Where Interstates 95 and 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 nearby 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 discover nature together, watching giant land crabs scurry under the mangroves and cormorants hang out along the South Fork of the New River.
As the state’s first urban wilderness area, it is not at all quiet. The buzz of interstate traffic, the roar of jets, and the clanking of nearby industrial businesses is a distraction.
But the habitat was worth saving. A cypress strand and tropical hammock are edged by mangroves along the river floodplain.
Royal palms soar overhead. Birds make this green space their home.
With a mile of gentle interpretive trails centered around a top-notch nature center to teach the kids about Southeast Florida habitats, it’s perfect for a family outing.
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Location: Dania Beach
Length: 1.1 miles broken into three loops
Trailhead: 26.088830, -80.177447
Address: 2701 W SR 84, Dania Beach
Restroom: at the nature center complex
Land manager: Broward County
Open 9 AM to 5 PM daily. No bicycles or pets permitted. Most of the trails are accessible boardwalks.
Each of the trails loops out and back from the central trail junctions, so you can choose to do one, two, or all of them, depending on your time and ability.
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 Interstate 95, use exit 25 to go west on SR 84 to the park entrance. From Interstate 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.
Walk in from the parking area, passing a map with an overview of the trails in the park. Follow the boardwalk, and you’ll encounter the first trail loop off to the right.
It is a very short loop that leads through a restored upland area, Butterfly Island, a butterfly garden planted to attract native butterflies.
In it, watch for cloudless sulphur, gulf fritillary, giant swallowtail, and zebra longwing. It’s always a-flutter in colorful wings and brilliant blooms.
Back on the boardwalk, reach the nature center complex after 0.2 mile.
For an overview of the preserve, stop in for a visit at the Monarch Interpretive Center before walking the rest of the trails.
There are bees making mangrove honey, archaeological artifacts, reptiles, and videos. A large mural depicts the first modern settlement of the area.
Just beyond this complex of buildings, the two main trails begin in earnest at a well-signed trail junction.
The Laurel Oak Trail is a bark chip footpath that meanders through upland forest and around a cypress swamp.
The New River Trail is an 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.
Pond apples groan 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. This forest is one of their last serious strongholds in the area.
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.
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 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.
See our video of Secret Woods Nature Center
See our photos of Secret Woods Nature Center
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Whether it’s from the top of a five-level observation tower or at ground level with the land crabs, Anne Kolb Nature Center focuses on the urban mangrove forest that it protects and interprets
A bounty of ferns awaits at Fern Forest Nature Center, where more than two miles of trails introduce you to a slice of Florida’s past, a tropical forest surrounding the original floodplain of Cypress Creek
At the highest natural elevation in Broward County, this pine-topped ridge speaks to the history of those who lived here in the past, in a village that Mikasuki medicine chief Abiaka called home