Bike & Hike / Birding / Southeast Florida

Hike ‘til you drop, and then hike back

South Florida Hiking Trail — Loxahatchee South

Urbanized South Florida does not offer a lot of opportunities to walk on the wild side.  But there is one hiking trail that can take you deep into the Everglades.

This is not Everglades National Park, but it is the Everglades nonetheless.

These Everglades are managed by various government agencies for wildlife conservation, flood control and water supply through a system of levees that criss-cross the state.

Many of the levees are open to public access for hiking, and some are open to bicyclists.

The long road west on the berm at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

The long levee west

Year  around, these high-and-dry trails atop the berms will take you deep into a wildlife wonderland, where swamps, sloughs, wet grass prairies and tree islands harbor all manner of wildlife.

Alligators are abundant, and the variety of birds will blow you away. A few hours of fishing these waters will reward you with a dinner of largemouth bass, spotted tilapia or a pile of panfish.

On a recent weekend, my wife and I headed out to the levee along the southern boundary of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, known in water management parlance as Levee 39.

To get to Loxahatchee South:  Drive seven miles west on narrow Loxahatchee Road from State Road 7/U.S. 441 at the Broward-Palm Beach County line. The road ends at the wildlife refuge.

When you arrive at the trail head, you find yourself in a remote little corner of the world, often dusty, noisy at times, and somewhat uninviting — unless you have a reason to be there.

And there are several reasons to be there:

    • A 10-mile hiking trail that goes straight west, deep into the Everglades;
Boat launch at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge boat launch

  • A 12-mile bicycle trail going north along the refuge’s eastern boundary that will take you to the refuge headquarters in Boynton Beach;
  • A paved boat launch into the refuge’s freshwater fishing heaven;
  • A concession that offers airboat rides in Water Conservation Area 2A (Airboats are not permitted in the wildlife refuge.)
  • A “beach“ where private airboats are launched, many destined for hunting shacks scattered throughout the conservation area.
  • Fishing holes are everywhere, whether angling from shore, below the locks or from a boat.

Over the years, I have often brought my canoe here for excursions into the refuge for fishing or just taking friends to a quiet place deep in the sawgrass prairie, where you can often find natural waterways. (I’ve been lost out there, too.)

When it comes to kayaking, I’m not really anxious to ride my narrow sit-on-top yak into a nest of gators, and they are prolific here. This is one of the few places in Florida that I’m shy about mixing it up with our amphibious friends.

Are alligators aggressive?  Alligators are not aggressive to adult humans unless they are hungry and have previously been fed by humans. When hiking the levee, keep children and pets away from the water’s edge and don’t let them stray from your side.  Do not allow your dog to swim in the water or sniff through the high grass.  An alligator’s prey selection seems based mostly on size of the potential prey animal, not so much on a keen recognition of specific animals as prey or non-prey. They hunt mostly at night, at dusk and at dawn. For more information, read this.

Hiking the levee

View from Levee 39 of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Amber waves of sawgrass

When you arrive at the end of Loxahatchee Road, drive straight through the refuge entrance gate all the way down the levee to the trail gate, past the boat launch. There’s ample parking here.

On your way, drop off the entrance fee in an honesty box. Daily admission is $5 unless you have a National Parks Pass or an annual refuge pass, which can be purchased at refuge headquarters, west of Boynton Beach.

At first it seems a bit noisy because of the airboats coming and going in the water conservation area, but you’ll soon hike out of range of the noise and into the quiet of the refuge.

Vulture sweeps the skies at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Vulture sweeps the skies.

Lock at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

First lock on Levee 39.

On your right are the refuge’s endless amber waves of sawgrass, punctuated with distant tree islands.

On your left is vegetation-choked water conservation area, which actually helps muffle the airboat noise.

Once out on the berm, the silence closes in around you, and all you hear are the birds and the breeze rustling through the grass. You have left civilization behind, save the occasional motorboat that will zip by on its way to remote fishing grounds.

Before you, the trail looks like a road to nowhere, straight out to the horizon.

You can hike 10 miles with only a few minor bends in the road, but as you venture out, remember that you have to hike back the way you came. There is no exit on the other side. The levee itself actually continues further west, then northwest to the sugar-cane fields in the Everglades Agriculture Area of far-western Palm Beach County.

But public access ends long before you reach the sugar cane, and it’s my bet that you’ll be ready to turn around long before you reach the end of the trail.

The real treat out here is the silence – and the wildlife. Walk a few miles out and stop. The more you blend into your surroundings, the more you’ll see. Bring your camera.

Unfortunately, bicycles are not allowed on Levee No. 39.  Otherwise, I would have been on one. I’m not a trekker, although I love to explore.

We hiked and hiked. No end in sight. I have no idea how far we went, but after my wife Kathy twice suggested we turn around, I finally relented.

“We have to hike all the way back,” she reminded me.

And a long way back it was.
Entrance to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Odds and Ends

The levees running north and south of Loxahatchee Road are normally open to bicyclists, but they are temporarily closed due to construction (as of March 2013).  Going north along Levee 40, the Army Corps of Engineers is building pump stations along the levee to release water into a new filtering pond called “Site 1.”  Going south, substantial reconstruction of the levee itself is underway. Sorry, but we don’t have completion dates.

Airboat rides in the water conservation area adjacent to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge are available near the Loxahatchee Road refuge entrance through a private concession, Loxahatchee Everglades Airboat Tours. Call 561-271-1880 for more information.

The Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is open from sunrise to sunset, but you can hang out near the entrance at other times. The refuge’s wildlife comes alive at night with a cacophony of  sounds. Well worth a visit, but stay away from the water’s edge because alligators are on the prowl.

Spectacular sunsets play out over the sawgrass prairies. Try to get there about 45 minutes early so you can enjoy the pre-sunset splash of colors against and around white clouds. It’s breathtaking.

Related articles on Florida Rambler:

Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge is for the birds

Where to take South Florida visitors for a taste of nature

Kayak under a full moon

Wakodahatchee and Green Cay: South Florida’s best birding

 

Related links:

Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

South Florida Water Management District — Recreation

Loxahatchee Everglades Airboat Tours

 

 

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