Protecting a sheet flow of rainfall moving steadily southward and parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, Grassy Waters Preserve bears a striking resemblance to the Florida Everglades. It’s hard to imagine now, with the crush of humanity along this coast, but this shimmering sheet of sawgrass once was part of the River of Grass, feeding directly into what we now think of as our Everglades. Bounded by development to the south, it’s a massive preserve – 20 square miles – and exists, untouched, because it is now the drinking water supply for the residents of West Palm Beach and several other communities. For the United States, it’s a reservoir like no other. The nature center and boardwalk on the south side of Northlake Road provide the easiest public access to this unique preserve. Take a walk down this boardwalk to step back in time into the Everglades past.
Location: West Palm Beach
Length: 1.1 miles
Lat-Long: 26.808785, -80.169667
Fees / Permits: $1 per person or $5 per carload suggested donation
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: Yes, at nature center
Open 9-5 daily. A map with interpretive information is available at the nature center, where classes are offered and canoe rentals are available.
From Florida’s Turnpike, follow PGA Blvd 4.2 miles west to the Beeline (SR 710). Drive south 3.4 miles to Northlake Blvd (CR 709A). Continue 0.9 mile west to the park entrance on the left.
[Start your exploration into this wet wilderness preserve by following the boardwalk from the parking area – be sure to take a moment to savor the view from the edge. This is the Loxahatchee Slough, a patchwork of pine forests, cypress stands, and open marsh. Follow the broad boardwalk down to the Charles W. Bingham Wilderness Pavilion. It’s a small science center where kids are welcome to check out swamp critters inside the tanks and family activities and programs are offered on a regular basis. Walk around the center – the views are fantasic, and you might even see a group of kayakers out there in the sawgrass – and follow the boardwalk along the front edge of the center to start your walk.
A vista spreads out before you, busy with wading birds and rimmed in the green of young cypress. As the boardwalk zigzags between the cypresses, you can see large cardinal wild pine and crispy looking shield lichens in the trees. A wide walkway leads down into the sawgrass marsh, and likely serves as a kickoff point for swamp walks and canoe trips. Yes, you can walk and paddle in this drinking water! It is a marsh, after all, and like the Everglades at large, thick with periphyton, the goopy goo that makes up the bulk of the biomass in the ecosystem and filters the water naturally.
The boardwalk makes a sharp right away from the steps. Take the first left.You walk down through a thicket of loblolly bay and wax myrtle, in an area where the water doesn’t rise often enough to innundate the tree roots. Tropical bushes like cocoplum peer out of the understory, and then the elevation raises up into the heart of a tree island with an oak hammock. There is a chickee – a traditional Seminole hut – here, serving as a rain shelter. The boardwalk makes a little jog into an area thick with cocoplum. Look for the tiny dark plums in the fall, and no, they don’t taste like cocoa, but they are edible. The landscape opens up into wet pine flatwoods, with giant leather fern drinking in the seasonal flow of water. Shoelace fern and goldfoot fern dangles from the cabbage palms, and bog buttons poke out of the marsh like giant hatpins. Notice the flagging tape tied to branches in the woods? Those are wild trails for school groups, who revel in the fact they can stomp through their drinking water on guided swamp walks.
The temperature rises noticably as you leave the shade and step out into the sunny flatwoods. Listen for the signs of animals in these woods – white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and packs of wild hogs may make a crackle here, a snort there, or a flutter of wings well overhead. The crunch underfoot is from pine straw fallen on the boardwalk. Coming up to an intersection, continue straight – unless it’s obvious you can go to the left. There used to be an observation deck down there, but it was closed during my visit. Coming up to a sign dedicating the newest section of this boardwalk, the trail continues straight ahead into a slash pine forest with young cabbage palms. The swamp and forest continue to intermingle like a puzzle, a wet spot here and a dry hummock there, before emerging into an open marsh. The boardwalk makes a long straightaway here, pointing directly ahead to a chickee set atop an observation deck.
Emerging out into the open, it’s a panorama echoing any trip to Shark Valley or the Big Cypress Swamp, a sweeping vista of sawgrass prairie with cypress domes and tree islands topped with pines, a 360-degree swirl of beauty in the heart of the Loxahatchee Slough. It’s here that the boardwalk – once dubbed the “Never Ending Boardwalk,” a decade or so ago, ends with a dramatic flourish. You’ve walked half a mile. A cool breeze off the shallow water makes the chickee a pleasant place to sit and savor the view.
Turn around and trace your route back along the ecotone of forest and prairie past the (possibly defunct) turnoff and the first chickee in the oak hammock. When you reach the T intersection, turn left (going right sends you back towards the canoe launch steps). This will take you around the original boardwalk loop, closest to the nature center. A rain shelter with benches provides a place to duck out of the weather, should it arise. Deeper water with taller grasses surrounding cypresses trees is off to the right, and the woods are cool and shady off to the left. Here, the interpretive markers are very new and informative. As you turn the corner, you can see a little bit of open water off the railing with a patch of periphyton.
The boardwalk heads into the heart of a remnant cypress strand, where the water is actively and obviously flowing towards the open sawgrass prairie to the south. You hear road noise echoing through the woods from nearby Northlake Blvd as you draw closer to the end of the hike.