When you think of Sarasota County, you may envision our sparkling white sandy beach, spectacular nightly sunsets, and thriving arts and cultural events. But our area is more than just a beachside destination – it’s also a nature lover’s paradise. With thousands of unspoiled nature preserves and wetlands, Sarasota offers a bevy of eco-friendly attractions along the “Florida Wild and Scenic Myakka River.”
The 60-mile waterway stretches through three counties, winding and weaving its way from Manatee County, arching its way through protected areas in East Sarasota before emptying into Charlotte Harbor.
From horseback riding along the Myakka River to diving into the depths of a natural mineral spring, I discovered a few of the natural attractions to enjoy on a weekend getaway or a daylong excursion with the family.
Myakka River State Park
My first stop along the river is Myakka River State Park, one of the state’s oldest protected areas. Located off State Road 72, the 58-square mile park is home to a variety of Florida wildlife that lives and thrives in the wetlands, prairies, natural hammocks and pinelands. It’s not unusual to spot wandering panthers, alligators, wild turkeys hogs, and other critters crossing your path.
The entire park is 14-miles roundtrip, making it the perfect place to bike, bird-watch, and hike the walking trails. One of the must-do nature walks is the Canopy Walk and Tower, a walkway that gives visitors a bird’s eye view above the majestic trees. Towering 74 feet off the ground, the tower is the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway is suspended 25 feet off the ground, with a bridge length of 85 feet, so the climb is not for the faint of heart. The bridge is limited to four walkers at a time, and you will feel the bridge sway under the weight. My family enjoyed the thrill of the treetop view and spotting new bird nests that we climbed the tower three times!
Take a different viewpoint of the lake and river areas aboard the Airboat tour, or if you prefer a slower pace, board the tram safari. Both tours sell out fast, so be sure to check with the park rangers and purchase tickets early! After spotting more than 30 different state license plates from around the country – and a few Canadian visitors - locals and visitors are taking advantage of the natural wonders in our backyard.
For a nighttime view under the stars, the park hosts a calendar of outdoor events. Bring a blanket and a picnic dinner, or purchase specialties from The Pink Gator Café like hand-breaded gator bites and homemade alligator stew.
Myakka State Forest
Continue along the river into the Myakka State Forest that is divided into two tracts. Big Slough (also called Myakkahatchee Creek) drains into the Myakka while the western section holds the headwaters of Rock Creek, which becomes a part of the Charlotte Harbor estuarine system.
The natural canopy of the forest is a perfect habitat for several species of birds while the cool, tranquil waters offer fishing enthusiasts a bounty of landing snook, large mouth bass and snapper to reel in. The forest edge lies along the southern end of the Great Florida Birding Trail, home to hundreds of species including the rare burrowing owl, snail kite and wading birds. Expert watchers will spot migratory birds like yellow-billed cuckoos that raise their young here during the spring and summer.
Deer Prairie Creek
Peaceful and serene, Deer Prairie Creek lies at the southern of Sarasota County spread over 10,128 acres. While most people visit to explore the 75 miles of unpaved trails by hiking, walking or biking, I explored Deer Prairie on horseback.
I began my adventure at the trailhead located at the entrance of Deer Prairie Creek. Our group of five riders met Jimmy, who transports his horses from his farm in Parrish. At first match, my horse, Rowdy, didn’t seem to match his name. Docile and friendly, he rekindled my love of horseback riding immediately while holding his reins and stroking his brown and white colored flank.
Saddled up and ready, Jimmy lead our group through the prairie, punctuated only with the sounds of the wind whistling through the trees. Jimmy, who has spent six seasons giving daily tours to locals and visitors, shared his love of horses and riding the natural lands. He guided us along the 22 miles of wooded trails and small streams left by the recent heavy rains. Part of the trail borders the Myakka River, where I spotted paddlers and boaters enjoying the sparkling waters. The beauty of Florida’s natural preserve gives riders the opportunity to view a part of unspoiled lands, matched with the silence of an area far removed from crowds and development along the coastline.
The horses enjoyed the casual trot as much as the riders, as we spotted wild hogs and other critters. When the trail opened up to a wide field, Rowdy lived up to his name and took off a gallop that left me breathless at the end. It was a symbolic finish to my adventurous ride through the prairie.
After my ride, I worked up an appetite for a hearty lunch at the Snook Haven Riverfront Restaurant. Located inside Snook Haven Park in Venice, this eatery is popular with locals and visitors who embrace the fish camp’s old Florida charm and live entertainment. Signature dishes include the Smoked Pulled Pork taco and the Blackened Catfish Sandwich. The restaurant also offers kayak and canoe rentals and a boat launch area along the Myakka River.
Warm Mineral Springs
Since the 1950s, Warm Mineral Springs has drawn underwater explorers and world-renowned researchers to this national registered historic attraction. As Florida’s only naturally formed warm water mineral spring, the waters have been a source of discovery for archeologists discovering ancient relics. In 1973, divers uncovered the remains of an almost perfectly preserved man, presumed to be around 10,000 years old!
A source of rejuvenation and relaxation for generations, the mineral waters attracts swimmers who come to enjoy the waters that maintain a constant temperature of 87-degrees. The spring, which reaches depths of nearly 250 feet, discharges nine million gallons of water each day, refilling every two hours. The dense minerals are the highest concentration of any spring in the United States, providing buoyancy that amazes swimmers. A lush green lawn adorned with Adirondack chairs and tables surrounds the waters, making it a perfect place for a morning swim and a picnic lunch.