Bike & Hike / Birding / Camping / Kayak & Canoe / Parks & Forests / Southwest Florida

Myakka River State Park: Expansive, abundant, Sarasota home to wildlife & nature

A gator seemed to protect the entrance to the mud flats that attracted roseate spoonbills, stilts and storks, among other birds.

Along the river in Myakka Lake State Park, a gator seems to protect the entrance to mud flats that attracted roseate spoonbills, stilts and storks. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The sun sets over the prairie at Myakka River State Park.

The sun sets over the prairie at Myakka River State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Golden light at sunset along the Myakka River in Myakka River State Park.

Golden light at sunset along the Myakka River in Myakka River State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Myakka River State Park near Sarasota is one of the oldest state parks, one of the biggest, and given what I experienced in early March, it may have the most alligators.

It is a place of abundance.

Whereas you are lucky to see a pair of pretty-in-pink roseate spoonbills in another park, here kayakers can be treated to flocks of two dozen spoonbills, wading in a marsh next to wood storks and black-necked stilts.

Myakka River State Park offers a variety of experiences, too: Day-trippers come for the airboat ride, canopy walkway and stop at the water-front café.

Adventurers head for the 39 miles of hiking trails, excellent paved and unpaved biking trails, or the wild and scenic river and lakes for kayaking.

Given you need plenty of time to see it all, you can stay in one of 80 camping sites or five rustic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences, centrally located so that it draws visitors from Miami, Orlando, Tampa and snowbirds from throughout the United States.

Here’s a guide to seeing Myakka River State Park by bike, car, kayak, canoe or foot.

 

The seven-mile road through Myakka River State Park is ideal for bicyclists, and many were present on a Saturday afternoon in March.

The seven-mile road through Myakka River State Park is ideal for bicyclists, and many are present on a Saturday afternoon in March. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

“Meadow Sweet Pastures” is the gate to beautiful Ranch House Road.

“Meadow Sweet Pastures” is the gate to beautiful Ranch House Road. The ranch was operated by Chicago hotelier Bertha Palmer, who donated much of the land that became Myakka River State Park.

The main road through Myakka River State Park

While Myakka is popular with backwoods backpackers, visitors from kiddies to Grandma can enjoy this park without hiking or kayaking. The road through the park is seven miles long, and there are several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery and take a short walk.

The canopy walk at Myakka River State Park.

The canopy walk at Myakka River State Park.

The park road makes an excellent bike trail, however, and I highly recommend parking at the south (or north end) and experiencing the park by bike the first time through.

By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds. On our bikes, we heard a flock of whistling ducks before we saw them and the distinctive voice of sandhill cranes that never came into view. In a car, we might have missed that.

The canopy walk at Myakka River State Park.

The canopy walk at Myakka River State Park is one way with four people allowed at a time.

The airboat at Myakka River State Park takes visitors on a one-hour tour.

The airboat at Myakka River State Park takes visitors on a one-hour tour. (Photo: David Blasco)

It’s easy to pause at beautiful spots by bike and to venture down some of the unpaved bike trails. There are cars on the park road, but they are generally driving slowly and watching for the many bicyclists. (I’ve never seen so many in a state park.) The quietest section of the road is the northern section.

From the main entrance (there is a northern entrance open only on weekends) here are key stops along the main road by car or bike, from south to north:

  • The Log Pavilion, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a beautiful building whose logs are palm-tree trunks. Park across the street behind the monument rock and explore the riverside and picnic area behind the pavilion too. There are benches overlooking the Myakka River, with oak trees arching their branches over the water. This a sure-fire place to spot alligators lounging across the river.
  • Cross the bridge over the Myakka River and, if you’re driving, park on the north side. People gather on the bridge, watching birds or gators or appreciating the view. We saw swallow-tail kites swooping overhead here at sunset and early one morning there was a flock of black-bellied whistling ducks on an island. A beautiful short trail extends along the northern bank of the river through the woods.
  • The Canopy Walk draws crowds and since only four people can cross the narrow one-way “swinging” bridge at a time, it’s best to visit here early or late in the day. The Canopy Walk is quite short – a narrow passageway 100 feet long and 25 feet off the ground, connecting two wooden towers that overlook the forest top. Kids will find it an adventure. My take: It’s just as cool to look at it from below; the view of the tree branches and air plants isn’t all that different at ground level. (Note: Climb to the top of the tower furthest from the road because the one-way walkway starts on that side. )

    Artifacts gathered at the site of Bertha Palmer's old ranch inside Myakka River State Park.

    Artifacts gathered at the site of Bertha Palmer’s old ranch inside Myakka River State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

  • Traveling northward, the Big Flats Marsh stretches to your left, with excellent birding opportunities. This is part of the Florida dry prairie habitat the park preserves and is restoring. Much of Central and Northern Florida were prairies like this – a vast plain covered with grasses, saw palmetto and cabbage palms. It was easy to repurpose this land for farms and groves because few trees had to be removed, and today little prairie is left in Florida.
  • Along the right, watch for the gate with rustic sign “Meadow Sweet Pastures.” This is the beautiful Ranch House Road, easily biked even on skinny tires. It leads to the site of buildings that were part of the ranch operated here by Chicago hotelier Bertha Palmer. Palmer donated much of the land that became Myakka River State Park. The ranch buildings are gone, but visitors have created a small pile of artifacts here – broken dishes and glass fragments – that are fun to stumble upon. (Ranch House Road connects to the long back-country trail system, though the connecting All Weather Road requires fat tires not skinny for bicyclists.)
Birding experts help visitors see and identify birds at a platform on Upper Myakka Lake.

Birding experts help visitors see and identify birds at a platform on Upper Myakka Lake.

  • If you stay on the main road here, you’ll soon come to the Birdwalk, a boardwalk extending into Upper Myakka Lake. During the winter, friendly expert birders man this spot in the morning, locating birds in their scopes and helping visitors identify them.
  • Near the end of the park, well off the main road on the right, is a particularly attractive picnic area along Clay Gully Creek.
  • If you’re driving the park road on weekends or holidays, you can leave by the north gate and go one mile to the charming Crowley Museum and Nature Center. Whereas the park preserves the natural environment, the Crowley tells the story of people, the early pioneers. You’ll find historic buildings, including a log cabin and a museum, and farm animals. There’s a $5 admission for adults. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the Crowley Museum.

Airboat, tram rides and cafe concessions

The airboat at Myakka River State Park takes visitors on a one-hour tour.

The airboat at Myakka River State Park is located at concession area.

On your way back, take the road spur that goes to the bustling concession area. This is where you can book a one-hour airboat ride ($14 adults; $7 kids 60 to 12) or a one-hour tram tour (same price, but there’s a discount if you do both.)

I didn’t take either, but the birding volunteer I met always takes visitors on the airboat tour and said the guides accurately identify birds and wildlife and provide interesting information.

The Pink Gator café in the concession area offers counter service for a variety of sandwiches and has a variety of draft beers, including some locally brewed ones. The view off the café’s covered deck is excellent and it’s a great place to relax. It closes at 5:30 p.m., however, so it’s not a great dinner option.  (Note: The Pink Gator has free wifi, a boon in a park where I had only weak cell-phone signal.)

The concession area also rents bikes, kayaks and canoes.

On a March visit, two dozen roseate spoonbills were feeding in a wetland along the Myakka River inside Myakka River State Park.

On a March visit, two dozen roseate spoonbills feed in a wetland along the Myakka River inside Myakka River State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking at Myakka River State Park

A flock of whistling ducks near the bridge at Myakka River State Park.

A flock of whistling ducks near the bridge at Myakka River State Park.

A wood storm joins the roseate spoonbills at Myakka River State Park.

A wood storm joins the roseate spoonbills at Myakka River State Park.

A pile of gators delighted visitors who took the short walk from the concession stand to the dam at Myakke River State Park.

A pile of gators delights visitors who took the short walk from the concession stand to the dam at Myakke River State Park.

If you bring your own kayak, your best put-in spot is the boat ramp south of the bridge on the main road. If you rent kayaks or canoes, you put in on the Upper Myakka Lake. Unless the water level is very low, it is possible to portage the boats around the low dam and reach the Myakka River, which I think makes more interesting kayaking than the lake.

The most popular kayaking route: Launching at the bridge, kayak against the current toward the upper lake, which makes your return trip an easier one.  Water levels were historically high this winter, and I suspect I had a stronger current than usual.

The roundtrip paddle to the weir (a small dam built by the CCC at the lake) takes a few hours. For us, it was four or five, because of a strong current, plus we stopped to photograph birds and to picnic near the weir and use the facilities at the concession stand. It can be done more quickly, probably in 2.5 to 3 hours, but why rush?

It was a memorable and beautiful kayak trail, full of wildlife. At some points, big old live oaks draped with Spanish moss line the shores. At others, your view is of broad grassy marshes.

We passed uncountable gators and many were among the largest alligators I have ever seen. There was no manmade presence visible on the trail except a set of powerlines and no sounds except nature until the end, when the drone of the airboat could be heard.

And the birds! Flocks of roseate spoonbills, frequent sightings of limpkins, storks and all sorts of wading birds were exceptional on our March visit.

Lower Myakka Lake, inside the wilderness preserve, for which you need to get a permit at the ranger station.

Lower Myakka Lake, inside the wilderness preserve, for which you need to get a permit at the ranger station. (Photo: David Blasco)

A second good kayak trail is the one downstream out of the boat ramp at the state park and into the Myakka River Wilderness Preserve to Lower Myakka Lake. To kayak this route, you need to stop at the ranger station and get a free permit because access to the preserve is limited.

The downstream kayak trail has some good scenery but we found far fewer birds. About half-way to the lake, the trail enters an open area, twisting through grasslands until it opens to the lake.

Myakka River

After years of drought, heavy rains in winter 2016 left the Myakka River water levels very high and kayaking through the park was excellent in March.

The roundtrip to the lake is probably a three to four hour paddle, with the hardest part – paddling against the current – on the return.

We paddled this route on a day that was too windy to explore Lower Myakka Lake. (We wondered, actually, if we’d make it out of the lake, paddling against both a strong current and a stiff wind.)

We had read about the Deep Hole, a 140-foot sinkhole at the southern end of the lake, famous as both a fishing destination and as a magnet for dozens of alligators, but the wind prevented us from reaching there.

There are several potential picnic spots – shady dry banks — in the first half of the trail.

If you have just one day to paddle and the water level is ample, I’d suggest you do the trip from the ramp to Upper Myakka Lake. It’s more rewarding, has more wildlife and while you’ll meet a few kayaks near the lake, most of the time you’ll be alone and in Myakka’s beauty.

The logs on the cabins in Myakka River State Park are the trunks of palm trees.

The logs on the cabins in Myakka River State Park are the trunks of palm trees.

Interior of log cabin at Myakka River State Park.

Interior of log cabin with large stone fireplace at Myakka River State Park.

The log cabins at Myakka State Park

Florida state parks have a lot of great cabins, but these CCC-built ones made out of palm-tree trunks, have to be among the most picturesque. The cabins are set back in the woods, separate from each other and away from the road.

The five cabins were closed for refurbishing through much of 2015, so the cabins are probably more available now (in early 2016) than usual. (It’s well worth booking them in advance.)

We loved the big stone wood-burning fireplace and were surprised how large our cabin felt. The cabin is described as three rooms: There’s a complete, small kitchen and adjoining small room with table and chairs and a modern bathroom. All this is located in what feels like an addition to the original cabin, which is one big room furnished with two double beds, a futon and a heavy wooden dining rooms table and six chairs plus the fireplace. It’s cozy but there is not a lot of natural light. Cabins have heat and air conditioning.

A few things to note: There are no “extras” stocked in the cabin. No soap. No coffee filters. No corkscrew. No paper towels. We were surprised that there were sheets but no warm blankets. (We got our picnic blanket out of the trunk to stay warm.) There are dishes, silverware and pans. Beyond that, pack as if you were camping.

Ranch House Road travels through a beautiful canopy of live oaks and can be ridden on skinny-tire bikes.

Ranch House Road travels through a beautiful canopy of live oaks and can be hiked or biked. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Hiking at Myakka River State Park

This park is a hiker’s wonderland, with close to 39 miles of marked trails and six back-country camping sites. Winter 2015-16, however, isn’t the year for hiking here, as high water has put many trails underwater or left them very muddy.

When asked about good places to hike, the ranger we met was discouraging:  “We’re not even maintaining the hiking trails this year,” Earlier, Myakka was so flooded, the main road and not just the trails were underwater.

For us, knowing there are highly recommended hiking trails is a good reason to return to Myakka in a dryer winter. This previous Florida Rambler story has more to offer on hiking options and Florida Hikes raves about hiking here.

Camping at Myakka River State Park

With all its assets, it’s no surprise Myakka River State Park is a popular camping destination, particularly with snowbirds who reserve their two-week stint exactly 11 months in advance. There are three campground loops, lots of sites, and they all fill up on winter weekends.

For campground reservations, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287, or online at Florida State Parks.

Florida Rambler story that focuses on camping at Myakka.

Resources for a trip to Myakka River State Park:

Online: Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Rd 72, Sarasota, FL 34241;  Park Office: (941) 361-6511; Campground Reservations: (800) 326-3521

On a road trip? Here are nearby places to explore from Florida Rambler:

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