Last updated on December 15th, 2020 at 10:52 am
Emerson Point Preserve is an exceptional county park, off the beaten path on the southern end of Tampa Bay, well worth discovering if you’re in the area.
It would be easy to spend a day exploring the trails on foot or by kayak, bringing a picnic to enjoy the scenery.
Managed by Manatee County but owned by the state, Emerson Point Preserve occupies 270 acres on the tip of Snead Island, with the Manatee River on the southern side and Terra Ceia Bay to the north.
What’s special about Emerson Point Preserve?
1. The Portavent Temple Mound is a lovely spot
The real hidden gem in this park is the Portavant Temple Mound, an archaeological site listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. If you’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, yeah, a shell mound; I’ve seen that before,” then you might be surprised by the beauty of the site and the quality of signage explaining it.
The Portavant Mound is estimated to be about 1200 years old and created by indigenous people of the Safety Harbor culture, who lived here long before European explorers arrived.
The mound, created by piling up shells over many years, is about 13 feet high with a flat top 150 feet by 75 feet. What’s exceptional about it is the deep shade, lush vegetation and huge hardwood trees that cover it.
A boardwalk takes you over the mound and excellent signage explains the history of the site, which begins with the indigenous people and continues through several generations of settlers, each with a fascinating story.
The boardwalk takes visitors out to an overlook of the Manatee River with sweeping views of passing boat traffic.
2. Emerson Point Preserve has miles of scenic hiking
While a fairly small preserve, Emerson Point Preserve is well developed with scenic walking trails totaling several miles.
The hike over the Portavent Mound can be combined with other trails to make about a 3-mile loop. (See the trail map here.)
The Terra Ceia Trail follows a waterway through the mangroves with scenic bridges, an observation tower and two opportunities to reach wooden decks with views of the beautiful Terra Ceia Bay.
One of the prettiest places in the park is the point, where there is a small beach and kayak launch. The broad view over Tampa Bay includes the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance. Here, you can take the short (.6 miles round-trip) Beach Walk Trail.
3. Emerson Point Preserve is a good place to launch a kayak.
There are three kayak launch sites along the main road through the park. You have to look very closely for the first two, which are just small openings in the mangroves along the road. Here, you’d launch in the mangrove-lined waterways in the park that lead out to Terra Ceia Bay.
We launched at the last spot, at the tip of Emerson Point Preserve. This is a popular location, with fisherman casting their lines, families playing in the water and kayaks, paddleboards and even small sailboats in the process of being launched.
Launching our canoe at the point, we went to the right into Terra Ceia Bay, admiring dazzling views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance the whole way.
We stayed close to the shore, which is lined some of the most beautiful old red mangrove trees I can recall seeing, which are host to many birds, including osprey, kingfishers, black crowned night heron, a flock of ibis plus all the common types of heron.
The water is shallow and very clear and we saw lots of fish. The shoreline along Emerson Point Preserve attracts fishermen and on the day we paddled, they were catching.
Our paddling route hugged the northern shore as we explored each of the coves. You could paddle as long as you want and turn around when tired. We reached the fishing pier, located near the border where Emereson Point Preserve ends, and turned around.
4. Emerson Park Preserve is free.
There is no admission price, and thus the park is pretty popular. Many of the parking lots were full and overflowing on a beautiful Saturday. (People parallel parked along the road at the point end of the park.)
There are port-a-potty restrooms at the Portavente Temple Mound area and at the tip of the park where we launched our canoe. There are picnic tables in four locations. It seemed like there were a lot of people at this park on the day we visited and perhaps these facilities don’t meet all the demand. Neverthless, I recommend Emerson Point Preserve, even if you have to use port-a-potties and vie for parking.
- Emerson Point Preserve
- 5801 17th Street West
- Palmetto, FL 34221
Things to do near Emerson Point Preserve
Emerson Point Preserve is on south end of Tampa Bay, so I’m limiting my recommendations to places that do not require crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. There’s plenty to see and do in the area.
We love the beaches and overall ambiance of Anna Maria Island, about a half hour a way. It was during a stay on Anna Maria Island that we discovered Emerson Point Preserve. Here’s a guide to things to do on Anna Maria Island.
Near Anna Maria Island, the picturesque fishing village of Cortez is an outstanding place to get fresh seafood and enjoy the ambiance of Old Florida. Here’s a guide to visiting Cortez, including my favorite fish shack there.
When you are at Emerson Point Preserve, you are directly across the wide Manatee River from DeSoto National Memorial Park, 8300 Desoto Memorial Hwy, Bradenton, FL 34209. This is a national park, although quite small and modest. It has a spectacular location on the Bradenton River and a well-done three-quarter-mile trail along the water and through the mangroves, telling the story of the indigenous people and the Spanish explorers. There is a small museum, not currently open. (During normal times, in the winter there is a living history program telling the story of the native Americans.) It’s free.
Kayaking Frog Creek in Palmetto. This is one of the best paddles you’ve never heard of. Your launch point is hidden behind a private campground in Palmetto. You can launch your own kayak ($10 fee) or rent one. What makes this paddle remarkable is that in one trip, it encompasses two completely different environments — a canopied fresh water cypress and oak creek with open water areas flowing into tidal salt water mangrove tunnels. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Frog Creek.
Gamble Mansion for Civil War history. The Gamble Mansion has white columns to rival Tara and was the site of a dramatic Civil War event. It’s the only antebellum mansion left in South Florida, and a good reminder of region’s history. It’s about 15 minutes from Emerson Point Preserve. While the grounds are open, the mansion itself is closed because of the pandemic.