Along one of Florida’s most beautiful hiking trails, you’ll be able to go down the checklist. Scenery? Try the river bluffs and creek bottoms. Rugged? Try climbing in and out of these water-carved landscapes. Diversity? Within 6.5 miles, habitats range from scrub and scrubby flatwoods to bluff forest, palm hammocks, sandhill, and bayheads. Developed and maintained by the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, the Little Manatee River Trail remains one of their masterworks.
Length: 6.5 miles or 3 miles
Lat-Long: 27.6754, -82.3487
Fees / Permits: $5 per vehicle
Bug factor: moderate
Open 8 AM to sunset. Dogs are welcome on the hiking trail but not as overnight visitors. Please do not bring dogs to the campsite. Bicycles are not permitted.
Pay your entrance fee at the iron ranger at the parking area. If you wish to use the backpacking campsite, you must reserve it in advance by calling the park (or visiting the ranger station in the main part of the park, south of the Little Manatee River). There is a per-person, per-night fee.
From I-75 exit 240A, Sun City, drive east on SR 674 for 3 miles to US 301. Head south on US 301 for 4.5 miles. Look for the turnoff on the right before the bridge over the Little Manatee River. The expanded trailhead is quite obvious now. An iron ranger sits at the access point.
0.0 > Follow the beaten path along the fenceline to where it makes a sharp left into the forest, passing through what was originally the parking area for this trail. Signs welcome you to Little Manatee River State Park, which stretches along both sides of its namesake river for several miles. The main part of the park, with its picnic areas and nature trails and campground, is south of the river; this segment is simply natural habitats with a ribbon of hiking trail through it. If you arrive on a weekend, you’ll find it quite busy.
0.2 > Passing an “FT” sign and acknowledgement of volunteer efforts to build and maintain this trail, you climb up on a boardwalk that snakes through the lush fern-lined base of a bayhead swamp. Loblolly bay trees tower overhead, and ferns poke through the gaps between the boards. When the boardwalk ends, the trail comes to a T. Turn right and walk into a dense upland forest to start a counterclockwise hike. In a grassy area, cross a forest road. In April, watch for plump blackberries in open areas like these.
0.4 > A broad bridge crosses a steep-sided creek, where netted chain fern thrives on the slopes. Climbing up into an oak hammock, the trail follows a series of bog boardwalks through a thicket of wax myrtle. Signifying seasonal marshy conditions, red maples surround the thicket. Keep alert for poison ivy. There’s a lot of it in the shady oak hammocks, some growing on the ground, some in the trees.
0.7 > Pass Marker 12. We didn’t see an interpretive brochure and these aren’t mileage markers, so we’re not sure what they are for. The landscape opens up into pine flatwoods with a dense understory. As the footpath becomes sand, the habitat transitions through scrubby flatwoods to scrub, passing through dense thickets of scrub live oak, Champman oaks, and myrtle oaks.
1.1 > Reach the “Cross Trail” sign at a bench. This is your decision point. You can take the left fork and use the blue-blazed Cross Trail to make a 3-mile loop back to the trailhead, or continue past the bench on the main loop through the sand pine forest. You pass Marker 11 in the scrub forest.
1.5 > The trail drops down a steep slope into the floodplain for Cypress Creek. Stop and enjoy the view from the bridge. This is by far one of the most beautiful and serene creeks in Central Florida, where the clear tea-colored water flows gently over rippled sand. Get your water here if you’re backpacking. Climb up the steep slope on the other side. Along the hike, habitats shift from sand pine scrub into open palmetto scrub, a great illustration of how small amounts of elevation radically change the types of habitats you encounter.
2.4 > Reach the turnoff for the primitive campsite. Add an extra 0.4 mile to your hike if you head down to it for a break at the picnic bench surrounded by oaks and longleaf pines. Beyond this turnoff, the trail continues into a dense oak scrub with more fallen pines, passing briefly under a stand of spreading live oaks. As the trail curves towards the river, the habitat changes to a moister flatwoods, where damp indentations fill with swamp lilies.
3.3 > Cross a long boardwalk over a slow-flowing tannic creek. You’ve finished your trek through the scrub and pine flatwoods, and are entering the bluff forests along the Little Manatee River, where cabbage palms and hickories dominate.
3.7 > Emerging on a sand bluff, you get a sweeping view of a horseshoe bend in the Little Manatee River. The trail continues to trace the river’s path for most of the return journey. Watch for kayakers on the river, and admire the sandy beaches—the alligators do, too. You’ll notice a couple of spots where you can see activity on the far shore inside the state park picnic areas and along the nature trail.
4.3 > Watch for pineapple-sized bromeliads in the trees, particularly when you come up to a large red cedar. Soon after, you return to the river’s edge, crossing a series of bridges spanning a floodplain channel next to the river. Lilies grow densely in the thick mud.
4.6 > Cross a bridge over a deep tributary flowing into the river. Zigzagging through some palm trees before making a sharp left to climb up a steep bluff, the trail begins paralleling Cypress Creek upstream. If you look to the right, you can see where the creek enters the Little Manatee River. Drop down the bluff to cross it on a bridge which ends up at a bench and a T intersection with the Cross Trail to the left. Turn right, following the creek’s flow downstream.
4.9 > As you walk through a palm hammock, a flock of chimney swifts dart back and forth overhead. One palm curves low along the forest floor. The trail goes around it, eventually climbing back up onto the river bluffs.
5.5 > Enjoy this scenic stretch on the river bluffs, with nice views upstream. The trail clambers up and down little slopes, skirting around floodplain forests in old side channels of the river. The footpath is covered with nuts as pignut hickories begin to dominate the forest. The river remains off to the right, beyond the forest.
5.8 > A tall bridge crosses a deep channel that feeds the river, when the water is flowing at all. Marker 2 is just past it. Spiky saw palmettos lift their trunks in the air. Look for a side trail that leads to a little beach on the river.
6.0 > The trail emerges into a meadow broken up by smaller live oaks and slash pine. Growing in heaping mounds, smilax provides the ground cover. Your last glimpse of the river is off to the right. The wide mowed trail continues through the meadow. A zebra butterfly settles on the fluffy blooms of a Florida myrtle. As it leaves the river, the trail turns left past an old structure before leading you down a corridor shaded by slash pines. As ferns and sweetbay magnolia appear, you know you’re drawing close to the bayhead.
6.3 > Reach the sign that indicates you’ve completed the loop. Turn right to cross the boardwalk through the bayhead swamp.
6.5 > Wander back through the oak hammock and down the fenceline, reaching the parking area at 6.5 miles.