Through the tangled web of palm trees and oaks, I detected movement in the meadow beyond. Stop. There it is again.
A doe lightly stepping through the grass in the early morning light, her wobbly fawns trailing. Just deer. Lots of deer in these woods.
The fawn nuzzled up to her momma and nursed. A special moment in a special place, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota.
A few minutes earlier on my bike ride, I saw a red-shouldered hawk perched on a fence rail, as if posing for the photographer who had quietly sidled closer.
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. All manner of water birds, herons and the egrets, wading in the shallows in search of breakfast.
Alligators settled sleepily in the shallow mud holes of the Myakka River bed, alert to potential meals nearby but not moving. Today, the river was dry, and had been for some weeks.
Nature is the main attraction at Myakka River State Park, and there’s no better time to experience it than with an early morning bike ride, before day visitors arrive en masse. To beat the crowd, you must camp here.
A few campers are out hiking the back-country trails. A few more are riding bikes along the paved park roads and off-road trails, all paying homage to the peace and quiet afforded by this wilderness preserve west of Sarasota.
To be sure, even after the day visitors arrive, there is ample back country in which to get lost. Or you can opt to join the small crowds that gather around the park concession to ride airboats or rent canoes and kayaks.
You can venture across the “canopy trail,” a high bridge to nowhere with a tower that takes you above the trees for an amazing view of the surrounding wilderness, a dense forest immersed in wetlands and meadows of swaying grasses.
With the arrival of the rainy season, the lake should soon fill up again, and the river will start flowing in an ancient ritual of too much rain followed by too much drought.
Camping and cabins at Myakka River State Park
With all of its activities, Myakka River State Park makes a great base for extended stays, and demand is high for this popular park.
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 restrooms at both campgrounds.)
The newest campground, Palmetto Ridge, has 42 developed sites, including 10 pull-throughs for campers with larger rigs.
When the park’s campgrounds were originally constructed back in the 1960s, little thought was given to the large RV’s we see today, so the older sites are well-shaded by oak hammocks, ideal for the more compact requirements of tent campers.
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 closer to the Myakka Outpost concession.
The other two campgrounds are at the south end of the park. Old Prairie has more charm and benefits from a shady, more mature forest than the newer Palmetto Ridge.
Five palm-log cabins are available for overnight rentals (minimum two nights on weekends). The cabins were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work project that is largely responsible for the establishment of the Florida State Parks system. (Details on the log cabins.)
Six primitive campgrounds include one 13 miles from park access roads. Each has three sites, accommodating up to six people per site.
Pets are allowed at RV sites, but not in the cabins or primitive tent sites.
Campground reservations at Myakka River State Park
Campsites are $26 per night and can be booked up to 11 months in advance. Additional fees include a $7 daily utility fee and a non-refundable booking fee of $6.70. Change fee is $10 and a cancellation fee is $17.50. To reserve a campsite, go to reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 1-800-326-3521, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., up to 11 months in advance. (TDD 888-433-0287) Maximum stay is 14 nights.
Cabins are $70 per night, plus tax, plus a nonrefundable $6.70 reservation fee and a $7 nightly utility fee.
Primitive sites are $5 per person and can only be reserved at the park office, 941-361-6511.
Biking and hiking at Myakka River State Park
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.
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
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.
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 near 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.
Airboat rides: These are large tour boats, not the noisy, four-person craft you see skidding across the Everglades. It’s quiet enough for the guide to talk through the onboard sound system. The airboat takes you out onto Upper Myakka Lake, where you observe alligators, birds, fish and the wild pigs on the far shore. Cost is $20 adults, $12 children 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 for four hours and $40 for more than 5 hours. Tandem bikes rent for $30 for 2 hours, $50 for 4 hours and $80 for 5 hours or more. Rent your bikes on site at the Myakka Outpost.
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. Soon to come: a folk school. 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, call (941) 322-1000 or visit their web site, crowleyfl.org
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:
- The fabulous beaches of Venice
- Bicycling: Legacy Trail and Venetian Waterway Park
- Hidden Gem: Oscar Scherer State Park
- Indian mound unwrapped at Historic Spanish Point
- Cabins in Florida state parks: ‘Comfort’ camping
- Best camping near Tampa: 9 choice campgrounds
- Fort DeSoto Park: Beach ranked among best in nation
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.