Picture vast glorious fields of yellow sunflowers stretching on and on.
Kansas? The Dakotas? No, Florida.
The blossoms of the southeastern sunflower, which grows only in Florida and Georgia, is a sure sign of fall in Florida, and in some places, field after field blazes with yellow each fall.
But if you want to gaze on the golden fields of southeastern sunflower, you can’t put it off, because the flowers stay in bloom for just two or three weeks.
A good place to see southeastern sunflowers is a relatively new and little-known preserve near Immokalee called Pepper Ranch Preserve, which opens the gates for sunflower viewing. You must reserve a spot, but it’s free.
This year, a “Sunset Photo View” session has been added — Wednesday, Oct. 11 from 6-8 p.m. It is designed for photographers who want that “golden hour” lighting and a sunset in the background.
Then, the preserve is open Friday, Oct. 13 to Sunday, Oct. 15, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (last entry time at 2 p.m.).
Last year, all the free, reserved tickets were gone weeks before the event.
Pepper Preserve’s sunflowers are truly something to see, according to Alexandra Sulecki, coordinator of the Conservation Collier Program.”There are fields and fields of them,” she said. “It’s just a stunning display.”
To see the sunflowers, you drive through the preserve and stop along the way to take photos and see the flowers up close. (At this time of year the trails are too wet and the preserve doesn’t open for hiking until early November.)
The preserve is not open at this time of the year except for the sunflower-viewing event, for which you musts register in advance.
Here are details:
Sunflowers at Pepper Ranch
6315 Pepper Road, Immokalee
Friday, Oct. 11, 13, 14, 15, 2023
Bathrooms are available at the visitor center and port-o-potties will be placed at the viewing fields. No food or drink will be available at the preserve, so plan ahead to bring your own and pack out any trash.
As you travel to the sunflower fields, you may spot deer, turkey, hawks, sandhill cranes and members of the resident cattle herd that call Pepper Ranch Preserve home.
Conservation Collier, the event sponsor says: “Visitors will travel along an unpaved wildlife drive through the preserve to reach the access points for viewing the best fields with blooms. Guests will have the opportunity to park and photograph the blooms alongside the drive.”
The native southeastern sunflower is an annual herb with the scientific name Helianthus agrestis. Dozens of the small daisy-like flowers blossom on a branched plant that can grow 9 feet tall and can spread to cover open marshes, particularly following a fire.
They’re quite common in Florida, so be on the lookout for them on roadsides throughout Florida in coming weeks.
History of Pepper Ranch Preserve
When you visit Pepper Ranch Preserve, you will be exploring a historic slice of Old Florida. The ranch was founded by Frank Jefferson Pepper, who was born in Cherry Creek, Nevada, in 1880, to a ranching family. (His father knew Jesse James and Wyatt Earp among other colorful frontier characters.)
The Peppers farmed and ranched the land, eventually selling oil rights to sections where there are still active oil wells. The land was acquired by Collier County in 2009 because of its critical role in the environment, which includes prime habitat for endangered species, including the Florida panther, as well as pristine cypress swamps and marshes.
A hunting lodge built by the Peppers in the 1950s serves as the visitor center for the preserve, which is open only on weekends from October through May (excluding holidays and weekends when hunting is offered.)
Pepper Ranch Preserve
- Admission to the preserve is free. Visitors must check in at the visitors’ center to receive a daily permit and gate entrance code that will allow them to drive the scenic ranch road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the sunflower weekends.
- Directions to Pepper Ranch Preserve, 6315 Pepper Road: From Immokalee, take SR 29/Main Street north to Lake Trafford Road. Turn left and travel 2.9 miles to Pepper Road. Turn right and travel 0.9 miles to Pepper Ranch Preserve. Entrance is on the left.
- If you visit Pepper Ranch Preserve, be sure to walk out to the overlook at Lake Trafford, a surprisingly large (1500 acres) lake that is a popular fishing spot. The overlook is just beyond the visitor center.
- A map of Pepper Ranch Preserve with trails indicated. (All trails are muddy/underwater in early fall.)
- Once the preserve opens in November, there are several miles of hiking trails. Mountain biking and tent camping are also available on weekends.
Other places to see Florida’s wild sunflowers
- Lake Jessup Conservation Area near Orlando and Sanford. Here’s a photographer’s description of finding this spot.
- Naples’ Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Quite near Pepper Ranch Preserve, this Audubon preserve also has fields of sunflowers. A small display is viewable from the boardwalk, but there are larger fields that are not accessible.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.