As the name implies, a bounty of ferns await at Fern Forest Nature Center, an urban wilderness area spanning 247 acres that surround the original floodplain of Cypress Creek before water management canals changed the area’s hydrology forever. Thirty-four species of ferns, including the endangered and very primitive whisk fern, thrive in this deeply shaded forest. Established in 1979, this preserve protects a Florida that has mostly vanished along this coast.
Location: Coconut Creek
Length: 2.2 miles in four trails
Lat-Lon: 26.229667, -80.186817
Type: round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: at the nature center
Pets are not permitted. The picnic shelter may be reserved for a fee. Other picnic tables and grills are available near the parking area. Maps and interpretive guides are available at the nature center, which also has wifi. Trails close before the park closes, so mind your time.
On Atlantic Blvd (FL 814), drive west from Florida’s Turnpike or I-95 to Lyons Rd. Turn right just beyond the traffic light, at the “Fern Forest Nature Center Ramp” sign. The loop turns you southbound on Lyons Rd; after 0.3 mile, the park entrance is on the right.
Your hike starts at the parking lot, from which a boardwalk leads up to shaded benches next to a kiosk with a map of the park. The trail crosses a wetlands canal, where giant leather fern reaches skyward from the banks. Rising upward, the boardwalk passes through a thicket of sea myrtle, wild tamarind, and pond apple. Laurel oaks provide the high canopy, while wild coffee rises over your head. As you approach the nature center, a cypress stump is a reminder of the incredible size of the trees that once lined Cypress Creek.
For a greater understanding of these habitats and the irreversible loss suffered as they were destroyed by drainage to expand Florida’s population into the Everglades, be sure to spend time with the interactive exhibits at the nature center before setting out on the trails.
Continue to the back of the nature center to an intersection of trails. Turn left to start the Cypress Creek Boardwalk.
CYPRESS CREEK BOARDWALK
This boardwalk loop parallels the old channel of Cypress Creek, now hidden under a dense layer of ferns. Look closely into the forest as you walk, and you’ll see the deeply eroded rocky banks of the creek, undercut with small caves.
Surrounded by marlberry, gum bumelia, and wild coffee, the trail drops down into the woods. Keep alert for the unusual ferns on the forest floor. In between the usual standbys like giant sword fern, swamp fern, and netted chain, you’ll spy several spleenwort and southern woods fern. Jogging around a strangler fig, the trail continues through the tangled tropical thicket. Look for giant brake fern poking out from the limestone ledges, and strap fern cascading from the bases of tree trunks and the dark wood of rotting logs.
At 0.3 mile, you reach a trail junction that marks the beginning of the Cypress Creek Loop. Keep left, passing the bench. The trail drops lower, where giant leather ferns rise from marshy spots, and woods ferns hide the rugged limestone creek bottom. As you round a corner to the left, there is an umbrella tree in the understory and a garden of ferns clustered above and below a limestone ledge. Several benches sit under the shade of a gumbo limbo where the trail turns right and crosses high over a cypress-shaded pond. On the still dark water, water spangles and mosquito fern float.
Rising back up into the hammock, the trail turns to the right. Reaching a vantage point on the far side of the pond, the trail follows the other shore of Cypress Creek upstream past an observation platform with benches. Where the trail makes a sharp right at a strangler fig, look up into the crook of its trunk for whisk ferns. After 0.6 mile, you return to the beginning of the loop. Turn left and return to the nature center. Continue past it to cross a canal to a trail junction with a trail map. To start your walk around this trail system, follow the “Prairie Overlook Trail” sign to the right.
WETLANDS WANDER & PRAIRIE OVERLOOK
The broad path parallels the canal, passing a butterfly garden. The footpath of rough surface limestone leads to the beginning of the Prairie Overlook Trail at 0.8 mile. Turn right, following the limestone and root-studded narrow path into the cool shade of the hammock, where tall slash pines rise from the shallow soil—a tiny remnant of Florida’s pine rocklands, now our rarest habitat. Keep left at the fork to start the loop section of the Prairie Overlook Trail. At one mile, a steeply sloped boardwalk rises up to an observation tower. After a visit for the view, continue on the trail to the left to take a short walk out to the edge of the prairie, where Broward County’s largest concentration of gopher tortoises live.
When you emerge from the forest, turn right on the sand road to follow the edge of the prairie. Turn right at the “Prairie Overlook Trail” sign to re-enter the forest. The trail rises up into a denser forest of older pines, cabbage palms, and laurel oaks. After you pass under a towering paradise tree, the footpath narrows.When you reach the end of the loop, continue straight, emerging under the power line. Turn left and parallel the canal to follow the Wetlands Wander along this thin ribbon of wetlands. Where this trail ends at a locked gate, turn around and return to the trail junction.
The final half-mile loop is optional: you will probably get your shoes wet and muddy, as it’s an intentional swamp walk. Face the forest and follow the narrow Maple Walk. A slippery slab of limestone drops you down into the deep muck of the cypress slough. During the wet summer season, this trail will be entirely under water. At other times, it may be just muddy and slippery and full of puddles. Follow the red maple blazes into the dark forest, keeping to the right as you wander through a maze of cypress knees. Scattered along the trail are interpretive labels to help you identify the plants. It is very easy to get lost in the open understory, so keep watching for the next red blaze to find the route through this forest.
When you emerge at the trail junction, continue straight across to follow the boardwalk over the canal and back to the nature center, where the boardwalk on the far side of the building leads you out to the parking area.