Close your eyes and imagine yourself backpacking in Florida. If your image includes slogging down a waterlogged trail and dodging alligators, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I had the good fortune to go backpacking in Myakka River State Park last winter, and now my vision of Florida hiking includes a vast dry prairie and far-reaching views.
The 28,875-acre park in central Florida protects one of the largest remaining tracts of Florida’s dry grass prairie, an ecosystem that once covered parts of the state from coast to coast. Add the Wild and Scenic Myakka River, 12 miles of which flow through the park, as well as 7,500 acres of wilderness around Lower Myakka Lake, and you have the makings of a great hike.
The 39-mile, hikers-only Myakka Trail loops through a diverse array of grass/palmetto prairies, dense palm islands, and shady oak hammocks. The park is home to an odd crew of wildlife, including burrowing owls, bald eagles, grasshopper sparrows, ospreys, sandhill cranes, and Eastern box turtles. There’s also a good chance of seeing alligators (this is still Florida, after all). Distinctive local plants include the endangered wild pineapple and resurrection ferns, which become brown and shriveled until infrequent winter rains bring them back to life.
The day I set out on the trail, the rich green hues of new growth peeked through the blackened soil of a recent fire. After crossing a sunny, open flat, the sandy, narrow footpath entered a dark palm grove. An armadillo skittered through palm fronds. Willows grew thick alongside an intermittent streambed. That night, I camped at Bee Island, one of the park’s six backcountry campsites (well water must be treated, and wells sometimes dry up, so check ahead). As I pitched my tent in a longleaf pine stand overlooking the vast prairie, fog rolled across the landscape and an owl broke the silence of the cool evening.