For immersion in Florida’s central prairies, the Myakka Hiking Trail is a serious backpacking destination. A 39-mile loop in the heart of Myakka River State Park, it provides a mosaic of habitats to explore, including grasslands more than two miles wide in places. Although the trails mostly stay in shady oak hammocks, they do traverse the open prairies as well. There are five designated campsites along the way, of which Bee Island is the most popular, creating the easiest overnight trip. This trek describes a three-day, two-night backpacking trip along the longest loop trail in a Florida State Park, a destination to keep in mind during general gun hunting season, since no hunting is permitted in the state park.
Length: 22.6 miles / 3 days of a route of up to 39 miles
Lat-Lon: 27.274109, -82.263095
Type: loop Fees: state park entrance fee plus per-night per-person camping fee
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: not in this part of the park
You must reserve campsites in advance.
When you arrive at the park, you’ll pay the entrance fee plus a camping fee, for which you’ll be provided the combination to the lock for the trailhead. If you decide to just hike the Bee Island Loop as a day hike, there is a a developed campground and historic CCC cabins near the park entrance, and plenty of picnic areas throughout the park.
From I-75 exit 205, drive 9 miles east on SR 72 to the park entrance on the left. Follow the park entrance road for 5.1 miles, keeping to the right at the fork. The trailhead is on the right. Unlock the gate and drive up the entrance road to the parking area.
Extensive and well-engineered: that’s the Myakka Hiking Trail. Designed and maintained by the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Trail Association, the trail system has nearly 39 miles of trail broken into four loops, enabling you to plan numerous route options, from a lengthy day hike on the Bee Island Loop to a four-day experience exploring all four loops. In 2002, I did a 20.1 mile backpacking trip here with my friend Diane. The trail was largely flooded, which made backpacking – and finding a dry spot for a tent – quite difficult. Before planning your trip, call and ask about how wet it is out there, because when the Myakka River floods, so do the prairies and tributaries and you may find yourself wading through waist-deep water along the sloughs, as we did.
DAY ONE From the parking area, the trail system starts at the “FT” sign. Winding through a hammock of ancient live oaks, a blue-blazed trail leads you to the main loop. Skirting a floodplain forest, the blue-blazed trail ends at the main orange-blazed loop after 0.3 mile. A directional sign at the trail junction gives mileages to the various campsites. Turn left to hike to Mossy Hammock, heading down a corridor outlined by saw palmetto.Constant humidity makes the forest lush and green. As the habitat transitions into a palm hammock, the footpath gets mushy as it circles a willow marsh.
After 0.5 mile, you see a hard-packed limestone road paralleling the trail on the right. Around each corner, you encounter new habitats. From dense hardwood hammocks, you see marshlands. Scrubby flatwoods give way to hammocks of bluejack oaks. After 1.1 miles, you cross Fox’s High Road, a popular bicycling route. Bicycles are permitted on all of the old roads crisscrossing the park, but are not allowed on the hiking trail. If you need to exit the trail system in a hurry, you can also use the roads as a high and dry route to get back out to the main park road— pick up a “Hiking and Biking” brochure at the ranger station for details on the road system.
Deep in an oak hammock, several round structures invite inspection—the foundations of silos from the former ranch that occupied this land. Remnants of that era are sprinkled throughout the prairies and hammocks, from the remains of the old ranch house to cattle dip vats used for removing ticks from cattle. After making a sharp turn to the right and climbing up a small rise, the trail swings right to follow Mossy Island Slough, a sluggish blackwater stream with high banks. In the wet season, it overflows across vast stretches of the trail. Rounding a bend in the creek, you walk beneath a jungle-like canopy of ferns and air plants blanketing the live oak limbs.
After 2.4 miles, you catch your first glimpse of the vast prairies that Myakka River State Park preserves. Home to many unique creatures, including the burrowing owl and Bachman’s sparrow, these dry expanses of grass and palmetto require frequent fires to rejuvenate the land. Myakka’s grassy prairies, once used as cattle grazing land, nearly vanished under an onslaught of tall shrubs and palmettos. After years of carefully preventing forest fires, park managers realized that fire was necessary to maintain the habitat. Prairie restoration efforts began in the 1980s. As you will see from this and other vistas, the prairies rebounded.
Immediately after crossing a road that leads out into the prairie, you reach the sign for the Mossy Hammock campsite. It’s down a blue blaze to the right. Unless you need to stop and pump water from the pitcher pump, continue along the orange blazed trail, following the line of oak trees out into the open prairie. Off to the left, a vast sea of saw palmetto stretches into the distance—the palmetto prairie, once the most common habitat blanketing this part of Florida. Walking out into the wide open prairie, you follow the narrow trail between the orange-tipped fence posts. Keep alert for directional changes at the first few posts. Enveloped by the vast prairie, you experience a sense of awe. The arc of grasslands flows away in every direction; pine trees in the distance seem miles away. And they are.
At 3.3 miles, you cross a jeep road. Continue straight across to stay on the trail. After 3.7 miles, you reach the next jeep road. Continue straight. Pause every once in a while to look behind you and absorb the colorful spectacle of this immense prairie. In fall, you’ll see a riot of wildflowers: tall purple deer’s tongue and blazing star rising above the grasses, golden and white aster adding their spots of color. A lone tree stands along the trail, and on it, the first orange blaze you’ve seen in a while—a reassurance that you’re still on the right trail. Winding its way towards the distant line of trees, the trail passes an indiscernible large white sign on the left as you cross over another jeep road at 4.8 miles. The tree line no longer seems so distant. Off to the right, power lines march across the far horizon.
After 5 miles, you cross another road and reach the far shore of the prairie. Look behind you for a rare Florida sight: you can see the last two miles of trail. Crossing a bridge over a small tannic drainage that cascades out to the prairie, you enter a thin silver of oak hammock between two prairies. Cinnamon ferns thrive in the damp understory. From the grassy corridor under the oaks, you can look out across more of the prairie you just traversed.
The junction with the Bee Island Cross Trail is at 5.3 miles. Turn right and follow the blue blazes for another 1.1 miles, turning right at the T junction to reach the campsite. Set on a high and dry hammock, the campsites at Bee Island command beautiful views of the prairie. You end today’s hike after 6.4 miles.
DAY TWO Leaving the comfort of the Bee Island campsite, follow the blue blazes back past the historic cattle dip vat out to the outer loop of the Myakka Hiking Trail, reaching the orange blazes at 1.1 miles. Turn right. Yellow cannas and patches of lance-leaved arrowroot flank the trail as it winds through a wet area bounded by a ghostly forest of oak snags. Emerging out onto the prairie again, you cross a road, which then parallels the trail along the fence line on the left. Occasional blazes on posts and scattered trees define the route. As the trail rounds a large marsh, watch for the constant activity of birds. Paralleling a broad limestone road, the trail continues its eastward trek to a distant oak and palm hammock, where it crosses a bridge.
Passing a sign that confirms your choice of direction (towards the Bobcat Cross Trail), you emerge into a scrubby prairie, where gallberry competes with saw palmetto for control of the understory. At 3.4 miles, keep alert for the “Bobcat Cross Trail” sign. The orange-blazed trail in front of you continues along the outer edge of the four loops, headed for the Oak Grove Campsite. The Bobcat Cross Trail forms the eastern edge of the Honore Loop. Turn right, and head out across the prairie. Following the blue blazes, you reach two bridges flanking the central Old Railroad Grade, another popular biking route. As you walk under the oaks and pines, the habitat yields to a swampy palm hammock lining a vast wetland.
After 4.3 miles, you reach a T intersection with the main trail. Turn right, following the trail through several wet palm hammocks. Rising up towards a stand of pines, the trail makes a beeline for the open prairie. After you cross the next jeep road, the trail narrows down to a slim corridor between the saw palmettos and then rises up into pine flatwoods, making a turn to the left to point at the power lines. At 5.8 miles, you walk under the crackling high-tension wires to continue along the trail at the “Myakka Hiking Trail” sign. A marsh spills out over the trail, where hatpins and St.-Johns-wort flourish in the dampness.
Continue through the palmetto prairie, heading in the direction of another distant set of power lines. The line of pines you’ve been pointed towards for the past hour finally comes within reach at 6.3 miles. Take in the vastness of the palmetto prairie to the right as you walk into a hammock of oaks and cabbage palms. Stands of sand cordgrass ring a willow marsh as you emerge out of the hammock and back into the prairie. After 7.3 miles, you come to the sign for the Honore campsite. Turn right and walk down the edge of the marsh to the campsite, arriving at the water pump after 7.4 miles.
Carved into the underbrush of a palm hammock, the Honore campsite features three separate patches of grass with fire rings, each tucked into its own niche along the trail. The one closest to the water pump has the most space for tents. Be cautious of ant nests around the logs by the fire rings, and keep alert for poison ivy when you slip off into the woods to “use the facilities.”
DAY THREE As you leave the Honore campsite, make sure the priming bottles at the pump are topped off before you head down the blue-blazed corridor to the main trail. Turn right at the T intersection, following the orange-blazes as the trail curves right into a series of palm hammocks edged by marshes. At 0.5 mile, you pass a double-blaze. Soon after, the trail turns sharply right to cross an overflowing marsh, where tadpoles dart around your feet as you wade. A sea of saw palmetto sweeps around you as the trail rises to slightly higher ground. Crossing two jeep roads in quick succession, the trail enters a dense hammock of young oaks shaded by a canopy of slash pines, and continues into a swampy palm hammock.
Beyond a narrow slough, the trail reaches a tannic but clear sand-bottomed stream, and turns left to parallel its course, following the ecotone between the cool hammock and the open palmetto prairie. You cross a jeep road at 1.1 miles. Rounding a large marsh, the trail keeps to the line of oaks and pines along the prairie’s edge. At 1.6 miles, the trail makes a sharp right away from the prairie into a shady palm hammock. Keep alert, as it’s easy to lose the trail in the interplay of light and shadow, where drooping palm fronds hide the blazes and there is no distinct footpath. Emerging into the light, the trail turns left to head out into the scrubby prairie, where low bush blueberries crowd the edges of the trail. A marsh spills out over the trail at 2.1 miles.
Crossing a broad bridge and a fading jeep trail, you’re back in the palmetto prairie. A broad bridge spans a swiftly moving tannic stream at 2.6 miles; beyond the bridge, look for the sign on the far right to find the trail. Keep alert for an abrupt right where the trail heads down a corridor of saw palmetto. You reach the Old Railroad Grade, the park’s most popular biking trail, after 3 miles. Passing under the power lines, the trail continues past a stand of saw palmetto with unusually long trunks lifting off the ground, starting into another corridor of oak hammocks bounded by the prairies. Making a sharp turn to the right, the trail parallels the power line.
Around 3.6 miles, the trail curves along the edge of an immense wetland, where herons and egrets pick their way between the tufts of sand cordgrass. Turning left, the trail rises into a stand of tall pines and moss-draped oaks. Watch for the double-blaze as the trail makes an abrupt left into the pine forest, following a stream. Continuing left, the trail emerges back out into the prairie, and turns left to parallel the power line. Walking past an orange blaze shimmering against the textures of a heavily worn snag, you come up to a slough draining into a large marsh on the left. Proceed through the shallows. At 4.6 miles, you reach the junction with the Bee Island Cross Trail, blazed in blue.Continue straight along the edge of the prairie, where you hear the mournful cries of sandhill cranes in the distance.
Splashing across a drainage, you enter a thicket of saw palmetto under a canopy of sand live oaks, then cross a large bridge over a blackwater stream before emerging back into the prairie. When you cross the jeep trail, you’ve hiked 5 miles. Continuing down the corridor of saw palmetto, the trail enters an oak hammock, and crosses another bridge. Keep to the left, as the footpath is indiscernible through the hammock, and the blazes pick up again as the trees close in. By 5.4 miles, a bridge spans a ditch, and the trail crosses over two small stone bridges flanking an old road. Leaving the hammock, you’re surrounded by gallberry and sumac, sea myrtle and bushy bluestem grass, the trail a narrow swath through the tall brush.
Beyond the next jeep trail, the trail crosses a bridge at 6 miles, meeting All Weather Road. Turn right and walk along the road, then left on the other side of the creek to continue along the orange blazes. Staying in the saw palmetto corridor, the trail twists and winds to follow the route of the creek, leading you into thickets of live oak draped in Spanish moss. You catch another glimpse of the prairie while walking through the park-like understory of this large oak hammock. Turning left, the trail noses out to the edge of the marshes. A draining swamp cascades down next to a natural archway of live oak.
Double blazes lead you right and left through the hammock. For the next mile, the trail keeps to the shade of mature oak and palm hammocks while rounding numerous marshes; after a rain, the marshes will envelop the footpath. Tall alligator flag lends a clue as to the depth of the center of each marsh. After 7.4 miles, a double-blaze leads to higher ground under the oaks. The trail continues to circle a series of willow marshes, each adjoined by beautiful oak hammocks festooned with wild pine. After 7.9 miles, the trail turns left and emerges from the palm hammock into the open prairie.
Coming up to the edge of a pretty little tannic stream, the trail follows it upstream, crossing a bridge at 8.1 miles. Diverging from the stream, the trail turns left into a shady hammock. Beautiful bromeliads dangle overhead as you enter the next hammock, just after you cross Fox’s Low Road. Moments later, you reach the end of the loop at 8.5 miles. Turn left. Follow the blue blazes back out to the trailhead to complete today’s 8.8 mile hike, ending your 20.1 mile circuit on the Myakka Hiking Trail.