Diversity, scenery, and botanical wonders: all key to a great Florida hike. Laid out as two loops on the northernmost portion of Little Manatee River State Park, the Little Manatee River Hiking Trail is one of my favorites in the state. A primitive campsite offers the opportunity for a quiet getaway, and the waterways you encounter are simply so scenic you won’t forget them. Spend a few hours or a weekend, and savor the hike.
The trailhead is tucked away behind a gated access north of the Little Manatee River. A blue-blazed connector trail guides you through a riot of ferns to the orange-blazed loop. Created and maintained by local volunteers from the Florida Trail Association, the trail is well-marked.
Length: 2.9 miles or 6.5 miles
Lat-Long: 27.675111, -82.349814
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: moderate
You must visit the Little Manatee River State Park entrance first and get the gate combination (and map) from the ranger before heading up here to hike. Make sure you mention if you plan to stay overnight at the campsite; there is a small fee.
From I-75 exit 240A, Sun City, drive east on SR 674 for 3 miles to US 301. Head south on US 301 for 4.5 miles, crossing the Little Manatee River and turning on Lightfoot Rd to the park’s entrance. You must visit the Little Manatee River State Park entrance first and get the gate combination (and map) from the ranger before heading up here to hike.
Turn right to start a counterclockwise hike around the main loop, starting off in a slash pine forest. Each April, watch for plump blackberries in the open areas. After the first half mile, keep alert for poison ivy. There’s a lot of it in the shady oak hammocks. Pine flatwoods yield to high, dry sand pine scrub with tall sand pines. At 1.1 miles, you reach a junction with a blue-blazed cross trail. If you want to take the shortest possible hike, turn here to head down to Cypress Creek, for a loop hike of 2.9 miles. The prettiest parts of the trail are along the main loop, however, so plan a longer hike if you can.
At 1.4 miles, the trail drops down a steep slope into floodplain for Cypress Creek. Stop and enjoy the view from the bridge. This is by far one of the most beautiful and serene creeks in Central Florida, where the clear tea-colored water flows gently over rippled sand. Get your water here if you’re backpacking. When you head back out of the floodplain, you rise through sand pine scrub into open palmetto scrub, a great illustration of how small amounts of elevation radically change the types of habitats you encounter.
After 2.3 miles, you reach the blue-blazed 0.2-mile side trail to the primitive campsite, surrounded by oaks and longleaf pine. Even if you’re not spending the night, it’s worth a stroll down the trail for a break at the picnic tables. The trail continues into a dense oak scrub with more fallen pines, passing briefly under a stand of spreading live oaks. As the trail curves towards the river, the habitat changes to a moister flatwoods, where damp indentations fill with swamp lilies.
At 3.2 miles, you cross a long boardwalk over a slow-flowing tannic creek. You’ve finished your trek through the scrub and pine flatwoods, and are entering the hardwood forests along the Little Manatee River, where cabbage palms and laurel oaks dominate. Emerging on a sand bluff, you get a sweeping view of a horseshoe bend in the Little Manatee River at 3.6 miles. The trail continues to trace the river’s path for most of the return journey. Watch for kayakers on the river, and admire the sandy beaches—the alligators do, too.
Climbing up a steep bluff, the trail turns left to follow Cypress Creek. Look off to the right to see where the creek enters the Little Manatee River. Enjoy the creek one last time as you cross it at 4.7 miles. The blue-blazed shortcut rejoins the main loop. At 5 miles, you return to the bluffs along the river, clambering up and down little slopes, skirting around more floodplain forest. As it leaves the river, the trail ducks into a scrub oak forest, then turns right to cross a bridge and returns to a hickory forest. Another tall bridge and you’re at 6 miles. The trail emerges out into the sunshine into a meadow broken up by smaller live oaks and slash pine. Growing in heaping mounds, greenbrier provides the ground cover. Your last glimpse of the river is off to the right. Reaching the end of the loop, you’ve covered 6.4 miles. Turn right and follow the blue blazes for 0.1 mile through the ferns back to the parking area.
short bridge in ferns 0.1
trail jct, turn right 0.1
power line 0.2
creek with bluffs, poison ivy 0.5
habitat chg to scrub 0.6
jct with shortcut blue blaze 1.1
trail curves right 1.2
left, steep incline 1.4
bridge over dry creek 1.4
bridge over Cypress Creek 1.4
area opens up, bright sunny 1.6
blue blz to campground 2.3
trail turns left 2.8
fence line 2.9
paths to right 2.9
hard left 3.1
long boardwalk over low area 3.2
hard left 3.2
sharp right over bridge 3.3
emerge at river 3.6
left away from river 4.1
return to river 4.3
series of bridges over floodplain 4.4
bridge over Cypress Creek 4.7
jct with shortcut blue blaze 4.7
veer left away from creek 4.8
bridge over shallow run 4.8
veer left twice, river’s edge 5.0
bridge followed by dbl-blz left 5.4
return to river 5.6
right, bridge over deep channel 5.8
tall bridge over deep channel 5.9
bridge in meadow 6.1
End of orange loop 6.4