Where the Manatee River meets the Gulf of Mexico, Emerson Point Preserve protects a significant archaeological site: the Portavent Mound. More than 150’ long and 80’ wide, this artificial flat-topped hill shaded by ancient live oaks is one of the oldest temple mounds in Florida, more than 1,000 years old, built by the ancestors of the Timucua. In more modern times, early Florida pioneers built a homestead atop the hill.
Caretaking an island overrun with invasive exotics like Brazilian Pepper is no easy task. And thus the Restoration Trail: a multi-use path that showcases the fine work done by Manatee County to restore this barrier island to appropriate coastal habitats. Where the Restoration Trail ends, cross the park road to access the Terra Ceia Trail, a winding path through the mangrove forests lining Terra Ceia Bay. There are overlooks and an observation tower to provide a view of the bay and in the distance, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Length: 2.7 miles in two loops
Lat-Long: 27.531967, -82.625950
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
From I-275 south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, exit onto US 19. Drive south into Palmetto. Turn right onto SW 10th Street. After 2.5 miles, you cross a small bridge onto Snead Island. You’ll see a sign for the preserve. Turn right on Tarpon Road, then left at the stop sign. Follow the road as it narrows and enters the park. The parking area for the Portavent Mound and Restoration Trail is on the left.
Starting from the temple mound parking area, cross a limestone path, head straight past interpretive sign on temple mound, “Pioneer Trail” sign. As you come up to the temple mound, a boardwalk provides an accessible path up the massive hill. Continue up the boardwalk to the top. Interpretive signs tell the history of life at Emerson Point, and there are the remains of a pioneer cabin atop the mound. Take time to look out over the overlooks.
An extremely large gumbo limbo rises off one platform. Look down and you can see the trail winding through tall wild coffee below. Climb down the ramp to the other side of the mound and continue forward on a shell path along a row of tall royal palms to the mouth of the Manatee River. When you reach the interpretive sign by the river, walk to the water’s edge and you can see the finger roots of black mangroves reaching out of the tannic water. Turn around and walk along left edge of clearing to the live oak stretching out over the grass to walk around the left side of the mound.
At the shell path, shared with bicycles, turn left to start the large loop around the park. A sign says “Restoration Trail South.” The trail winds along a shell path in shade of young live oaks, and wild balsam apple. When you pass the first bench, you’ve walked half a mile. Pass by a restored wetland on the left, where the marsh comes up to edge of trail; the footpath an flood in a heavy rain. The trail curves right to circle the marsh, and across the wetland you can see a parking lot with a covered picnic bench. The bench overlooks lake through a view framed by a large strangler fig caught in the act of engulfing a cabbage palm, as they often do.
Pass another bench, and another, before coming to a T intersection with the park road and paved bike path. Turn right and follow the bike path down to the parking lot. Cross the road on the brick crosswalk, and turn left for the trailhead for Terra Ceia Trail, a hiker-only footpath out along the bay. You’ve hiked 1 mile.
TERRA CEIA TRAIL
The trail narrows as it swings right and heads down a forest dike, a corridor defined by two canals lined with mangroves. Pass a bench, and take the next left on a boardwalk out through mangroves to a sweeping view of Terra Ceia Sound, with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge shimmering in the distance. As you exit this side trail, turn left to continue along the perimeter loop. It narrows tightly between mangroves and sea grapes. You can look off to the left to see a beautiful ribbon of blue through veil of mangroves. The trail drops briefly off the levee and rises back up on it again. You parallel more shell mounds on left, spilling out from under roots—remains from the ancient civilization once here. Another boardwalk leads to the left at 1.5 miles, just before a long bridge, to an observation deck on the bay.
Back on the main trail, turn left and cross a long bridge. Turn right to follow it over the mangrove swamp, emerging in the shadow of a tall observation tower on a shell mound. At the T intersection, turn right, and make a left at the fork to climb up the hill to the tower. From its top you get a sweeping 360-degree view across Emerson Point, from Terra Ceia Bay to Tampa Bay, including skyscrapers in St. Petersburg, and the opening of Anna Maria Sound where the Manatee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Climbing down from the tower, turn left at the T, and loop around to a trail junction. Turn right at this T to cross another long boardwalk over mangrove swamp. The boardwalk ends at a T intersection at 1.8 miles with shell path. Turn left to walk the North Restoration Area Trail. The path, shared with bicycles, twists and turns along edge of mangroves before swinging right under cabbage-palm shaded area with marsh ferns. At the next T, if you turn right, it’s a quick return to the parking lot completing a 2.2-mile hike. Otherwise, turn left to continue the North Restoration Area loop. It continues into an oak hammock. Stay left at the folk. Salt hay grows in a vast meadow towards a mangrove-lined canal where giant leather ferns perch. Pass another trailhead for Terra Ceia Trail at 2.3 miles, it’s been paralleling along the mangrove shoreline since you left it to climb the observation tower.
Passing a bench flanked by ferns, the North Restoration Area Trail continues its curve to the right, doubling back on its route past the entrance gate to meet itself at a T intersection after 2.5 miles. Turn left, walking back through the oak hammock and past the incoming trail around the wetland. The trail curves past strangler fig around a pipe encased in tabby, part of the old pioneer homestead. Crossing the park road, the shell path skirts one more duckweed-covered pond on the left before returning to the parking lot at the Portavant Temple Mound, completing the 2.7-mile circuit.