Set aside as part of a ribbon of wild lands on the southeastern side of Sarasota County, T. Mabry Carlton Reserve is less than a dozen miles from downtown Venice but wild enough that the Florida panther roams these woodlands along the Myakka River floodplain. With over 24,000 acres of protected land, it contains more than 80 miles of multi-use trails, including a 12-mile connector to Myakka River State Park.
Snaking through a mix of pine flatwoods, scrubby flatwoods, oak hammocks, and open prairies, the trail system circles wet prairies and flatwoods ponds. The 1.6 mile loop around the lake provides an introduction to the habitats of this vast reserve and a gateway for extended exploration. Maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, the Friends of Carlton Reserve, this is a well-maintained hiking destination.
Length: 1.6 miles
Lat-Long: 27.128219, -82.333672
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, between the trailhead and visitor center
Dogs are not permitted. 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. The gates close at 6 PM Nov-Mar, 8 PM Apr-Oct.
Call ahead for prescribed burn information: 941-861-5000
From I-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 choose, they all start with a walk in on a short connector trail from the kiosk at the parking area to the main loop – a paved trail beneath cabbage palms, with tall wax myrtle silhouetted against blue skies. After a tenth of a mile, you reach a T intersection with the natural footpath at a dedication marker. Blue-tipped posts mark the route. Turn right, and you’ll pass interpretive information about the habitats and plants around you. The wet prairie is foremost, as this trail system circles around 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 to head towards the forested wetland. Yellow-tipped posts lead you through a corridor of saw palmetto. Reaching a trail junction for a “lollipop” of a loop on the yellow trail, keep right. You’re surrounded by a swamp forest of Virginia willow and popash, with a lot of hog damage in the understory. After rounding the marsh, you’ll encounter a junction with the pink trail. Turn right. You’ve hiked half a mile. 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 continue on the Prairie Loop Trail.
The loop around the prairie stays mainly 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 underfoot. At the prairie overlook, the trees and tall grass form a virtual blind from which you can watch the wading birds – great blue herons, wood storks, snowy egrets, green herons – poking through the open water in the center of the prairie in search of a meal. Farther along, another bench provides the perfect place to stay still and watch through your 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 1.4 miles, you reach another junction of trails in front of the park interpretive center, with a kiosk that showcases the multiplicity of trails throughout the reserve. The center is a historic log cabin moved to this spot from Sarasota. Pass by it, continuing to loop the prairie, and you’ll encounter both the restrooms and picnic pavilions. The loop ends after 1.5 miles at the original T junction with the paved trail. Turn right to exit.