Ready for a wilderness challenge? The rangers at the Flamingo Visitor Center don’t recommend you hike this trail, but they’ll still issue you a backcountry permit for camping if you insist. Consider it a survivalist’s destination. You’ll battle mosquitoes, unrelenting sun, and dreadfully deep and stick marl mud for the prize of camping along remote Clubhouse Beach.
Length: 11.2 miles
Lat-Long: 25.136883, -80.948650
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: extreme when wet
Bug factor: extreme when wet
The environment the trail traverses is some of the most hostile in the state: the marl prairie is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, the footing can become impassably muddy, and the sun can beat unconditioned hikers into exhaustion. Smart hikers will wear a hat, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt and have bug repellent and a head net within easy reach.
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From the Flamingo Visitor Center, drive west on Main Park Road for 1 mile to the Flamingo Campground. Proceed past the check-in station to C Loop. The Coastal Prairie Trail begins at a trailhead in the very back of the C loop, and is also used to access the Bayshore Loop.
When I asked about hiking here, the ranger suggested I take the easy way out and rent a kayak to paddle out to the campsite. The Bayshore Loop provides enough of a taste to let you know what the habitats are like. But if you still insist on hiking this one, read on. This is the most southerly trail on the United States mainland. It actually heads west, paralleling the coast of Florida Bay toward Cape Sable, in a mixture of buttonwood forest and open marl prairie, to end at Clubhouse Beach on Florida Bay. Clubhouse Beach is a designated backcountry campsite. However, this trail can also be hiked there and back in a very long day.
Leave the campground on an old road heading west beneath a canopy of buttonwood and the exotic Brazilian pepper. This old road is the legacy of a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to remove wild cotton from South Florida. Portions of the Coastal Prairie Trail follow this old road.
Come to a trail junction at 0.2 mile. The Bayshore Loop leads left toward Florida Bay. The Coastal Prairie Trail leads right. Passing the second intersection with the Bayshore Loop, the trail veers right and opens onto a coastal prairie. This clear area is vegetated with saltwort and occasional islands of buttonwood. These prairies are formed by the deposition of mud from Florida Bay that is spread inland during violent hurricanes—as happened yet again in 2005. This hard-packed salty mud makes for poor-growing soil.
At 0.6 mile, the Coastal Prairie Trail passes through a brief shady area grown up with hibiscus. The shade resumes at mile 1.2, when the trail enters an extended buttonwood hammock. Look for an occasional gumbo-limbo tree, with its reddish flaking bark. At mile 2.2, the path dips a little bit, and saltwort and black mangrove increase in number.
The canopy becomes more sporadic until you reach the open prairie after 2.9 miles. The trail winds along the edge of this prairie. At mile 3.1, look for a U.S.G.S. survey marker set in concrete about twenty feet to the right of the trail. You continue to wind in and out of the prairie, and pass through a wide muddy stretch just before coming to Slagle Ditch at 4.5 miles. Cross the bridge and continue into mud flats.
After 5.3 miles, you come upon a huge marl prairie. Look left for views of Florida Bay. Just a short distance into the prairie, a sign announces that Clubhouse Beach is to your left. The old roadbed continues forward; you turn left, bisecting a small thicket and keeping south through prairie toward the beach. Veer left through the saltwort on a muddy trail, coming to Clubhouse Beach after 5.6 miles.
There is a sign here marking this backcountry campsite, which is also accessible by boat via Florida Bay. To camp here overnight, you must get a backcountry permit from the Flamingo Visitor Center. Allow yourself plenty of time to return if you are day hiking; a round-trip takes seven or eight hours.