Mind the “Beware of Cows” sign as you enter this trail system in the heart of Babcock Ranch, where cattle roam free across thousands of acres of open prairie and cypress swamps east of Punta Gorda. These wet flatwoods drain into the Telegraph Swamp, a vast system of cypress sloughs and strands northeast of Fort Myers and the Caloosahatchee River. Following old forest roads, the purple-blazed loop of the Footprints Trail provide a simple introduction to this often-squishy ecosystem, where moist soil means colorful wildflowers all times of year.
Location: Punta Gorda
Length: 2.2 miles
Lat-Long: 26.945444, -81.754461
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
A map and GPS or compass is strongly recommended along this hike. During the rainy season, the trail system can be especially wet, especially on the cross trail between the loops.
The kiosk shows a map with two stacked loops, the farthest being a 4-mile loop back to the start. I found the outer loop to be impossible to follow – the blazes simply vanished – so the hike described is the shorter purple loop. There is also an orange-blazed loop, the Florida Master Naturalist Footprints Trail, which is more scenic and a swamp walk in spots. It departs from the same trailhead kiosk and follows the entrance route briefly before turning off to the southeast.
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, continue straight for another mile or so. The parking area is on the right, adjacent to a fire tower, and can handle about eight cars.
Your hike starts at the kiosk, where the aforementioned warning about cows – and another on “poisonous” snakes – catches you as you head through the stile and down the fenceline along the edge of the cow pasture. Babcock Ranch encompasses nearly 74,000 acres, and while ownership of most of the property has transfered to the state of Florida, cattle still roam its expanse, rounded up by, yes, cowboys. It’s a working ranch, a piece of Florida heritage that you can take a gander at while walking this loop trail.
Following an old road through the pine flatwoods, the trail parallels the fenceline. A blaze and a sign provide some confidence you’re on the right track. A red-shouldered hawk circles over a cypress dome to the right. The orange blazes to the left lead to the start of the Florida Master Naturalist Footprints Trail. Stay on the old road. After 0.2 mile, you reach a sign that indicates you’re at the bottom of the stacked loops. Turn right to hike counterclockwise, crossing a field to head for a blaze post near a clump of saw palmetto silhouetted against the pines. The cypress dome continues on your right. Headed into a bit of shade under live oaks, the trail passes a hiker marker encouraging you forward. Past the corner of a old barbed wire fence on the right, you may see deer or raccoon tracks.
At 0.7 mile, you reach a junction in the trail. Off to the left, the trail goes into a wetland area, with wax myrtle along the edges. Continue straight to stay on the outer edge of the loop, passing a stand of cabbage palms. You see an orange blaze on a tall, skinny slash pine, confirming the route, as the landscape opens up into a pine savanna with tall grasses. Bog buttons emerging from the tread of the trail confirm this is a wet flatwoods, prone to flooding after a rain and host to a bevy of interesting wildflowers, including pine lily.
Reaching the next Y-shaped trail junction at 0.8 mile, you can see the fenceline along CR 33 off to the right, along with passing traffic. Keep left to stay on the inner loop. As you pass a game trail on the left, there’s another marker to keep you on track between a corridor of saw palmetto. Coming up to another trail junction, there’s an arrow to the left, but no obvious sign of a trail. Keep hiking straight ahead into the heart of the cypress dome. Looking at the high-water marks on the trees and the big bulging bases of the cypresses, this section of the trail can get a foot or two deep in water after a heavy rain. A splash of purple ahead becomes a dense natural spray of wild irises beneath the cypress. Tiny bladderwort, with delicate purple flowers, emerges from the footpath. Bromeliads cluster in the tree limbs above.
As you emerge from the cypress dome after 1.1 miles, it’s a broad open prairie up ahead, edged with pines. The major trail junction with the outer loop is here at a T intersection. Turn left at the sign to stay on the shorter loop. The track through the prairie is unmarked but obvious. After a lack of blazing for some time, at a junction of tracks you see a sign pointing forward. The trail reaches a junction after 1.5 miles, pointing straight towards a cell phone tower. There’s a strand of cypress paralleling to the left, mostly young and skinny, with a few older, spindly specimens behind them. Following the track through this open area, the cypresses on the left and the palms and pines on the right finally look as if they’ll come to a convergent point up ahead.
The trail swings to the right past a signpost, drawing closer to the pines. Blue-eyed grass pops up from the footpath. As the trail comes up to a subtle junction, follow the curve to the right. You’re returned to the original start of the loop after 2 miles. Keep right and follow the curve of the footpath around to parallel the fenceline back to the parking area to wrap up this 2.2 mile walk on the short loop of the Footprints Trail.