Of all of the things I expected to see in Florida, cow country wasn’t one of them. But after we left Highlands Hammock State Park and passed by miles and miles of citrus groves, we were greeted by a landscape of flat grassy fields accented with trees and grazed by cows (each accompanied by its own cattle egret, it seemed). That is, until we passed the property line of Myakka River State Park. On one side of the park boundary was bare, almost empty land, and on the other was lush palm and oak forests like those that I fell in love with at Highlands Hammock State Park.
Myakka River State Park isn’t all lush forest – it’s a massive park that encompasses everything from forests to wetlands and prairie ecosystems, and our visit would feature a treetop walk, a boat tour, and even some amateur birding.
After we arrived in the campground and took a look at our site, we drove down the park road to check out the locations of the canopy walk, trailheads, cafe/tours/picnic area, and the birding boardwalk.
There was enough time before sunset to walk to the canopy walk, so we checked it out. The canopy walk is a suspension bridge 25 feet in the air that places you at a level where you can see into the branches of the trees around you. I was delighted that the trees I was seeing were oak trees, whose plant-covered trunks and branches I had found so amazing at Highlands Hammock SP. Here I saw the ferns and air plants up close.
At the end of the bridge was a tower that rose a total of 74 feet above the ground. While George hung out below with the dogs, I climbed the tower to discover that the timing was (accidentally) perfect – the sun was setting over an ocean of palm fronds, and I had a front row seat.
Watching the sunset from the tower reminded me of watching sunsets from the Catfish Fire Tower on the Appalachian Trail back home.
The next day we signed up for an afternoon boat tour on the lake. We figured that it would focus on some element of the park’s ecology, and it wasn’t long before the captain/tour guide made it clear that it was all about alligators. We motored along to the side of the lake where the gator viewing would be best and were entertained (?) by the interesting commentary. (Maybe it wasn’t in good taste to tell the story about a child getting attacked by a gator at Disney…) But it was a nice day, and the sunlight sparkled on the water as we spotted lots of alligators along the shore.
I was surprised to see that birds weren’t afraid to approach the gators and that the alligators themselves didn’t seem interested in herons or spoonbills for lunch. Our guide explained that birds aren’t worth the effort for the gators, so the gators don’t try to eat them. The park actually is a popular place for migrating birds and has a viewing boardwalk for bird observation.
The lake was shallow, and the boat used water jets instead of propellers in order to protect any manatees that might be in the water. That got me hoping that we’d see a manatee, but we weren’t lucky enough on the boat tour. We took a day trip to Oscar Sherer State Park the next day and found out that manatees are often seen in the creek there, so I spent a good deal of time peering into the creek waters at every opportunity in what came to be known as “Manatee Watch 2019.”
Manatee Watch was unsuccessful though, and we returned to Myakka River State Park, where we were camping for a few days. We revisited the canopy walk and did some hiking on the trails and saw lots of wildlife just from the main park road, including birds, alligators, deer, and even wild hogs. Unfortunately, the hogs root around in the dirt and destroy vegetation, and we saw their negative effects in every part of the park. I’d be amazed if any new trees or plants can grow. There were numerous cages set up to capture them, but the guide on the boat tour said that through trapping, the park can only manage to maintain the numbers rather than deplete them.
On our last day at Myakka River, I visited the birding observation spot while a volunteer bird expert was there to answer questions and offer tips on birding. He was set up with a large scope focused on some white pelicans across the water that were wintering in the park, so I trained my binoculars in that direction. I’ve always loved how awkward and prehistoric pelicans can look when sitting or walking while also looking unbelievably graceful when flying. These pelicans were bright white with black-tipped wings and were floating in a large group together.
Then the unexpected happened, when the bird expert walked over to offer me some advice. He asked if he could see my binoculars and then tried to readjust them. I was speechless for a moment as he pulled the barrels apart so that they would be too wide for my eyes, but I caught him just before he spun the diopter (the dial on the right eyepiece that lets you adjust for the vision differences between both eyes) that had been tuned to my eyeglass prescription. He assumed that I didn’t know how to use binoculars. Dear reader, mansplaining is real.
When I had my fill of pelicans and all of the other birds that I could see perfectly through my binoculars, I met George and the dogs in the parking lot to continue on to the next destination of our trip. We had enjoyed Mayakka River SP’s very nice campground facilities and were beginning to see that all of the Florida state parks had great facilities with nice shower houses and laundry machines, but we finally decided to make our way to the Florida Keys. Until this time, we had been unsure about our itinerary, since I was hoping to meet up with friends in late January or early February to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Trying to work that into this trip just didn’t seem feasible though, so I decided to save that for a trip of its own.
So we left Myakka River State Park and headed south, as always, toward the next adventure.