Protecting a vast expanse of prairies and pine flatwoods east of Interstate 75 and the Myakka River, Carlton Reserve is where Sarasota County gets its drinking water.
Established in 1984, the preserve covers more than 25,000 acres east of the populated areas of the county, in the lowlands of the Myakka River basin.
Maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, the Friends of Carlton Reserve, this is a very pleasant hiking destination.
Our 1.9-mile hike covers one tiny corner of this landscape. Slipping through oak hammocks and pine flatwoods, this loop around a wet prairie is the easiest trail to tackle and a gateway for extended exploration.
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Length: 1.9 mile loop
Trailhead: 27.1283, -82.3345
Address: 1800 Mabry Carlton Parkway, Venice FL 34292
Restroom: at the visitor center
Land manager: Sarasota County
Open 6 AM to sunset. The gates close at 6 PM Nov-Mar, 8 PM Apr-Oct.
Dogs are not permitted. Call ahead for prescribed burn information so you won’t be disappointed by trail closures.
A short segment of trail paved with paving stones is wheelchair accessible, and numerous benches make this an easy walk for hikers of all abilities.
A picnic area with pavilions is near the visitor center. Reserve primitive and group campsites in advance by calling 941-861-7275.
From Interstate 75 exit 193, Jacaranda Blvd, drive north 0.6 miles to where the road ends at a T intersection. Brown signs direct you to the park.
Turn right onto Border Rd. After you cross the Myakka River, the road comes to a T intersection at 2.5 miles. Turn left at the park sign; a broad drive leads into the reserve. At the next sign on the right, turn right to enter the public parking area, which is down a lengthy gravel driveway.
No matter which hike you take at Carlton Reserve, they all start with a walk on a connector trail through the pine-palm flatwoods to the main loop.
After a quarter mile, you reach a T intersection at a trail kiosk adjoining the park interpretive center.
Open when volunteers are present, the center is a historic log cabin moved to this spot from Sarasota.
Turn right and follow the Prairie Loop Trail (blazed with orange-tipped posts) past the picnic area and restrooms.
Pass by interpretive information about the habitats and plants. The wet prairie is foremost, as this trail system circles a large wet prairie.
Inside the 38 square miles of Carlton Reserve, this is only one of nearly a thousand such prairies, ideal for large flocks of sandhill cranes to forage.
Turn right on the Yellow Loop Trail. Yellow-tipped posts lead down a corridor of saw palmetto.
Reaching a trail junction for a “lollipop” of a loop on the yellow trail, keep right to walk through a swamp forest of Virginia willow and popash.
After rounding the marsh, there is a junction with the pink trail a half mile into this hike. Turn right.
The trail rises up into higher ground, open pine flatwoods where a flash of white in the distance might signal the retreat of a white-tailed deer.
Passing a picnic bench, the trail transitions into a shady hammock of oaks and cabbage palms.
Crossing a small bridge, you emerge at a major trail intersection with signs for “picnic” and “parking” pointing left. Continue straight ahead to stay on the Prairie Loop Trail.
The loop around the prairie stays under the shade of the spindly-looking slash pines, with the prairie off to the left as you circumnavigate it counterclockwise.
The grass underfoot belies the wet flatwoods, and can be flooded after a heavy rain. Pine duff adds a cushioned layer to the footpath.
Take the side trail to the prairie overlook. The trees and tall grass form a virtual blind from which you can watch for wading birds.
We’ve seen great blue herons, wood storks, snowy egrets, and green herons poking through the open water in the center of the prairie in search of a meal.
Farther along the trail, another bench provides the perfect place to stay still and watch through binoculars.
Meandering through the pine-palm flatwoods, the trail continues to loop as an unmarked trail comes in from the left. Stick to the broad footpath.
After 1.7 miles, you reach the prominent junction with the Myakka Island Trail in front of the park interpretive center, completing the loop.
Exit the way you came in, reaching the parking area after 1.9 miles.
The Carlton Reserve Trail System
Each time we look at the Carlton Reserve map, there seems to be more trails. Now there is a web of connections to adjoining public lands.
The landscape is of an equestrian scale, with most of the trails shared for off-road biking and hiking as well.
It is possible to connect to trails in Myakka River State Park, Oak Cathedral Preserve, and Big Slough Preserve.
The Myakka Island Trail extends 11 miles north to a trailhead along SR 72 in Myakka River State Park
Primitive campsites beyond the day use area make it possible to plan expeditions of two or three days of backpacking, or overnighters by bike or horseback.
Download both the Day Use Map and the Full Trail Map below to see the extensive hiking and off-road opportunities.
As we have the opportunity, we’ll tackle more miles in this preserve and expand on our information here.
See our photos of T. Mabry Carlton Reserve
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.