Where I-95 and I-595 meet, you’d hardly believe there’s a place for green space. Port Everglades looms to the east, and jets take off and land at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. But Secret Woods is very special. It’s hidden under such a dense canopy of mangroves that most people buzzing past have no idea it exists. It’s a place where families can get out and rediscover nature together, watching giant land crabs lumber across the landscape and cormorants hang out in the mangroves along the South Fork of the New River.
Designated the first “urban wilderness area” in Florida back in 1978, Secret Woods protects a 56-acre floodplain of cypress strand and mangroves with uplands of tropical hammock where tall royal palms rise gracefully above the canopy. It’s a fabulous birding destination, thanks to extensive boardwalks through the mangrove forests and along the river, and has a top-notch nature center to teach the kids about Southeast Florida habitats. With more than a mile of interpretive trails, it’s a pleasant place to enjoy a family outing.
Length: 1.1 miles
Lat-Long: 26.088830, -80.177447
Type: multiple loops
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: yes, in the nature center complex
A beautiful nature center presents an overview of the habitats you’ll see in this preserve, and it’s well worth visiting before you go out on the trails. Each of the trails loops out and back from the trail junctions, so you can walk any distance you like. Bicycles and pets are not permitted in the park. The nature center is open 9-5 daily.
Secret Woods is along SR 84 just west of the I-95 / I-595 junction and the South Fork of the New River, immediately on the right after you cross the bridge westbound. From I-95, use exit 25 to go west on SR 84 to the park entrance. From I-595, use exit 9 to reach SR 84 west. From Florida’s Turnpike, take exit 54, drive east on SR 84, and make a U-turn just beyond SW 29th Ave to get to the park entrance.
Start your hike at the trailhead at the parking area. A map provides an overview of the park’s various trails. Follow the boardwalk, and you’ll encounter the first trail loop off to the right. It leads you through a restored upland area, Butterfly Island, a butterfly garden planted to attract native butterflies such as cloudless sulphur, gulf fritillary, giant swallowtail, and zebra longwing. It’s always a-flutter in colorful wings and brilliant blooms.
Continue along the boardwalk to reach the nature center complex after 0.2 mile. Stop in for a visit at the Monarch Interpretive Center, where you’ll see bees busy making mangrove honey, artifacts from the native peoples who once lived along the river, reptiles, and a video screening room, plus a large mural depicting the first modern settlement of the area. Just beyond this complex of buildings, the two main trails begin in earnest. The Laurel Oak Trail is a bark chip footpath that meanders through upland forest and around a cypress swamp, and the New River Trail is a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk which winds through floodplain forest and mangroves en route to the shores of the New River.
For an up-close look at giant land crabs, the Laurel Oak Trail is one of the better places to see them along this coast. Turn right to head down the mulch path, and take a left at the T. It’s primordial South Florida in here, the murky swamp lapping at the bases of tall royal palms, the giant leather ferns towering overhead, the pond apples groaning under the weight of their fruit. The trail crosses a boardwalk and passes a bench, where you start to see large holes in the sand. These are tunnels stretching several feet deep to the water table, created by giant land crabs for shelter. These crabs are Florida’s largest terrestrial crab, spanning up to six inches across their shells, and they prefer living amid the roots of mangroves. This forest is one of their last serious strongholds in the area. The trail continues past a cluster of benches at the base of a strangler fig, and crosses another boardwalk, leading you into an area dense with ferns and fungi, moistness and color. Circling behind the nature center, the loop ends after 0.5 mile; turn left to exit back out to the main trail junction.
Turn right to begin the New River Trail loop. You’ll notice the royal palms rising well above the forest, thriving since the canopy of cocoplums was torn off by Hurricane Wilma. This trail is a boardwalk, even through the tropical forest of wild coffee and strangler figs. When you reach the T, turn right to follow the boardwalk into the mangrove forest. Watch for birds roosting in the trees. The trail emerges along the edge of the New River, with an observation deck perfect for birding. Watch for mangrove crabs – they’re much smaller than the giant land crabs – scurrying along mangrove roots.
After 0.8 mile, you reach a covered rain shelter. At the T intersection, either direction will lead back to the beginning of the loop. To the right, the trail passes through an outdoor amphitheater before returning to the restored tropical hammock and its royal palms. Continue straight to complete the New River Trail and exit into the nature center complex. Walk past the nature center to find the way back out to the parking area.