaning state park service map isn't going to keep you off the alligator's turf. You'll need good trail-following instincts; a high-class map and compass wouldn't hurt, either.
Getting away from the crowds on the Myakka River State Park Trail, you'll walk through live oak and cabbage palm hammocks, down through marshlands, up through pine and scrub palmetto flatwoods. Visitors have spotted Florida panthers here, but you're much more likely to see an alligator, wild hogs, bobcat, and deer, not to mention rattlesnakes. Bald eagles and ospreys nest in tall cypresses; sandhill cranes wander the wetlands.
Since the trails are set up as a series of stacked loops, you can use some creativity (combining the main trail with forest roads, cross trails, and the old railroad grade) to create anything from an overnight trip to a week's worth of wandering. Best bet: Follow the outer edges of the loops for a cross-section of everything the park has to offer.
From Orlando: Take I-4 east to Tampa; head south on I-75 to Sarasota. Exit at SR 72. Follow SR 72 west nine miles to the park entrance. Driving time: 2.5 hours.
Check in at the ranger station upon arrival at the park and register as a hiker. You'll be given directions to the parking area to access the trailhead near Bee Island.
There are six primitive campsites strung out along the hiking loop, tucked away in oak hammocks beautiful, serene, and away from the chance of flooding. Each campsite contains three tent spaces, two of which may be reserved up to 11 months in advance; the third is first-come, first served. A pitcher pump provides water, which park officials recommend treating. Since this is a state park, camping isn't free.
The campsites and their distances from the trailhead:
Mossy Hammock, 2.2 miles
Bee Island, 5.4 miles
Oak Grove, 9.5 miles
Panther Point, 8.6 miles
Honore, 8.7 miles
Prairie, 13.9 miles (no water available)
Off the trail, the park offers two traditional campgrounds set on the Myakka River and Upper Myakka Lake. Sites have the usual state park amenities picnic table, grill, water; rest rooms and showers nearby. RV hookups are available.
The park office hands out free maps of the hiking trail, dirt roads, and locations of primitive campsites inside of the park. But if you're serious about a full-blown circuit of the trail, order the detailed map from the Florida Trail AssociationMap SF-4, Myakka River State Park Trail. Check their Web site for an order form.
The Myakka State Park Trail is dressed in Florida Trail standard orange blazes. Spur and cross trails are blue blazed. Carry a map and compass for peace of mind. The extensive marshes means bug spray is a must year-round, though winter hikers will find the mosquitoes more forgiving. Sun protection is a smart idea, given the large stretches of walking across open prairie. Dogs aren't welcome in the primitive campsites, and, due to the alligator population, it's not a smart idea to hike with them in this particular park.
Fourteen miles of the Myakka River flow through the park, and you're welcome to bring your own canoe or kayak to paddle it. Alternately, you can rent a canoe from the park concessionaire. Other park goodies include airboat rides on Upper Myakka Lake and a ranger-led tram safari into the park's interior.
Myakka State Park also boasts the country's first-ever canopy walkway through a subtropical forest. The recently completed project allows visitors to walk suspended 25 feet over the forest floor.
To make your identification of species more enjoyable, stop by the Arbuckle Biological Station Web site for detailed information on flora and fauna, as well as a bibliography of books on this unique biological community.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication