A 487-acre mosaic of mud flats, mangrove swamps, and beaches, Robinson Preserve is a testament to the spirit of Aldo Leopold. Formerly farmland in a district of Bradenton known for its tropical plant nurseries, this expanse of waterfront habitats has undergone extensive restoration, from removal of invasive species to re-creating tidal creeks and basins nourished by the rise and fall of Tampa Bay. Its most notable feature is a 5-story observation tower. Climb to the top for a treat: the sweep of Tampa Bay at your feet, with Anna Maria Island, Egmont Key, Fort DeSoto, and even St. Petersburg and the Sunshine Skyway a part of the scene. While walking through the preserve, you’ll enjoy some of the best birding on the Gulf Coast, no matter the time of day. With trails for hikers, cyclists, and paddlers to explore, this family-friendly preserve is an excellent coastal destination.
Location: Palma Sola
Length: 4.4 miles
Lat-Long: 27.514320, -82.662139
Type: round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to extreme
Restroom: flush toilets at trailhead
Open 8 AM to sunset. The gate closes automatically, so be sure to return to the parking area well before the posted time. Dogs and bicycles are welcome. Up to 8 miles of hiking are possible by also following a paved bike trail to the Anna Maria Causeway and back. Trail maps are available at the trailhead.
Canoe and kayak rentals available. A unique playground and picnic area adjoin the trailhead parking area, as well as an interpretive center, the historic Valentine House, open when staffed by volunteers.
Street address: 1704 99th Street West, Bradenton, FL 34209
Robinson Preserve is managed by Manatee County
Follow SR 64 west from US 301 in downtown Bradenton towards Anna Maria Island. After 4.5 miles, turn right on 75th Ave West (at the sign for Desoto Memorial). Continue 1.3 miles towards Desoto Memorial. Turn left on 17th Street West after the school zone. Continue down this road for 1.5 miles, passing Palma Sola Botanical Gardens on the left. The entrance for Robinson Preserve is immediately after it on the right after the road swings through a 90-degree left turn.
As you leave the trailhead parking area at Robinson Preserve, you’ll notice two features that make this a busy, busy place for locals looking to recharge themselves with a daily dose of the outdoors: there is no dearth of benches, or views. Vast impoundments of salt water are circled by the trail system. As you start down the entrance trail, the sea myrtle is in bloom, its puffy white tops attracting a host of butterflies, including yellow sulfurs and monarchs. The big observation tower in the distance is your first goal, something to aim for as you move across this flat landscape. Paved and unpaved trails run parallel here, enabling cyclists to pass as you walk on the limerock of the Spoonbill Trail.
Turn right at the first trail junction onto the Osprey Loop, walking up the narrow path between the expansive salt flats. The waterways are affected by the tides, and as the tides pull out, you’ll see ibises and the occasional roseate spoonbill. At the fork, a gate blocks access to a primitive camping area used by youth groups. Turn left. Waymarking arrows point out what’s coming up next on the hike (like the Tower), and the trails are surrounded by water, so it’s not easy to lose your way. Off to the right, across the marshes, you can see nurseries still flourishing along the edge of Palma Sola in this agricultural district. What is now Robinson Preserve was slated to become a subdivision, but Manatee County scooped it up and preserved it. It’s a wonderful thing to have this preserve along the bay.
At the third junction, 0.4 mile along the hike, straight ahead is a trail, but the trail to the left leads you out into the salt pans to the big tower. Turn left, passing a canopied bench with seats on both sides. You can hear the cry of osprey in the distance. Spartina grass crowds closely to the edges of the trail. Osprey dive and swoop over the impoundment. As you approach the tower, a curved boardwalk leads you along the waterfront to the base. It’s quite a scramble to the top, but well worth the effort. I could see gentle waves breaking along sandbars, and bigger waves where the Gulf of Mexico meets Tampa Bay. All of the islands between St. Petersburg and Anna Maria Island are visible on a clear day. A seat at the top lets you perch and enjoy the view, as I did while eating my lunch.
As you leave the tower, the temptation is to cut through the salt flats on the trail off to the left. Don’t do it! Continue walking a little farther to find a trail that does provide a walk through the salt flats above the high tide zone. Turn left to walk along through the spartina grass. Crossing a bridge over the salt flats, you’re now on an elevated walkway, shellrock through the mangrove swamp. Mangroves – tree-sized – tower on both sides, with blooming sea myrtle in the near understory creating a wall of vegetation on either side. The aroma of the mud flats of a mangrove swamp envelopes you: it always evokes the Everglades for me. The breeze is so strong that mosquitoes are not an issue. The trail curves to the right, curves to the left, and pops out where you can look back at the tower.
At 1 mile, you reach the string of bridges that carries you through the heart of the mangrove swamp. Here, it’s a tangle of red mangroves, their “walking roots” weighed down by clusters of oysters. The water is crystal clear, a nursery for aquatic life: tiny fish which will grow up to be mullet, redfish, and other species that need the mangrove roots as a safety net for their young lives. Turtlegrass grows along the bottom. The boardwalk weaves its way back and forth across the waterway, criss-crossing the kayak trail below. As the boardwalks come to an end, Tampa Bay comes into view. There is a picnic area right on the bay, and you can walk down to the sandy shore and dip your toes in the water. The Sunshine Skyway bridge is within view. A trail map orients you.
Leaving the massive ficus shading the picnic spot, continue along this outer dike, still part of the Osprey Loop. The trail narrows down, following a swiftly-moving waterway. Watch for a little bower beneath the mangroves with a bench looking out on the bay. It’s here I saw a black-crowned night heron picking through the mangrove roots. There are many secluded beaches along this section. Along the swift waterway, Louisiana herons and little blue herons gather to pluck dazed fish from the water. At 1.3 miles, you come to the first of a series of bridges across waterways that nourish the preserve, swift-moving tidal waters from Tampa Bay. After the first bridge, there’s a clump of Spanish bayonet off to the left. Sea grapes arches provide some shade overhead.
The mangrove marsh to the left is extraordinarily tangled, like a three-dimensional puzzle, and busy with avian life, including wood storks, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills. Along the trail, cascades of gray nickerbean flow across the understory. A cabbage palm is caught in a strangler fig’s embrace. The trail meanders through this wonderland of coastal tropical vegetation, passing a gumbo-limbo tree (one of the northernmost I’ve seen). At a small rise, the next boardwalk is a curving one, with snake plants at one end and a coconut palm at the other. As the trail rises slightly in elevation, the breeze is much stronger. Tufts of sea myrtle blooms, white puffs drift by like Florida’s own falling snow.
A short side trail to the right leads to a secluded shoreline between the mangroves and sea grapes. Passing more coconut palms, the trail narrows, and the mangroves crowd more closely, providing a small amount of shade. The next boardwalk comes up quickly and it, too, is a curving one, the water sluggish off the bay, teaming with small fish. A bench overlooks the bay soon after in a segment of trail that feels like the Everglades, minus mosquitoes. The basin off to the left, filled with young mangroves and grasses and patches of salt marsh, has fiddler crabs scuttling into their holes at your approach. On the right side of this valley, the trail is protected by a few inches of elevation and shellrock. The aroma is salty here.
At 1.7 miles, the trail reaches a turnaround at the end of a road. Turn right and walk down to Tampa Bay. A long bench overlooks this sweeping view. Back at the turnaround, you’re at an intersection of trails. To the right, the “T1” sign leads down a path marked “Primitive Trail: Not a Thru Trail,” marked on the map as the Tern Trail. This is a spur out to where Perico Bayou, Palma Sola Bay, and Tampa Bay meet, and is well worth the out-and-back walk. Turn right and start down this narrow passageway. Passing a big prickly pear cactus, you see bicycle tracks in the trail, which is all a natural, and sometimes soggy, surface, primarily sand. The trail winds back and forth, tacking between the mangroves. Crossing a bridge over a mangrove channel, the trail leads up to low bog bridges through the mangrove roots. Washed up by the tides, the skeletons of horseshoe crabs lie tangled in the pneumataphores of the black mangroves.
Leaving the bog bridges, the trail is in the wrack line of Tampa Bay, deeply shaded by the mangroves and sea grapes. Well-meaning park staff have spray-painted low arching limbs a fluorescent orange, which detracts somewhat from the natural scene but ensures you won’t bonk your head if you’re paying attention. By 2 miles, the trail jogs inland a little bit, still rough and rugged, providing more views out under the black mangroves. Speedboats zip by just feet away, but they can’t see you inside this tangle of mangroves. Arcing back out to the wrack line, you can see ripples in the sand. The footpath gets mushy underfoot. Keep upland, closer to the sea grapes. A confidence marker reminds you of the path. When the boats quiet down, you have the lapping waves and the slight rustle of leaves to yourself.
Emerging along a small beach, you can see the north end of Anna Maria Island. Bowers of seagrapes intermingle with the massive sea grapes. The sea wrack tangles through the pnuemataphores. Ducking under the mangroves, it’s a walk in a tunnel. At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches a turnaround inside the mangroves, the vegetation screening the view where waters meet. Follow the loop around and continue along the path you just traversed, now in the opposite direction, enjoying this elegant walk along Tampa Bay. It’s unparalleled for any trail I’ve hiked along the edges of the bay.
By 3 miles, you return to the trail junction with the broad road coming in from the right. Turn right to follow it. It’s still part of the Osprey Loop, and provides an easy walk down crushed limerock about the width of a bicycle path, surrounded by the mangrove swamp with a narrow canal on both sides. When you’re done with this long, straight stretch, you’re back into the birding zone with an impoundment on the left and a bench off to the right at 3.2 miles. Salt marshes with fringes of sea oxeye, mangroves taking root in low-lying areas: restoration of habitat continues. An osprey perches in a near branch, ripping apart a fish for dinner.
At the next trail junction, a spur trail goes over to the water to a kayak pull-out, passing a covered bench. Walking in the open between the salt flats, you’ll feel pretty exposed if clouds build up overhead, threatening rain. At the top of a small rise to a bridge, a trail (marked “H1”) leads back towards a fishing pier you could see a few moments ago. Cross the bridge, the observation tower over your left shoulder in the distance, and you come up to a T intersection with a sheltered bench at the paved trail, the Spoonbill Trail. To the right, it heads off 2 miles to the causeway to Anna Maria Island. Turn left.
The Spoonbill Trail is paved, so you can pick up some more speed. Impoundments stretch off to the left, where you might see kayakers plying the waters. At 3.8 miles, you pass a sheltered bench, the first of a series along this paved trail. Mullet jump from the shallows on the left. The trail keeps steadily curving through this flat landscape along the waterways. Passing the next bench and a canal, look for an entrance on the left to the limerock trail that parallels this paved trail. It’s a relief to have a semi-natural surface underfoot again. Follow it down the long straightaway. Cross over the paved path at 4.2 miles and continue along the limerock. Off to your right, you can see a stand of royal palms on the edge of the preserve.
Reaching the trailhead at 4.4 miles, take a walk up to the Valentine House. Painted in Wedgewood blue, it’s a pretty piece of early verancular architecture and used as an exhibit center. Loop through the playground on the way to the restrooms. Kids will love it – swings hang from a tree with an owl peeping out of it, there’s an ant mound to crawl through, and a bouncing dragonfly. Rest and enjoy the rest of your day.