Myakka River State Park - A red-shouldered hawk shattered the morning stillness as the sun rose over the dry prairie. Out here in the middle of nowhere, far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, a raptor's cry is the loudest noise you will hear. But that is why people come - to see Florida the way it was.
A Walk in the Woods
The Oak Grove primitive campsite is just 10.2 miles from the trailhead, but it is still wild Florida at its best. Hike out there, among the pine flatwoods and palmetto thickets, and you'll take a walk through time.
Unlike most of the state, the scenery hasn't changed much since Seminole warriors roamed the oak hammocks and cattle grazed the scrub lands that would later become one of Florida's largest parks.
Hikers will relish the solitude found along the 39 miles of trails that snake through the 37,000 acres of wilderness. Backpackers can choose from six primitive campsites, each nestled in its own unique environment, the closest just a few hour's walk from the parking lot. Or explore nature 70-plus feet in the air on the Myakka Canopy Walkway, a delight no matter what the time of year.
Great White Egret
But Myakka owes much of its beauty to the waterway that shares the same name. Designated a "Florida Wild and Scenic River," the Myakka flows through 58 miles of wet prairies, pinelands and hardwood hammocks.
Paddlers can explore Upper and Lower Myakka lakes by canoe or kayak and the tea-colored river that flows between them. For a good day trip, start at the Myakka Outpost Concession on the shores of the Upper Lake and paddle down to the bridge, a distance of about three miles. You'll see plenty of alligators.
The current is usually light to moderate, so the return trip is an easy paddle. Bring your kayak or canoe, or rent one at the concession. To avoid crowds, visit on a weekday. But even on weekends, rentals are usually available at some point in the day.
Airboats and Trams
If you are looking for a more leisurely tour, take a trip on one of the world's largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal, both of which offer scenic cruises on Upper Myakka Lake.
Like human-powered canoes, the slow-moving, air-powered watercraft can travel into shallow areas for optimum wildlife viewing. The tour schedule varies during the winter and summer months, so call before you go, 941-361-6511. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children ages six to 12 years old. Children five years old and under are free. During peak season (the cooler months), tours fill up quickly so get there early.
The park concession also operates a tram ride that will take you on a tour of Myakka's backcountry areas during the months of December-May. A good bet, before you plan your Myakka adventure, is to tour the park in your own car. The seven-mile scenic drive winds through the park and offers a good view of the wetlands that surround the Upper Lake.
Birds and Bikes
Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars. Myakka River State Park is a nationally acclaimed birding hotspot. The diversity of habitat assures that you will see a plethora of species, including every major waterbird in the State of Florida. Ibis, heron and egret prowl the marshes of the Upper and Lower lakes, while hawks, eagles and owls hunt the hammocks for rodents and snakes. Park rangers or volunteers offer a beginners' birding class every Sunday at 9 a.m. during the winter months (Thanksgiving to Easter). A park bird list is available at the front office. Bring your own field glasses, pen and paper.
Another good way to see the park is by bicycle. Pull over in one of the parking lots, then pedal at your leisure along the shaded scenic drive. The flat, paved roads are perfect for road bikes, but fat-tire enthusiasts will find the Fox's High Road and Powerline Road worth exploring. Conditions vary depending on season, so contact the ranger for road status before leaving.
Bike rentals are available at the Myakka Outpost Concession with costs ranging from $15 for two hours to $40 for the full day.
Three of the backcountry primitive camping areas - Bee Island, Oak Grove and Mossy Hammock - are accessible by mountain bike. (Note: All mountain bikes must be walked on the hiking section of the trails.)
Hikers and bikers must get a backcountry camping permit before spending the night. Maps are available at the ranger station.