For a taste of the palmetto prairie that attracted ranchers to South Florida, head off the beaten path to explore Babcock Ranch on foot. At Babcock Wilderness Adventures – a popular ecotourism attraction east of Punta Gorda – the Ecotour Trail is a no-cost option to getting your feet wet on an exploration of wet flatwoods habitats along a well-maintained trail through the palmetto prairie. At certain times of year, you’ll literally get your feet wet. Given the vast expanse and ease of wildlife watching, it’s a prime place to see some of the rarer birds in Florida, including the caracara and swallow-tailed kite.
Location: Punta Gorda
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 26.858184, -81.720377
Type: round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low
Restroom: near the trailhead
A little wayfinding savvy is necessary. The trail is well-marked, but there are a lot of deceptive side trails you’ll need to avoid, and getting to the beginning of the trail is a little tricky. Bring your camera and binoculars and arrive early to spy on red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, and swallow-tailed kites. Then grab a snack and, if the budget permits, take the official swamp buggy tour around Babcock Ranch. It’s a real trip back into Florida history and gets you up close to cattle, gators, Florida panthers, and into the heart of the deep, dark Telegraph Swamp – a cypress strand best enjoyed from the swamp buggy. More details at Babcock Wilderness Adventures
From Interstate 75 in Punta Gorda, head north on US 17 for 1.3 miles to the turnoff for CR 74. Follow CR 74 for 14.8 miles deep into the heart of Florida’s ranchland. At the intersection with SR 31, turn right. Continue 6.1 miles south on SR 31 through Babcock Ranch. Watch for the sign for Babcock Wilderness Adventures. Turn left and follow the entrance road through the ranch for 2.4 miles to the parking area. Turn right and park in the parking area, as far to the end on the right as you can to access the trail system.
From the big parking lot for the Babcock Wilderness Adventures ecotour, head to the far end of the parking area away from the main entrance. Follow the black & white “Trail” signs through a maze of roads to reach the actual trailhead. At the Ecotour Trail kiosk, grab a map or study the one on the kiosk, which warns you “you may encounter cows” … this is a working ranch, after all. The kiosk adjoins the beginning of the Babcock Ranch Ecotour route for the swamp buggy excursion, so you may see or hear the swamp buggy passing by on nearby forest roads. Follow the trail down the well-defined path into the forest.
As you pass a “Stay on Trail” sign, the trail meanders beneath tall, slender slash pines between saw palmetto and wax myrtle, where songbirds flit from shrub to shrub. Signs warn you away from some of the dead-end side trails; keep to the path more traveled. Don’t be surprised to see hog damage along the footpath, since the wild hogs enjoy turning up the easy-to-reach open trail. Cabbage palms begin to enter the mix in the forest. The trail makes a sharp left, almost doubling back on itself, around the half-mile mark. The slash pines are very tall, the understory dense.
Zigzagging through two stiles to cross the tram road for the swamp buggy, the Ecotour Trail now emerges into the broad, open flatwoods for which Babcock Ranch is so well known. Reaching a kiosk surrounded by bog buttons, you’re at the beginning of the loop portion of the trail. Continue straight ahead. The loop trail crosses the swamp buggy trail amid a sea of palmetto prairie, where you can see for miles off to the left. This is a wet flatwoods habitat that seasonally floods, with soft grasses, bog buttons, and rattlesnake master growing out of the footpath. “Stay on Trail” signs discourage you from taking a right or left at the next intersection as you wade out deeper into the palmetto prairie, filled with intriguing textures and colors. Grasses come in a broad variety of heights, and bladderwort and bog buttons grow in the low spots. The path is not blazed, but is mowed through the prairie, wide open as a driveway. After a mile, you cross a four-way junction of trails in the middle of the prairie. Keep going straight; the trail curves to the right.
At the northern tip of the loop, you pass a map that shows where you are in the loop. There is a massive wet prairie area nearby, where sandhill cranes often gather in pairs or flocks. This is where navigating gets tricky, since there are no blazes or signs. At the next four-way trail junction, turn right. Make a left at the next junction. It’s a good thing that the kiosk has a reflective top and you can see it in the distance, since it’s the only thing guiding you through the maze — which was made more difficult on our visit with the sheer amount of restoration work going on within the prairie.
With a marsh off in the distance at 1.5 miles, you cross the buggy road again. This is another excellent spot to look for sandhill cranes. Crossing the buggy road again, you see the reflective roof of the kiosk off in the distance, as the trail continues to zigzag its way there through the saw palmetto. Overhead, swallow-tailed kites are wheeling and swooping, performing aerial acrobatics to attract a mate. They roost and nest in the towering cypress found in the nearby Telegraph Swamp. Watch for the “Caution, Stay on Trail” signs to guide you forward through the open prairie to the beginning of the loop, which you reach at 1.8 miles.
Turn left to return to the parking area along the access trail to the loop. When you reach the trailhead kiosk at 2.3 miles, turn left on the tram road to walk back to the parking area. Your hike is complete after 2.4 miles. Even if you don’t take the swamp buggy ecotour — which I highly recommend — stop in and check out the historic exhibits and gift shop at Babcock Wilderness Adventures before you leave this ranch in transition from private to public hands.