Myakka River State Park near Sarasota is one of the oldest state parks, one of the biggest, and given what I experienced on an early March visit, it may have the most alligators.
It is a place of splendid abundance.
Whereas you are lucky to see a pair of pretty-in-pink roseate spoonbills in another park, at Myakka River State Park, kayakers can be treated to flocks of two dozen spoonbills, wading in a marsh next to wood storks and black-necked stilts.
Here are 10 reasons to visit Myakka River State Park:
- The Myakka River State Park canopy walkway takes you on a walk in the treetops.
- Adventurers can head out on 39 miles of hiking trails.
- There are excellent paved and unpaved biking trails.
- The wild and scenic Myakka River and adjoining lakes are outstanding for kayaking.
- Myakka River State Park offers a pontoon boat ride that is family friendly for those who can’t get in and out of kayaks.
- Given you need plenty of time to see it all, you can stay in one of 80 shaded camping sites under a canopy of trees.
- Myakka River State Park features some of the most historic and unusual cabins in the state park system — five rustic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
- Myakka River State Park has some of the best birding around. At the Birdwalk, a boardwalk extending into Upper Myakka Lake, friendly expert birders man this spot on winter mornings, locating birds in their scopes and helping visitors identify them.
- History buffs will enjoy hiking to the site of buildings that were part of the ranch operated here by Chicago hotelier Bertha Palmer in the early 20th Century.
- The Pink Gator cafe, operated by a concessionaire, makes a great lunch time stop, with sandwiches, craft beers and free wifi.
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.
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 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.
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 Myakka River State Park 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 Myakka 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. )
- 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 starting in 1910. 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.)
- If you stay on the main road here, you’ll soon come to the Birdwalk, a boardwalk extending into Upper Myakka Lake, where on winter mornings, you’ll find volunteers who will help you locate and identify birds. (It is not ADA accessible since the hurricane, but will eventually be rebuilt.)
- 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.
Myakka River State Park boat tours and cafe
On your way back, take the road spur that goes to the bustling concession area. Pontoon boat tours of the lake are offered at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 plus tax for adults and $12 plus tax for children 3-12. Toddlers 2 and under are free.
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.
Kayaking at Myakka 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.
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.
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.
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.
Myakka River State Park cabins
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 Myakka cabins are set back in the woods, separate from each other and away from the road.
The five cabins book up far in advance. They were damaged in a 2022 hurricane but will reopen in January 2024. (The best dates in winter and spring are already booked, but keep checking for cancellations.)
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.) You are advised to bring your own dishes, silverware and pans, so pack as if you were camping. (The park website notes you can borrow these items if you need them.)
Myakka River State Park hiking
This park is a hiker’s wonderland, with close to 39 miles of marked trails and six back-country camping sites.
We spent more time paddling than hiking — good reason for us to return. This Florida Hikes story raves about hiking here.
Myakka River State Park camping
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.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites and cabins at all Florida State Parks, and the reservation window will be reduced to 10 months for non-residents.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story that focuses on camping at Myakka.
Resources for a trip to Myakka River State Park:
- More from Florida Rambler about camping at Myakka River State Park
- Camping at nearby Camp Venice, a good alternative in the region.
- While at Myakka, visit the adjacent Crowley Museum and Nature Center
- Friends of Myakka River State Park
On a road trip? Here are nearby places to explore from 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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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.