Protecting the tip of a peninsula where Little Alligator Creek meets Charlotte Harbor, Ponce De Leon Park is a city park on the edge of Punta Gorda.
Here, residents and visitors can enjoy dramatic sunsets over the harbor from a sweeping stretch of beach created to showcase the waterfront.
Most of the park is an untrammeled mangrove forest, which you drive through to enter the park, passing one of its more popular attractions.
The Peace River Wildlife Center, a volunteer-managed bird rescue and rehabilitation facility, cares for injured shorebirds and other wildlife.
Themed to honor Ponce De Leon – for it was in this area that he came ashore in 1513 – the park has numerous statuettes of the Spanish explorer, pint-sized in stature.
You’ll pass one at the entrance to the interpretive boardwalk, a popular local destination for a stroll.
Wildlife abounds along this walk, and you’ll learn a lot about the mangroves as well.
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Location: Punta Gorda
Length: 0.5 mile loop
Trailhead: 26.909838, -82.094996
Address: 3400 Ponce de Leon Pkwy, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Restroom: In the picnic area
Land manager: City of Punta Gorda
Open sunrise to sunset.
It’s usually very breezy here, so mosquitoes are rarely a problem, but if the air is still you’ll need a little protection.
Bring binoculars! This is an excellent birding spot.
Paddlers often put in here to kayak or paddleboard up Alligator Creek and along the Charlotte Harbor coastline.
Follow Marion Avenue west from downtown Punta Gorda past Fisherman’s Village and through the residential communities until it ends in the park. The entrance to the boardwalk is near the amphitheater, opposite from the beach.
A colorful statue of Ponce de Leon, standing next to an interpretive marker about mangroves, marks the entrance to the boardwalk loop.
The boardwalk starts by bridging a tidal creek. Look into the water, and you may see a glimmer of silver from a school of needlefish.
By dropping spent leaves and providing shade above shallow water, mangrove forests provide shelter and nutrients for young marine life.
They are the nurseries for the bountiful sea life of the Gulf of Mexico, from fish to crustaceans.
Once across the creek, you’re surrounded by tall mangroves, the tallest of which are white mangroves.
They’re easiest to distinguish by their seeds, which dangle like giant string beans. Three varieties of mangroves make up this and other coastal mangrove forests.
Red mangroves have “legs,”prop roots that arch above the water and become encrusted with salt at the base as they extrude it from the water they take in.
Black mangroves are surrounded by a network of short breathing roots protruding from the soil or water, like miniature cypress knees. These are known as pneumatophores.
At the junction in the boardwalk, turn left to walk the loop clockwise. Keep alert for mangrove crabs crossing the wooden rails.
They’re small but speedy, and if you look carefully, you’ll notice them moving along mangrove roots and lower trunks.
The water is shallow here, so it’s not unusual to spy a raccoon looking for a tasty treat, like eggs from a bird’s nest.
Look into the forest, not at it. A slight bit of movement might belie a little green heron perched in the crook of a tree.
Some birds will perch on the boardwalk railing and show little fear until you approach very close.
After a straightaway, the boardwalk makes a sharp right to head down along another long, straight corridor.
You turn right and emerge at a lookout point along Little Alligator Creek. Boaters and paddlers float in and out from the residential areas beyond the park.
This concrete and metal platform is a popular fishing spot, and a good place to watch for manatees.
It looks out over Charlotte Harbor and up the creek, so a scan with binoculars should yield osprey and herons along the far shoreline.
The boardwalk makes a sharp right for another low, long straightaway through the mangroves, a virtual tunnel through the forest.
Ibis and herons often hang out here in the shallows. When you reach the trail junction, turn left. You’ll cross the tidal creek again to exit.
Walk down to the boat ramp and cross it. Continue your walk with a stop at the fishing and observation pier that provides a better panorama of Charlotte Harbor.
Follow the park sidewalks to the picnic area behind the beach, and around to the Peace River Wildlife Center.
Loop back around to the parking area to complete a half mile walk.
The Pint-sized Ponces of Punta Gorda
Ponce de Leon, it seems, was a short fellow. In Punta Gorda, Florida, you’ll find pint-sized statues, murals, and even the Fountain of Youth to recollect his 1513 visit to Charlotte Harbor.
If you love birds, definitely visit the Peace River Wildlife Center while you’re here. They’re generally open from 11-4, except holidays.
See our photos from Ponce De Leon Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Punta Gorda Harborwalk
Spanning 2.3 miles along Charlotte Harbor, the Harborwalk is a recreational gem in downtown Punta Gorda
Punta Gorda Linear Park
A greenway through the heart of historic Punta Gorda, Linear Park provides an unexpected corridor of nature
Alligator Creek Preserve
At Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, Alligator Creek Preserve offers two gentle loop trails where freshwater and saltwater habitats meet
Babcock Ecotour Trail
At Babcock Wilderness Adventures – a popular ecotourism attraction east of Punta Gorda – the Ecotour Trail is a no-cost option to getting your feet wet on an exploration of wet flatwoods habitats along a well-maintained trail through the palmetto prairie.