The Myakka River is one of only two rivers in the state that has the distinction of a "Wild and Scenic" river. This official designation was granted by the state's legislature and provides for both preservation and management of this beautiful waterway. The Myakka State Park is the largest in the state, encompassing 47 square miles.
While millions of tourists are flocking to the beaches and "Mickeyland", the Myakka quietly handles over 250,000 annual visitors that come to see what the "real" Florida is like. One of the greatest aspects of the park is its value. Entry to the park is only $2 for one person, and $4 for a vehicle with more than one person in it.
For this nominal fee, you can traverse any of their 38 miles of hiking trails with 6 overnight camping spots for backpackers, or explore the 20 miles of service roads that are limited to bike or foot traffic. An additional 12 miles of horse trails are available, but you have to provide your own horse. No horse rentals are available, but other options should keep you busy.
A total of 76 campsites are available for only $18 a night with electricity, including tax. Also available are five palm log cabins that were built by Roosevelt's Conservation Corps in the 1930's. These rustic cabins are a unique way to step back in time and experience a little bit of what settlers and early pioneers enjoyed. Each cabin sleeps up to 6 people at $55 per night. If you want to reserve a cabin your earliest opportunity will be April of next year. In the past two years, occupancy of these cabins has increased dramatically, according to Park Ranger, Andy Cotellis.
Bass fishing on the river and in both lakes is very good, but many of the park's guests come to see the alligators and wildlife that are in plentiful supply. There are an estimated 500 to 600 gators over 4 feet long in the park as well as untold deer, hogs, turkey, otters, bobcat and squirrels. While seeing one would be a rare experience, there have also been confirmed sightings of panther tracks on the south end of the park.
Daily excursions of the park's two airboats are a great way to see hundreds of gators up close and personal. These unique crafts accommodate up to 70 passengers for only $7 per adult and $3 for children. Passengers boarding the "Gator Gal" will get a guided tour of both flora and fauna as well as "gator gawking."
Want to take your own tour? Canoes are available for rent at the park concessionaire for only $10 per hour or $25 for all day. Canoes are also the only access, other than walking, into the lower lake where fishing is exceptional. Since access to this portion of the park is limited by both the mode of travel and the number of people, this is a great place to slip into a pristine angling experience. Bass, bluegill and gar are the predominate species, with snook and the occassional tarpon venturing into the lower river near the gulf. Only 30 people per day are allowed into this 7,500-acre preserve south of highway 72. Weekends see a lot of traffic; however, during the week you can often have a solitary experience.
Due to the drought that has had a death grip on the entire state, water in the Myakka was at a 50-year record low in June, but recent rains have rescued the region and now water is flowing over the dam again.
Bird watching is one of the most popular diversions in the park. While the winter months produce the most variety, there are numerous birds that are resident in the area. During the winter, 5 bald eagles actively nest here. Osprey are a common sight as well as anhingas, egrets, herons, ibis, and cormorant. Seasonal birds include swallowtail kites, roseite spoonbill, blackbelly whistling ducks, a wide variety of hawks, owls, songbirds and sandhill cranes. In addition, the rare whooping crane was sighted last winter.
If you're an experienced outdoors person, you may want to tour the park on your own; however, guided tours on trams are available as well as ranger guided walks every Saturday at 9 A.M. There is no charge for this walk. All you have to do is meet the ranger at the rendezvous point 8/10 of a mile from the entrance.
As you travel down the lover Myakka River, you begin to see the influence of tidal waters from the Gulf of Mexico. Vegetation gradually changes, and mangrove trees appear with increasing frequency as you near the coast. Manatees may also be seen in this area.
South of U.S. 41, a mangrove island supports a nesting colony of endangered wood storks and is designated as a Critical Wildlife Area. Visitors are reminded to view all storks from a distance as it is illegal to disturb them.
The Myakka Canopy Walkway is the newest addition to the park and is drawing a lot of new visitors. Just opened in June, this walkway is built in two towers with an 85-foot suspension bridge between them. Each tower embraces giant live oak trees where this unique eco-system can be observed. Originally both towers were to be the same height at 35 feet. After the construction had begun, they realized that a taller tower would provide greater vistas. Additional funding was developed and one tower was extended to 75 feet. From this tower a spectacular view of the entire park can be experienced.
The Myakka River State Park is open seven days a week from 8 A.M. until sunset.
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
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