Weve paddled and hiked along the Tamiami Trail and around Everglades City many times over many years and somehow we always drove right past the entrance to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park — the biggest state park in Florida.
Were glad we finally stopped and explored, because this vast wild place, with more than 80,000 acres stretching from Alligator Alley to the Tamiami Trail, has so much to offer.
There are three big reasons to visit Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park:
- Miles and miles of hiking, including dry, easy-to-walk trails through a vast and beautiful cypress forest filled with air plants and wild orchids. (Some visitors are lucky enough to spot Florida panthers here.)
- A beautiful kayak trail on the East River, winding through mangrove tunnels and through pretty little lakes, all filled with birds and alligators.
- The Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, right off the Tamiami Trail, that takes you through one of the last stands of virgin bald cypress trees in Florida.
Kayaking the East River in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Its easy to miss the East River. The kayak and canoe launch is tucked away down an unmarked dirt road off US 41/Tamiami Trail and most traffic whizzes by.
Once you find it, though, youre rewarded with a good launch with several parking places, a picnic table and a portable restroom, all overlooking a beautiful lake.
The lake where you launch is also the site of a spectacular bird rookery. We returned from our kayak tour at sunset and sat in our kayaks in awe of the scene: Hundreds of egrets, herons and an occasional roseate spoonbill streamed in and filled the trees with squawking and grunting and flapping wings, all lit by glorious golden light.
Recently, the park began locking the gate into this trail. You must access the East River Paddling Trail by reservation by calling the park office at 239-695-4593 the day before. For weekends and Monday, call on Friday. There are only 20 spots available, so it does fill up. The office opens at 8 a.m.
We explored the East River with naturalist Kyle McKenzie of AdventurePaddleTours.com, one of two outfitters licensed to give tours in Fakahatchee Strand. (Ivey Houses EvergladesAdventures.com is the other.) The East River also would be an excellent destination for those with their own kayaks.
The East River is a brackish river lined with mangroves. Its a series of narrow twisting mangrove tunnels that widen into small lakes. The mangroves are full of air plants and in the lakes, youre likely to spot a wide variety of birds heron, egrets, ospreys busily fishing, kingfishers darting about.
Theres a healthy population of shy alligators, including some impressively large specimens, and the waters splash with mullets and other fish as you paddle.
The mangrove tunnels are beautiful and can be fun, but are challenging. You may have to take your kayak paddle apart to have a shorter, more maneuverable paddle in the narrow spots.
If you’re on your own, finding your way on this trail may be a little tricky. It would be good to have the map on your phone or print out this one as reference. And, still, you probably will take some wrong turns into dead ends. On the other hand, cell phone reception is good, so you should be able to use a mapping app to help you find your way.
Our guide Kyle McKenzie made it unnecessary for us to navigate, and he happily identified birds, trees, fish and airplants as he told interesting stories about the area.
We paddled about two miles downstream, exploring several lakes and then returned for about a two-and-a-half hour trip.
In late spring, low water levels usually make the river impassable.
The day we paddled, East River was wonderfully quiet, but there are times where airboats are audible at the start of the trail, according to McKenzie.
With an out-and-back paddle like this, there is no particular destination. The goal is just to be out appreciating a beautiful place on the water, spotting wildlife, soaking in the sights and sounds — and in that we succeeded completely.
Hiking in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Fakahatchee Strand is enormous but there is essentially one road that goes into the park Janes Scenic Drive. Its a dirt road through a beautiful cypress swamp and its closed to vehicles after the first six miles. (It continues for five more miles for hikers and fat-tire bikes.)
At several points along this road, hiking trails head into the woods.
That six-mile-road takes almost 30 minutes to drive primarily because of potholes. But going slow is good because plenty of wildlife is viewed from the road we saw two deer and several birds; occasionally lucky folks spot a panther.
All the roads in Fakahatchee Strand are former logging roads used to cut down what was once a vast cypress forest with trees hundreds of years old. Logging in the 40s and 50s spared only a small stand of old growth cypress along what is now the Big Cypress Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand. About 25 miles away, the biggest stand of old growth cypress in the world is preserved as Audubons Corkscrew Swamp.
The preserves former logging roads create a network of good hiking trails. We hiked on East Main Trail, which starts where cars reach the end of the drivable section of Jane’s Scenic Drive.
East Main Trail is high and dry as it passes through the cypress swamp. While the trees are not the ancient giants of the past, the cypress swamp is luxuriant with ferns, orchids, airplants and knobby cypress knees.
The Fakahatchee is the spot enthusiasts go to see wild orchids. (It was the scene of Susan Orleans best-selling book The Orchid Thief, which became the Meryl Streep movie Adapations. )
This forest is also the site of a large number of stately native royal palm trees. There are many along the East Main Trail, and its strange to see a tree I associate with instant landscaping around suburban McMansions in such a beautiful native forest.
I think a perfect hike is an easy two-mile stroll down East Main Trail to a private cabin that makes a great turn-around destination on a two-hour hike. Its a small, rustic building of old wood and corrugated metal with a sign at the front door proudly identifying it as the Fakahatchee Hilton.
Its a good place to linger. Its located on a beautiful pond; a boardwalk connects the cabin to the lake, where we had our picnic on the dock overlooking a half dozen alligators lazily floating and sunning while in the trees several anhingas dried their wings.
It was absolutely silent, except for loud complaints from a big crow atop a nearby cypress.
There is also a picnic table and an outhouse at this location. The trail continues for several miles.
Well certainly return to Fakahatchee and explore more. The parks website says the two most popular trails are the East Main, which we hiked, and the West Main trail, which passes through two miles of strand swamp before opening up into a beautiful marle prairie.
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
Besides the hiking and kayaking, the third great reason to visit Fakahatchee Strand Preserve is a lovely boardwalk.
The old Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is closed because of hurricane damage and probably won’t re-open until 2025 at the earliest.
A new boardwalk with restrooms and a viewing area is scheduled to open in early winter 2023.
The boardwalk is on Tamiami Trail East, just west of the intersection with Florida Highway 29. It’s a separate entrance from the rest of the park.
Planning your visit to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
137 Coastline Drive, Copeland FL 34137
Admission is $3.
To access the East River Paddling Trail, make a reservation the day before at 239-695-4593. (For weekends and Mondays, call on Fridays.) Only 20 people a day can access this wild river area.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park has only a handful of employees. There are picnic tables, a small visitor center and restrooms. There is no campground. Within the park, there are hundreds of rustic cabins. Most were originally hunting cabins and since hunting is not allowed, few are used often, according to a ranger at the visitor center.
The Friends of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park at orchidswamp.org operate highly rated programs in the winter for a fee — guided walks, swamp walks, naturalist-led tram rides. See the whole schedule here.
Everglades Adventures at Ivey House offers kayak tours of various Everglades City rivers including the East River.
AdventurePaddleTours.com offers kayak tours in the area, including a “Manatee and Mangroves” tour.
You probably wont see panthers or black bears on your hike, but they’re there. Photographer Jay Staton of Naples has trail cams set up that have captured amazing footage of both, as well as the very rare Everglades mink. See the photos on his Facebook page here.
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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.