Protecting the tip of a peninsula where Little Alligator Creek meets Charlotte Harbor, Ponce De Leon Park is a city park where residents of Punta Gorda 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 the Peace River Wildlife Center, a volunteer-managed bird rescue and rehabilitation facility. 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 — don’t forget your camera! – and you’ll learn a lot about the mangroves as well.
Location: Punta Gorda
Length: 0.3 mile
Lat-Long: 26.909838, -82.094996
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
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. If you love birds, do visit the Peace River Wildlife Center while you’re here. They’re open from 11-4, except holidays.
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, which starts out by bridging a saline tidal creek. Look into the water, and you may see a glimmer of silver – a school of needlefish, their sleek bodies impossibly thin, cutting through the tannic outflow. By dropping spent leaves and providing shade above shallow water, mangrove forests provide shelter and nutrients for young marine life – from fish to crustaceans – and are the nurseries for the bountiful sea life of the Gulf of Mexico. 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 the “legs” we often think that mangroves should have, 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, or a yellow-crowned night heron picking its way through leaf detritus beneath the mangroves. Sometimes the 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, where pleasure boats and kayakers 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.