Let Them Run Wild

Myakka River State Park in Sarasota lets your family go wild with canoeing, biking, fishing and camping.

Every time my family and I pull our car into the Myakka River State Park, one of my boys comments on how "spooky" the surroundings appear. Live oak trees, dressed in Spanish moss, dominate the park's scenery with long reaching branches that look like they might grab you if you are not paying attention. The dense oak and palm tree hammocks diminish the typically intense Florida sunshine to create a shadowy atmosphere.

It is true the park does not resemble the sunny white sand beaches or pristine, manicured golf courses of Sarasota and Her Islands. Myakka River State Park is the wild side of Florida.

As usual, first priority for my family is getting a seat on the Gator Gal or Myakka Maiden, the world's two largest airboats that tour Upper Myakka Lake for glimpses of the diverse scenery and wildlife. For my son, Baker, and his friend, Shawn, this voyage is all about spotting alligators.

John, captain of the Gator Gal and tour guide for the one-hour trip, informs us at the start that the one-mile-wide and two-and-a-half-mile-long lake holds about 1,100 alligators. Baker and Shawn give each other one of those "oh yea!" nods with a smile as the boat pulls away from the dock.

We don't see all 1,100 gators in the lake, but we see enough to get the feeling that they are all there lurking in the waters below or hanging out in the thick grasses at the water's edge. Throughout the tour, the Gator Gal traverses the lake, pulling gently beside the stealthily gliding gators to get a glimpse of them before they slip away into the water. Spectators on the boat excitedly move from one side to the other to get a better view.

John not only provides opportunities to see alligators up close and personal but also gives a complete nature tour of the lake and explains how the entire ecosystem of the park revolves around the river.

The lake is also a fishing haven. "You can't miss on Myakka Lake," John promises would-be anglers. He also educates us on the plant life and vegetation that cover the largest and one of the oldest state parks in Florida. Visitors experience wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands.

Myakka also is home to many species of birds including the American bald eagle, red-shouldered hawk, snowy egret, blue heron, osprey, roseate spoonbill, swallow-tailed kite and of course the turkey and black vultures. (A birding list is available at the Ranger's station.)

The airboat ride has only whetted the boys' appetite for gator encounters. They want more. "Let's rent canoes and find alligators on our own," says my son as we depart the boat.

Attached to the boat dock, the Myakka Outpost holds a gift shop, restaurant and rental places for bikes, canoes and kayaks. Baker and Shawn want to share their own canoe and my husband and I decide they are old enough. However, I notice parents with smaller children manning their kids' canoes.

We paddle a small portion of the Upper Myakka Lake and then head down the lower Myakka River. The gentle current pulls us away from the hustle and bustle of the Myakka Outpost and the airboats, and into the stillness of river. In our canoe, my husband and I follow the boys as they move across the river in a criss-cross fashion searching for alligators. We take in the beauty of the fertile marshes and prairie grasses that fill the wetlands, and marvel over the stunning birds passing overhead.

Back at the Myakka Outpost, my husband and I order Gator Stew for lunch while the boys have the more traditional fare of hot dogs, hamburgers and root beer floats. The stew is awesome and features a tomato base with ground alligator meat, potatoes, vegetables, collard greens and black-eyed-peas. The outpost restaurant also serves up Gator Wraps.

After lunch, we rent bicycles and head out on the seven miles of paved roads available to cyclists. Myakka Park also contains backcountry roads that can be hiked or cycled and three backcountry campgrounds. Baker and Shawn race off ahead of us while my husband and I take a more leisurely pace. We keep a watch for white-tailed deer, wild pigs and turkeys, and raccoons. A cooling breeze refreshes us as we ride along the shoreline of the lake.

The boys are waiting for us at the head of a nature trail, anxious to begin our hike to the Myakka Canopy Walkway. They urge us to race ahead and check out the nature trail on the way back. We are curious to see the walkway, too, so agree to pick up the pace.

The Myakka Canopy Walkway is a bridge that is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 85 feet through a hammock. It features a 74-foot tower that provides a spectacular treetop view of the 38,000-acre state park. It is one of only nine walkways in the United States and a rare opportunity for my family.

We make our way slowly across the bridge peering into the upper portion of the trees around us. We are able to closely see air plants, birds' nests, orchids and moss. I notice Baker and Shawn standing still long enough to actually be interested in what they are witnessing. However, the top of the observation tower really captures their attention.

The 74-foot-high deck soars above the treetops. We discover eagles, hawks, vultures and other birds in flight. Baker and Shawn use a monocular for long distance viewing of the park's fire and radio towers, Lower Myakka Lake, the river, and an eagle and osprey nest. (Each viewing session costs a quarter so don't forget to bring a pocket full.)

I watch a golden eagle glide upon air currents right at eyes level and am delighted not to see any sign of civilization as I turn 360 degrees on the platform.

On our hike back to the bicycles we take time to read the information plaques on the nature trail to learn about plant and animal life on the ground. Myakka River State Park actually offers 38 miles of hiking trails and six primitive campgrounds for backpackers. Horse riding trails also are available.

When we return to the outpost, the bike shop attendant asks Baker and Shawn if they want to test-drive a tandem bike. Since they have never tried one they quickly accept the challenge. Besides a near miss of a parked car, the two giggle as they cruise back and forth in front of us showing off and spouting out directions to each other. The boys end their day in the Florida wilderness with a cool drink at the outpost restaurant and a tour through the gift shop. 

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners


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