There are lots of reasons you should visit Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park, located in Southwest Florida off of Interstate 75. But we’re guessing the real reason you want to visit is for the alligators.
That’s evident from the moment you drive a couple miles back from the main entrance toward the Myakka Outpost, during which you reach a short bridge area where people congregate because they’ve spotted a gator (or two or three). A Japanese tourist tries to take an alligator selfie with the gator she spots (no worries, she keeps her distance). She and her companions see a man in a kayak coming toward them. “Oh no, he’s going to get near the alligator!” she exclaims.
Somehow, he kayaked by unscathed.
What Is Myakka River State Park?
Myakka River State Park was developed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is one of Florida’s oldest parks. Its 58 square miles offers nearly 39 miles of hiking trails, camping, biking, canopy walking, scenic driving, tram tours, and gator tasting at its restaurant, the Pink Gator Cafe.
The park is beautiful in any season and has lots to explore but as mentioned before, the gators are the big draw. When the weather is warm, you can see dozens of them (together or separately) sunning themselves or gliding along in the river. The park attracts visitors from around the world who are fascinated by these prehistoric creatures, and they may occasionally wonder if the gator is going to pounce at them.
The truth is, they’re probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Unless provoked, alligators seem to want to keep to themselves. Give them a wide berth, and use a telephoto lens on your camera or the telephoto on your phone to get great shots.
5 Things to to Do at Myakka River State Park
So, let’s say you’re ready to visit Myakka State Park in Sarasota. Pay your $6 entrance fee ($6 per car, fees vary if you’re on a bike or a tour bus) at the ranger station. What are some things you can do there? Here’s the scoop.
- Take a boat tour. The flat-bottom boat will take you out on Upper Myakka Lake, where you’ll feel the breeze on the water. If you’re OK with the price, we think this is the best way to get an overview of the park and some fun banter about the park’s history and wildlife, provided by the captain. You will likely see alligators as well. Boat tours last about an hour and are $20 per adult and $12 per child over age 3. Boat tours are offered five times a day (weather permitting) between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but are more frequent during busier times. Tours are first come, first served. No reservations are accepted in advance. For more details about the boat tours, read one of our previous articles.
- Catch a tram. If you’d rather stick to land, then you could do a tram tour. The trams at Myakka State Park will give you the lowdown on the park, just like the boat rides will do. Your chances of seeing an alligator may be less, but we did spot a deer and lots of birds during a previous tram ride. Tram tours are also $20 for adults and $12 for kids and last about an hour. If you have your heart set on a tram tour, check with the park in advance. We went on a busy day and were told they weren’t doing the trams that day. The tram rides also may get canceled due to high water levels on the trails, which can happen during Florida’s wet summers.
- Take a hike. Literally. Put on some good waking shoes, and hike Myakka River State Park’s many walking trails. In fact, there are more than 38 miles of trails to explore, and they’re maintained by the Florida Trail Association. At one trail not far from the ranger station, you can climb to the top of a tower and take in the view from a canopy walkway (the hike is about 45 minutes roundtrip). If you park near the Myakka Outpost, which is also where you buy tickets for the boat and tram tours, you’ll find lots of trails you can explore. Here’s a more detailed map of biking and walking trails. There also are 12 miles of equestrian trails where you’ll feel like a real pioneer (here’s a map). Whether you’re on foot, bike, or horse, check at the ranger station to find out which trails may be flooded out or overgrown during the summer or early fall.
- 4. Check out in-season special attractions. One of our favorites in the spring if you’re up for some walking is a visit to Deep Hole, which requires a special permit (30 are given a day) but can enable you to potentially see lots and lots of alligators together during mating season. If you catch it at the right time, it’s a photographer’s dream. The two-mile walk to Deep Hole takes you through dry prairie with little shade. We visited once and apparently hit it at the wrong time, as we barely saw any gators. During another visit, we saw many more. Just remember, it’s not the hike for young kids who get tired easily as there’s nowhere else to really go except staying on the trail. Here’s an article about our previous visit to Deep Hole. Then, in late spring (usually in May), the park gets filled with yellow wildflowers called Coreopsis leavenworthii and Coreopsis floridana. As you can imagine, they’re great for photos for your own enjoyment or on your Instagram feed. They’re easy to access as all you have to do is pull over to the side of the road while driving in the park. We saw some women all dressed up to take pics among the photos, walking in their spring dresses right past cage-like wild hog traps (wild hogs are a nuisance in the Florida wilderness).
- 5.Check out the Pink Gator Cafe and Myakka Gifts & Boutique. If you want to look at everything alligator themed (even if some of it is made in China), then visit the Pink Gator Cafe and the souvenir shop located at the Myakka Outpost. You can also try gator stew or gator bites there or just get a refreshing drink after all of your exploration.
There’s lots more to do at Myakka River State Park–we’ve just shared some of our frequent choices over the years. In addition to what we’ve listed, you can:
–Launch a boat
–Go camping (they even have log cabins)
–Go canoeing or kayaking
–Use the mountain bike trail
–Bring a picnic
–Enjoy the playground
Some Final Tips for Your Visit to Myakka State Park
- Go early if you can. During prime tourist season (including around the Christmas holiday and the winter/spring), cars can get backed up at the ranger station to get in. Inside the park, it’ll feel a little more theme park-like during those busy times. You may not have the park to yourself if you’re there at its 8 am opening, but your chances are much better than if you go at noon.
- Bring bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, and water.
- Double check the pet policy. You can bring your favorite Fido to Myakka Park (including for camping in developed areas), but we’re guessing it’s best if you have a well-trained dog that stays on a leash and you can keep him or her away from shallow water.
- Make sure your GPS takes you to the main entrance off of SR-72. We once jauntily followed directions to the more isolated north gate, only to arrive and see that gate was only open on the weekends. It took us about a half hour to drive to the main gate.