Weekend Backpacker: Tampa
Forty-five square miles; 17,000 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 parkand 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 "Wild and Scenic" rivers); flowing 14 miles through the park, its shallow waters twist and turn tightly through deep forest. Sabal palm trees crowd the channel, and graceful live oaks dip their Spanish mosscovered branches toward the water.
But you're here to hike, right? And Myakka has just the cure for the backpacker's blues39 miles of blazed trail through the park's backcountry. Except for the Florida Trail, it's tough to find a seriously challenging chunk of backpacking in this stateand this one's a doozy. It's 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, and 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 oaks and cabbage palm hammocks, down through marshlands, up through flat pine-and-scrub palmetto woods. Florida panthers have been spotted here, but you're much more likely to see alligators, wild hogs, bobcats, deer, and rattlesnakes. Bald eagles and ospreys nest in tall cypresses; sandhill cranes wander the wetlands.
Since the trail is 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.
Follow I-75 south to Sarasota. Exit at SR 72. Follow SR 72 west nine miles to the park entrance. Driving time: one hour.
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 hammocksbeautiful, 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 freeyou'll pay around $3 per adult and $2 per child per night in a primitive campsite.
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 amenitiespicnic table, grill, waterwith restrooms and showers nearby. RV hookups are available. Rates are about $15/night, December to April, $11/night, May to November. An additional $2/night is charged for electrical hookups.
The Myakka River State Park Trail is dressed in the Florida Trail's standard orange blazes. Spur and cross trails are blue blazed. Carry a map and compass for peace of mind. The extensive marshes mean 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, aren't a smart idea to hike with in this particular park.
Fourteen miles of the "Wild and Scenic" designated Myakka River flow through the park, and you're welcome to bring your own canoe or kayak to paddle it. Alternatively, you can rent a canoe from the park concessionaire: about $10 for two hours, $18 for four hours, or $25 for the day. 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.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
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 the website for an order form.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication