The only thing more worrying than seeing a bunch of alligators around your canoe is not seeing them but knowing darn well they are there.
I am with my two kids, Kai, 8, and Christina, 5, plus my sister, Gina, and her 5-year-old son, Quincy, in Florida’s Myakka River State Park. It’s a moss- and- vine-draped domain of birds, mammals and Jurassic-spiked reptiles covering 29,000 acres about 20 miles southeast of Sarasota.
The park is an A-list hangout for gators, harboring “a couple thousand,” a volunteer ranger tells me, giving it one of the highest concentrations in southwest Florida. Credit this to the namesake river and two lakes, Upper and Lower Myakka, which provide the reedy, muddy habitat the creatures love. Not coincidentally, it also supports a biodiverse buffet of prey.
My assurance that this menu doesn’t include humans — alligators seldom attack people unless provoked — is calming neither Gina nor the kids as I glide our rented 16-foot aluminum Grumman canoe toward a shore of Upper Myakka Lake, where the gators lounge in the sun. As we near shore, the gators deploy one by one into the water, descending until their watchful eyes and tails disappear. We retreat toward a far shore where a pair of sandhill cranes poke about placidly in the shallows.
Birding paradise and treetop walks
Like most state parks in Florida, Myakka River is a birding wonderland. In our six hours here, we see herons, egrets, wood storks, vultures and a hawk. Myakka River is also home to deer, turtles, armadillos, turkeys and feral pigs, a faction that probably sticks to the roughly 10,500 acres of the park designated as a wilderness preserve, into which only 30 people per day are allowed by foot or nonmotorized boat. We opt to explore a smaller chunk of the park, a well-trodden mile of path that is part of Myakka’s 39 miles of unpaved trails.
A hard sand path winds into a hardwood hammock of live oak, and coconut and cabbage palms, arriving soon at one of the park’s most advertised features: a 100-foot-long canopy walk, strung with wood and rope 25 feet high between two sturdy towers. The bridge was the first of its kind in North America when it opened in 2000 and remains among only a handful of public treetop walks in the United States.
I had pictured a much longer span, but this nonetheless fulfills its promise of putting us within arm’s reach of the teeming ecosystem in the high branches of live oaks, which are adorned with bromeliads, mosses and other sweet-smelling organisms. Later, Kai tells me that this was his favorite part of the visit, adding, “You know, Dad, alligators are kind of boring. They just sit there.”
What does gator taste like?
We make a pit stop at the park’s lone eatery, the Pink Gator Cafe. Overlooking Upper Myakka Lake, it offers an impressive menu of burgers, sandwiches, seafood and salads. I go with the homemade alligator stew — from farmed, not local, stock, the clerk concedes — and chase it with a Sarasota-brewed IPA. (And, no, alligator doesn’t taste like chicken — it’s more like chewy ground beef.)
Toward the end of the day, we head out on a birding boardwalk that in wetter times extends into Upper Myakka Lake but today runs a few feet above a field of verdant grasses and reeds. Late-afternoon sun cocoons the vegetation in a hypnotizing radiance.
We drive out of the park, passing only a posse of campers unloading pickup trucks at a tent site. I slow the car wherever I fathom that alligators might be loitering, but they’ve all clocked out for the day, headed off, undoubtedly, to do something boring.
IF YOU GO
Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Rd. 72, Sarasota, Florida
ADMISSION $6 per vehicle, $2 per pedestrian
ACCOMMODATIONS Historic palm log cabins in the park sleep up to six, with bathrooms, full kitchen, porch and fireplace for $70 a night. RV or tent camping sites are $26 a night.
FOOD The Pink Gator Cafe (941-923-1120, myakkaoutpost.com/caf-.html)
RENTALS The Myakka Outpost (941-923-1120, myakkaoutpost.com/activities.html) rents canoes and kayaks (from $20 an hour) and bicycles (from $15 an hour).
TOURS Myakka Wildlife Tours (941-365-0100, myakkawildlifetours.com) offers airboat tours of Lake Myakka for $15 ($8 for children ages 6 to 12; free for ages 5 and younger).
MORE INFO 941-361-6511, floridastateparks.org/park/myakka-river
MORE PLACES TO SEE WILDLIFE ON THE GULF COAST
J.N. ‘DING’ DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, SANIBEL ISLAND The 8,000-acre refuge’s marshes, wetlands, mangrove forests and hardwood hammocks are home to animals from alligators to zebra longwing butterflies. Residents include manatees, mangrove tree crabs, horse conch and 245 species of birds. From four-mile Wildlife Drive, watch for bright pink roseate spoonbills with spatula-shaped beaks prancing on sandbars.
Attractions include nature talks, guided bicycle and tram tours, and boat and paddle expeditions. Stroll the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk circling five shell mounds built before the 1700s by the Calusa tribe. Who was Ding Darling? A political cartoonist who persuaded President Truman to establish the refuge in 1945.
Wildlife Drive is open every day except Fridays. Vehicles $5; pedestrians and bicyclists $1. The Visitor and Education Center is open daily and free.
TRIP PLANNING fortmyers-sanibel.com
CRYSTAL RIVER PRESERVE STATE PARK See how Florida looked centuries ago on the northern Gulf Coast. Pinewoods, hardwoods, scrub, salt marshes and mangroves shelter a wide range of wildlife. Watch for diamondback terrapins, gray hairstreak butterflies, barred owls, turkeys, deer, alligators, bald eagles, wood storks and migrating neotropical birds.
Walking trails and a seven-mile bike trail loop around diverse habitats. Paddling, snorkeling and reasonably priced eco and sunset cruises offer more ways to get immersed in beauty. Don’t miss the American Indian temple mound that’s a go-to for dramatic sunset views.
Neighboring Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is dedicated to the protection of Florida manatees. In cooler months, hundreds of these gentle marine mammals reside in the area’s wonderland of springs.
The park is open daily; entry is free. The interpretive center is closed on weekends.
TRIP PLANNING discovercrystalriverfl.com
CALADESI ISLAND OFF DUNEDIN AND CLEARWATER What do you do on Caladesi Island, one of the Gulf’s few completely natural islands? Stroll, swim and examine cool shells on white sand beaches. Hike three miles through the island’s interior or rent a kayak to paddle a secluded four-mile mangrove-lined trail. Watch for heron, black skimmers and osprey.
Getting there is part of the fun. From Dunedin, drive to Honeymoon Island State Park (vehicle $8; single occupant vehicle $4; pedestrians and bicyclists $2), named for its 1940s honeymoon huts. Then catch a 15-minute ferry (adults $14; ages 6-12 $7; 5 and younger free) to Caladesi. Bring water and picnic lunches, then surrender to serenity.
TRIP PLANNING visitstpeteclearwater.com
— ROBIN SOSLOW