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.
Expedition Planner: Myakka River State park, FL
DRIVE TIME: Myakka River State Park is
1 1/2 hours (70 miles) south of Tampa and
2 1/2 hours (130 miles) from Orlando.
THE WAY: From Tampa, take I-75 south for
60 miles to Sarasota and exit 37 (Clark Road). Head east on Clark Road (FL 72) for 9 miles to Myakka River State Park.
TRAILS: The Myakka Trail makes a 39-mile circuit, with numerous shorter loop options available. Combine backpacking and paddling by canoeing the Myakka River between the Lower and Upper Myakka Lakes. A backcountry fee of $3 per night for adults and $2 per night for children under 18 is required for camping (see Contact below).
DAYHIKE: For a good sampling of hammock and prairie ecosystems, start at the main trailhead near Upper Myakka Lake and hike the 6-mile Bee Island Loop around the Mossy Hammock campsite (return on Fox High Road, a dirt track closed to vehicles).
ELEVATION: The elevation imperceptibly shifts from a high of 40 feet atop the prairie down to about 25 feet near Upper Myakka Lake.
CAN'T MISS: Walking the sharp ecological border where the lush Deer Prairie Slough meets the dry, open prairie.
CROWD CONTROL: Winter is the best time to hike here (November to January); you'll share a backcountry campsite with others only on weekends. Spring is more crowded; secure reservations for backcountry campsites at least a week in advance.
GUIDES: A free, comprehensive trail map is available at the park ranger station (see Contact below). A Hiking Guide to the Trails of Florida, by Elizabeth F. Carter (Menasha Ridge Press, 800-247-9437; www.backpacker.com/bookstore
WALK SOFTLY: Campfires are permitted, but should be avoided, as the prairie is usually tinder-dry in winter. The Myakka River is home to the endangered wood stork. Admire wildlife from a distance and don't disturb nests.
CONTACT: Myakka River State Park, (941) 361-6511; www.myakka.sarasota.fl.us