With so many opportunities for different lengths of hikes, the trail system at Jelks Preserve provides everyone with somewhere to get outdoors. A marker system and maps at the trailhead make it easy to find your way. Most of the trails are a tad wide, built to accommodate vehicles—the narrow side trails to the river are more my style, but the broad trails work well for hiking with a group. While the views of the Myakka River are the preserve’s strong point, the variety of habitats makes this hike especially interesting.
Length: 3.3 mile perimeter loop with spurs and shorter options
Lat-Long: 27.0916, -82.3378
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
The gate closes automatically, so be sure you’ve left the parking area before dusk. There are several riverside benches, so bring a picnic lunch!
From I-75 exit 191, drive south on River Rd. There is a stoplight at Venice Ave. Continue past it, driving 1.5 miles from I-75 to the trailhead entrance on the left. The entrance is also 0.9 mile north of Center Rd, if you’re driving north from US 41 along River Road.
Your hike starts at the entrance kiosk. Slip through the stile and trek down the obvious broad trail. To the left, there’s a tall berm topped with trees, and if you peek over the berm, a shallow canal shaded by cabbage palms. For the first five minutes or so, you walk through open, sunny scrubby flatwoods until you reach Marker 2. Continue straight ahead for your first view of the Myakka River.
A densely-knit canopy of oaks provides shade as the trail narrows, and in the morning sun, the bounty of bromeliads clinging to tree limbs glitters and glows with a reddish hue. Listen for armadillos picking through the leaf litter—you’ll probably see a few. Your first glimpse of the Myakka River is after 0.6 mile through the trees from a picnic bench. Pick your way down through the saw palmetto to the river’s beach. You must. It’s one of those amazing place that you’ll just stand there and say “this is SO beautiful.” If you can do only a short hike here, go to this spot.
To continue around the loop, backtrack back to Marker 2 and turn left to walk along the ecotone between scrubby flatwoods and oak hammock. The first cross-trail, at Marker 3, takes off to the right. At Marker 4, continue straight for another glimpse of the river. You’re again surrounded by the oak hammock and its lush bromeliads gleaming in the sun. Here, trail’s end is at a bench along the river, where you can slip down to the beach for more scenic views. Retrace your steps back to Marker 4 and turn left. You’ve hiked 1.7 miles. After you pass the cross-trail at Marker 5, the trail dips into shade again, drawing closer to the river. Marker 6 is the last point where you can visit the river. Turn left and follow the short path through open scrubby flatwoods to a steep bluff above the Myakka, where glimpses of the water are through the trees and saw palmetto. Head back to Marker 6 and turn left. Turn left at Marker 7 to stay on the outer loop.
By the time you pass Marker 8 at 2.3 miles, the habitat is obviously shifting away from pine flatwoods to shady hammocks of hardwoods and cabbage palms. Hogs do a good bit of damage, making ruts along the sides of the trail. Small marshes drain down towards the river, and it’s obvious it floods here during summer rains and when the river is high. You reach a large marsh flanked by cabbage palms, with a depression where wading birds gather. A bench awaits you at Marker 9. Decision point! You can continue straight and add 20 minutes walking time to do the full loop, past Markers 10, 11, and 12, or turn right here to head straight to Marker 13, which is what we did—couldn’t wait for lunch at Snook Haven!
The final stretch is straightforward, following the progression of markers from 13 back towards the trailhead. At 2.9 miles, you pass Marker 14. As the elevation increases slightly, you rise away from cabbage palms and back towards the tall pines. Mourning doves coo from the high branches. At Marker 15, the cross trail intersects, heading towards River Rd. Keep going straight ahead, along a corridor bordered by pines, wax myrtle, and saw palmetto. You reach the trailhead after 3.7 miles, emerging at a gate at the park entrance.
0.4 Marker 2
0.6 Picnic tables at Myakka River
0.8 Return to Marker 2, turn left
Pass Marker 3 cross trail
1.1 Pass Marker 4
1.4 Bench along Myakka River
1.7 Return Marker 4, turn left
1.8 Marker 5
2.0 Marker 6
2.3 Marker 8
2.4 Circle a large marsh
Marker 9 bench
2.9 Marker 14
3.0 Marker 15
3.3 Marker 17
3.5 Marker 18
3.7 Return to trailhead