We’ve 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.
We’re 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:
- 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. The 2,300-foot-long boardwalk is one of the best boardwalks you’ll find in Florida.
Kayaking the East River in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
It’s 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, you’re 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.
We explored the East River with naturalist Kyle McKenzie of AdventurePaddleTours.com, one of two outfitters licensed to give tours in Fakahatchee Strand. (Ivey House’s 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. It’s a series of narrow twisting mangrove tunnels that widen into small lakes. The mangroves are full of air plants and in the lakes, you’re likely to spot a wide variety of birds –heron, egrets, ospreys busily fishing, kingfishers darting about.
There’s 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 State Park
Fakahatchee Strand is enormous but there is essentially one road that goes into the park – Jane’s Scenic Drive. It’s a dirt road through a beautiful cypress swamp and it’s 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 Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp.
The preserve’s 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 Orlean’s 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 it’s 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. It’s a small, rustic building of old wood and corrugated metal with a sign at the front door proudly identifying it as the “Fakahatchee Hilton. “
It’s a good place to linger. It’s 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.
We’ll certainly return to Fakahatchee and explore more. The park’s 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 is this exceptional boardwalk.
Even if you don’t have a lot of time, you should take 30 to 45 minutes to walk the 2,300-foot-long boardwalk located on the Tamiami Trail, seven miles west of the SR 29 (the road into Everglades City.)
The boardwalk is a microcosm of the Everglades – huge ancient bald cypress, thousands of bromeliads, a profusion of ferns, plus wildlife, ranging from alligators and wading birds to bald eagles, who have an active nest nearby high in the tree canopy.
The Friends of Fakahatchee are working with the park service to improve the boardwalk by eventually adding a paved parking lot, restrooms and additional trails.
Even without improvements, the sheer beauty of this virgin cypress forest is worth experiencing.
Planning your visit to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
137 Coastline Drive, Copeland FL 34137
Admission is $3.
Fakahatchee Strand 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.
Adventure Paddle Tours offers naturalist-led kayak tours of the East River in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, as well as tours of Rookery Bay and the Faka Union Canal.
Everglades Adventures at Ivey House offers kayak tours of various Everglades City rivers including the East River.
You probably won’t 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.
Click on map for downloadable (PDF) map of trails and park features