72 miles. It makes quite a journey. The Myakka River is not just a pretty body of water as it travels along. It provides a home for all kinds of wildlife. Its floodplain marshes are important and offer flood protection for surrounding communities. Wide or shallow, the river moves south through three counties. It starts in Manatee County, then moves south through Sarasota County, and finally to Charlotte County, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Sarasota has declared it a Florida Wild and Scenic River and offered protection within its county boundaries. I often only considered Myakka River within the state park that bears its name. But did you know there are other parks and wilderness all around it? In all over 110,000 acres of conservation land surround it to preserve nature and help the Myakka River do its job.
Myakka River State Park is one of the oldest and largest state parks in Florida. It was developed in part because of a vision and the persistence of a real estate marketer named A. B Edwards. It was the early 1930's. Mr. Edwards believed in preserving this land just south of Sarasota for all to enjoy. He was able to purchase part of Bertha Palmer's cattle ranch (17,000 acres of it) for 37 and a half cents per acre and offer it up for a state park. The work to create such a park would fall under a program called the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). Myakka River would be one of 8 parks in Florida done before WWII. The CCC employed young men ages 18-25 and was part of FDR's New Deal to put men back to work. The men were mostly of poor background and not married. They were paid $1 per day-----$25 per month was sent home to family and $5 was kept by them. Conditions were rough. The men lived in tents or huts. Separated from family for long months at a time. They dealt with snakes, mosquitoes, and unsanitary conditions. They got sick, had malaria. They put in hard days and rose at 6 a.m. to do it all again. During off time they were able to learn a trade such as welding, or improve their studies in reading and arithmetic.
Can you imagine starting with nothing and creating a state park? There were no roads yet. There were no bridges, trails, buildings, cabins, or boat basins. There was just lots of open land. An old cattle ranch. They used what materials were available. The 5 park cabins were made from palmetto logs and had cypress shingles. The stone fireplaces came from Manatee County. A dozen of the original park buildings are still in use today. The boat basin was dug by hand with shovels. No heavy machinery here! The first bridges were made from hand-chopped wood. Telephone lines were strung for communication. Some 100,000 trees were ordered and planted by hand! The park opened on June 1, 1942. Today it is one year shy of being 80!
Myakka River is a 38,000 acre state park just south of Sarasota with something for everyone. It's one of our favorite stops. There are 3 campgrounds with a total of 90 campsites. Everything from quiet shady areas for tents to generous sites for the biggest RV. If not camping, a $6 admission fee gives you access to the park by day. There's plenty to do at any time of year. You can travel the 7 mile paved park road. Look for wildlife. You can study nature and take photos. The park is very accessible. Many people are out on bikes. You can stop at the bridge, about one mile from the entrance,and look for alligators. The best months for viewing gators are March and April before the summer rains. In May I had no problem seeing 6 to 10 alligators most days. In the south wilderness area of the park is a place called Deep Hole. A natural sinkhole. A remote area. A two mile hike. There have been as many as 100 alligators or more spotted in a single viewing there! No one is sure why the gators love this spot so much. This south park wilderness can be hiked by special permit only. Just 30 permits daily are available for it at the ranger station.
At Myakka River State Park wildlife is the word. You may encounter some deer in the early morning or at dusk. One or two at a time or as many as six or seven. They are very used to people and will linger and go on about feeding as if you weren't there. I also had no trouble finding a raccoon or two and some turkeys. I heard an owl and saw some bats. I saw a couple of wild pigs. You may be happy just taking a hike on one of the many trails. The park has over 39 miles of nature trails. You can visit a tree canopy walkway and climb an observation tower. You can stop at the boat basin or see what's up at the bird walk. Presently the boat tours are on hold. The lake level is just too low. Tram tours of the park run between early December and late May. They cover back roads and acres of woods. You can easily see some of the back roads on foot yourself. Don't forget the snacks. Pack a lunch! There is a nice picnic area at the end of the park called Clay Gully. There you'll find shaded picnic tables, a large pavilion, and more trails along the river.
Mid-May is an especially beautiful time at Myakka River State Park because of the wildflowers. Coreopsis (common name tickseed) bloom for 3-4 weeks along the grassy flats. You will see the color as you round the bend after driving some 2-3 miles on the park road. The flowers create a carpet of yellow that's hard to resist. Every day people come in especially to take photos. They bring their cameras and their children. They come early and stay late. I even saw someone with a brush and easel doing a painting. Sometimes the flowers look best in early morning. Others times it's the end of the day that captures the right light when the slanting sun hits. We certainly took our share of photos. Even without the flowers the open marsh is something to see!
It takes a lot of teamwork to keep a park as large as Myakka River in check. The rangers practice fire management. Controlled burns each year improve the soil. They reduce the shrubs, and stimulate flower and seed production. The newly enriched soil provides food necessary for small animals. A good population of small animals will be an increased dinner for other larger animals. And so it goes up the food chain. Nature at work with a little help from man.
In dry years fire clears vegetation in the marshes enabling them to hold more water during the rainy seasons. This is necessary for good flood control. The rangers are also out spraying----managing invasive vegetation and ridding the park of unwanted plants. Meanwhile trappers are called in to get nuisance animals such as wild pigs. They will be removed from the park. I found it amusing that the raccoons loved the corn in the pig traps and easily went in and out by digging under or climbing between the wires. I saw a family of 6 raccoons one evening leaving a pig trap---climbing over each other much like a group of slapstick Keystone Cops.
The park offers a chance to relax and take things at a slower pace. One well known photographer, Clyde Butcher, used Myakka River State Park as a place to save his spirit and heal his body following a stroke. It was one of the few parks easily accessible to him and full of nature to photograph. I first discovered Clyde Butcher's photography on a trip to the Everglades about 6 years ago and have been following him ever since. He has photographed all around the state and national parks of America for the past 50 years bringing awareness to the need for conservation and preservation. Wild places need our help. I hope you will visit a state park near you and enjoy some of the great outdoors.
Myakka River State Park
13208 State Road 72
Sarasota FL 34241
Located about 93 miles south of Brooksville.
Take 1-75 south to Exit 205 in Sarasota.
Then go east 9 miles on SR 72 (Clark Rd.) to the park entrance.
Daily admission $6
Clyde Butcher Gallery
237 Warfield Ave.
Venice FL 34285
Gallery open Tues. thru Fri. from 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Venice is about 19 miles south of Sarasota
See Clyde's black and white photography online