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Camping at Myakka River State Park brings out the nature in you

Through the tangle of palm trees and oaks, I could see movement in the meadow.

It was a doe lightly stepping through high grass in the early morning light, her lanky, wobbly fawns nuzzling up for breakfast.

A special moment in a special place, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota.

Myakka River State Park camping Deer nursing her young
Deer in the woods at Myakka River State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

These quiet, early morning bike rides and hikes are only possible if you are camping here, before the park opens its gates to day visitors.

The morning mist had settled over Upper Myakka Lake, and the park was coming alive. A splash, a flapping of wings, the far-off bird call. Herons and egrets, wading in the shallows.

Alligators settling into shallow mud holes on the banks of the Myakka River as turtles ease onto fallen logs, a seemingly peaceful coexistence with an ancient enemy. A red-shouldered hawk stands ready for his day atop a nearby fence post.

No cars. No other noise. Only a few scattered bike riders, and a pair of hikers disappearing down a wooded trail.

Nature is the main attraction at Myakka River State Park, and campers have the best seats in the house.


Myakka River State Park‘s campgrounds

New campground at Myakka River State Park
Campsite in the “new” Palmetto Ridge campground. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Myakka River State Park has 90 campsites for RVs, trailers and tents in three campgrounds, the most recent addition being the Palmetto Ridge Campground, which has 42 RV sites with gravel pads and full hookups for water, electric and sewer.

The two older campgrounds – Big Flats (sites 1-26) and Old Prairie (sites 27-48) – are rustic and have been modified to provide a little more space between sites, but none of the older sites have sewer hookups, only water and electric.

There are dump stations and rest rooms with hot showers in all three campgrounds.both.

When the park’s campgrounds were originally developed in the 1960s, little thought was given to the large RV’s we see today, so the older sites are more compact and nicely shaded within established hammocks of live oaks.

One of the original campgrounds, Old Prairie, at Myakka River State Park.
The Old Prairie Campground is more rustic and shady. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Big Flats is the better choice for tents and pop-up campers. It is the shadiest campground, and there is more space between sites. Another advantage to Big Flats — it’s closest to the Myakka Outpost concession on Upper Myakka Lake.

The other two campgrounds are near the south entrance to the park. 

Old Prairie has the edge on charm and benefits from a shady, more mature forest than its neighbor, the newer Palmetto Ridge.

The sites for RVs or tents are $26 per night plus a $7 daily utility fee charged to recreational vehicles. The utility fee does not apply to tent campers. State and local taxes, and a one-time booking fee of $6.70 are additional.

Florida residents can reserve a campsite up to 11 months in advance, getting a 30-day head start on non-residents, a new policy adopted by the state legislature for 2024.

Maximum trailer length is 45 feet.

To reserve a campsite in one of the three main campground loops, go to reserve.floridastateparks.org. Loop BF is “Big Flats,” Loop PR is the new “Palmetto Ridge” and Loop OP is “Old Prairie,” my favorite.

You can also make telephone reservations by calling 1-800-326-3521, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. (TDD 888-433-0287)

Backpackers & bicycle campers

There are six primitive camping areas accessible to backpackers along park trails.

Each of these campgrounds has three sites, accommodating up to four people per site. Each site has a fire pit and a post. Only three of the camping areas (Bee Island, Oak Grove and Prairie) has a water pump.

Three campgrounds — Mossy Hammock, Bee Island and Oak Grove — are accessible to bicycles from unpaved park roads.

Camping fee: $5/night per person.

Distances from trailheads to campgrounds

Mossy Hammock

Bee Island

Panther Point

Honore

Oak Grove

Prairie

2.2 miles

5.4 miles

8.6 miles

8.7 miles

9.5 miles

14.1 miles

2 hours

3 hours

5 houea

5 hours

7 hours

9 hours

To reserve one these primitive campsites, call the ranger station at 941-361-6511. Camping fee: $5/night per person.

For a detailed trail map for Myakka River State Park, download this PDF file.

Hiking-Biking-Map-2018

Cabins

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.

Five palm-log cabins are available for overnight rentals.

Each cabin has a large main room with two double-beds, a fireplace and a futon. There is a kitchen with basic utensils and a bathroom with a shower.

On a recent trip, we were surprised to find bed linens available but no blankets, so we suggest bringing sleeping bags or blankets. In fact, we recommend you bring everything you think you will need, as if you were tent camping, and not rely on the cabin being stocked.

The cabins were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work project that put the unemployed to work on a variety of government projects, including parklands that became the foundation for Florida’s State Parks system.

These historic cabins are $70 per night plus $7 per day for utilities. A minimum of two nights is required unless there are orphan nights created by other bookings.

Pets are not in cabins.

To reserve a cabin online, go to reserve.floridastateparks.org and choose Loop CA (for CAbins). You can also make telephone reservations by calling 1-800-326-3521, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. (TDD 888-433-0287)


Biking and hiking at Myakka River State Park

Ranch House Road at Myakka River State Park
Ranch House Road is multi-use trail into the back country. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

There are seven miles of paved roads for bicyclists, all accessible from the campgrounds, ranger station and the Myakka Outpost concession area on Upper Myakka Lake.  In addition, there are miles and miles of unpaved park roads that branch off the main park road, offering riders access deep into the remote interior of the park.

Bicyclists would be advised to check trail conditions with the ranger station before tackling the back country or trails that are shared with horses, especially after a good rain.

In all seasons, the North Drive is a quiet, scenic (and shady) paved roadway that kisses the Upper Myakka Lake and offers access to several unpaved park roads.

Compared to the main park road, there is very little traffic here because there is no outlet during the week. On weekends and holidays, the park’s North Gate opens. Even then, vehicle traffic is sparse, making it comfortable for bicyclists.

myakka river state park
The ‘bird walk’ at Myakka River State Park. (Canstock Photo/Smitty411)

There is a bird walk along the North Drive where you can walk out onto a long pier into the grass wetlands of the lake’s perimeter, an ideal habitat for the many varieties of birds that make this park home.

Hikers enjoy 39 miles of trails far from civilization, offering unique opportunities to observe wildlife and enjoy the park’s hardwood hammocks and pine forests, wetlands and prairies.

Day hikers can sample a portion of the main wilderness trail on the Bee Island Loop, and a nature trail leads out to the Canopy Walkway, which rises 25 feet into the thick of a palm/oak hammock. The 100-foot walkway is actually a suspension bridge. Climb a fixed wooden tower to 74 feet, above the treetops, for a majestic view of the park.

Three of the park’s six primitive campgrounds can be accessed from off-road bicycle trails – Mossy Hammock, Bee Island and Oak Grove. The other three campgrounds – Honore, Panther Point and Prairie – are only accessible to hikers.


Canoeing and kayaking at Myakka River State Park

myakka river state park canoes
Canoe rentals at Myakka River State Park. (Photo by @naqlc)

The Myakka River Watershed spans 594 square miles, and it all comes together to form the river just above Myakka River State Park in what is called Old Myakka, or the “Myakka Valley.”

An additional option for real explorers: You can paddle the Myakka River through the park and continue south.  (Notify the ranger station of your float plan if you paddle below State Road 72).

Allow plenty of time if you attempt this extended journey, even planning at least one overnight along the river. The river winds through the woods like a snake, and while beautiful, it can be exhausting.

For more about kayaking within Myakka River, see this companion piece in Florida Rambler.

If you do choose to camp along the river below the park, be respectful of private property. While not heavily populated, there is a stretch of the river as you where you can see an occasional house, most clustered near the Interstate 75 bridge.

Not far below the I-75 bridge, you’ll see the Snook Haven restaurant on the river bank, and slightly beyond that is an inlet off to the right where you can paddle into the privately owned Camp Venice campground and secure a tent site for a reasonable overnight fee. (They also have a heated swimming pool and restrooms.)

Although I have never done the full river, I have done several long stretches and can assure you that the wildlife you encounter will make it worthwhile. Watch out for “Big George,” who commands the Lower Myakka River from a sandbar near Snook Haven.

Another treat awaits long-haul paddlers: the Myakka State Forest in North Port, not to be confused with the state park.

State-maintained primitive campsites are available at this point in the river, as well as hiking, off-road biking and equestrian trails. The forest is maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and is not a part of the Florida State Parks system. A portage will be required to the campsites, and you should make arrangements ahead of time if you want to camp there.

Below the forest, the river widens as it passes through North Port into Charlotte Harbor.


Other things to do at Myakka River State Park

Other activities include picnicking, fishing, equestrian facilities and trails, and airboat rides are offered at the park concession, the Myakka Outpost, which is at the foot of Upper Myakka Lake, just off the main park road.

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.

Boat Tours: These are large airboats, but quiet enough for the guide to talk through the onboard sound system. The tour takes you out onto Upper Myakka Lake, where you observe alligators, birds, fish and the wild pigs on the far shore. Cost is $22, adults, $12 for children (3-12) and children under 5 are free. Call 941-365-0100 for more information. Tours run at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. No reservations.

Tram Safari: Land-based tour of the park and back country with guides who explain the history of the land and its wildlife. The tram runs every day, weather permitting at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Cost is $22 adults, $12 children and children under 5 are free. Call 941-365-0100 for more information. No reservations are taken on the phone or online.

Canoe and kayak rentals: Explore 14 miles of lakes and rivers within the park. Canoes and kayaks are $20 for the first hour and $5 for each additional hour. ($50 deposit required). Rent your boats on site at the Myakka Outpost.

Bike rentals: Single bikes are $15 for two hours, $25 (2-4 hours) and $40 for more than 4 hours. Tandem bikes rent for $30 for 2 hours, $50 for 4 hours and $80 for 4+ hours. Rent your bikes at the Myakka Outpost concession.

Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota FL 34241. Phone: 941-361-6511. To reserve a campsite, book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 1-800-326-3521.


Things to do near Myakka River State Park

If you venture outside the park, there’s plenty to explore. Out the north gate is a vast expanse of farms, ranches and dairies, many of them handed down through families from early settlers of the “Old Myakka Valley.” To get to the beaches, the shopping and the nightlife of Sarasota, go out the Main Gate and go west on U.S. 72. Here are a few destinations you might enjoy visiting with the family:

Crowley Museum and Nature Center: Here’s a little corner of the world worth visiting because there’s a lot going on. This historic homestead features pioneer cabins, a school house, blacksmith shop and more in an idyllic setting that is being put to new uses all the time. The latest venture, in cooperation with the Sarasota County Agricultural Extension Service, is a vineyard featuring muscadine grapes as part of its ongoing sustainable agriculture program. Open Saturday and Sunday, 10 am-5 p.m. in fair weather. Admission to museum and nature trails is $6 for adults, $3 for kids 5-12. To get there, go straight out of the North Gate of Myakka River State Park. The museum is one mile north of the park on Myakka Road. For more information, visit a Floridia Rambler story on Crowley Nature Center

Ringling Estate and Museum: Sarasota is “America’s Circus City,” home of the renowned Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. John Ringling’s estate is now the grounds for the Circus Museum, which houses circus memorabilia dating back more than a century. One of the main attractions is a miniature replica of the 1919-1938 circus. But that’s not all! There’s a museum of art, a 1798 European performing arts theater that was brought here from Italy and restored, a lovely 27,000 square-foot garden, and the Venetian style mansion where John Ringling lived from 1924 until his death in 1936. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission varies. For more information, call (941) 359-5700, or visit their web site, www.ringling.org

Historic Spanish Point: This 30-acre park has a 5,000-year history, as evidenced by a unique shell midden built through the centuries by native Americans who cast their discarded shells in a pile. The heart of the midden is visible through a glass wall built to protect it from weathering, and archaeological objects exposed to view include ancient pottery and tools. This tract on Little Sarasota Bay was also home to Mrs. Potter Palmer of the prominent pioneer family that once owned much of Sarasota County. Many of the historic buildings and gardens can be attributed to her era. And no, Ponce de Leon did not sleep here! Spanish Point is on U.S. 41 in Osprey, south of Sarasota. Here’s a comprehensive Florida Rambler story on Historic Spanish Point. For more information, call (941) 966.5214 or visit their web site, historicspanishpoint.org.

The beaches : There are 13 public beaches on six barrier islands in the Sarasota area, including some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll find anywhere in the U.S. Those closest to Sarasota and Myakka River State Park include: Longboat Key, Lido Key and Siesta Key, most within a half-hour’s drive of Myakka River State Park. From the main park entrance, go east on U.S . 72 straight to Siesta Key. To reach Longboat and Lido, turn north on U.S. 41 and access from the bridge in downtown Sarasota. Here’s a Florida Rambler article on the beaches of Venice and Sarasota.

Related articles on Florida Rambler:


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Laura

Saturday 20th of August 2022

Been to this park a few times & love it. Only down side is cabins book a year out, except in summer.

Peter Morlon

Sunday 16th of January 2022

The story about myakka river state park need quite a bit of updating .....

Bob Rountree

Monday 17th of January 2022

Thank you for the heads up, Peter! I'm working on this story now. It had only been partially updated the last time we looked and was in need of more. Appreciate the alert. :-)

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