LAKE SARASOTA, Fla. - On the Trail (Hiking & Backpacking)
Most trails follow the forest floor. If you are lucky you might see a deer, hog, maybe a wild turkey or two. But if you look up, you will see another world waiting to be discovered. The forest canopy, or treetops, used to be the domain of biologists who studied the insects, plants and amphibians in this ecosystem above the ground.
Thanks to the Myakka Canopy Walkway, anybody can get a bird's eye view of the forest. The elevated boardwalk walkway, 85 feet long and suspended 25 feet above the ground, is the highlight of any trip to this state park.
Make sure you take the time to climb the tower at the end of the suspension bridge. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the top but is well worth the effort.
Bird's eye view
Standing 80 feet above the subtropical forest floor, the swamps and hardwood hammocks don't look quite so hot and buggy. Still sweating from the short hike and climb, two kids in tow, the gentle breeze makes me forget it's the dead of summer. But that's the beauty of the Canopy Walkway. Even a short visit will leave you with an elevated perspective.
When most folks visit the park, they head straight for the concession stand, where they book a ride on one of the world's two largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal, and take pictures of the anhingas (a water bird) and alligators. It is easy to drive right by this one-of-a-kind nature trail.
The park has plenty to do…the Myakka (a Seminole word whose meaning has been lost to history) River is one the best canoeing/kayaking rivers in southwest Florida.
Bird watchers, backpackers and day hikers also come for the 39 miles of nature trails that wind through the pine forests and prairies. But no matter what activity brings you here, be sure to pull over after the bridge, near the sign that reads "Canopy Walkway."
Gazing down on the tops of the palms, pines and oak trees, the forest looks like a monstrous vegetable field. The Tree Foundation, the non-profit organization that helped construct the $100,000 canopy walkway, looks at it another way:
"Forests are like gigantic stands of lollipops. Since plant sugars are manufactured high overhead, organisms that depend on those sugars, such as insects and birds, are also far from the ground."
Amateur botanists love the state park's canopy walkway because it offers a chance to view epiphytes or "air plants" at eye level. Most Florida schoolchildren learn about Spanish moss at an early age. According to legend, this long, stringy epiphyte received its name because it resembled the beards favored by the conquistadores.
While epiphytes grow on other plants, they generally don't harm their host tree. In fact, they get all their food and water from the surrounding environment, i.e., dew, rainwater, rotting leaves, insect excrement.
Spiders and snakes
The canopy walkway is a great educational tool for adults and older kids, but if you want to keep a kid's attention, be prepared to show them something with teeth and/or fangs. After entering the park, you don't have to drive far to see alligators. Pull over after the first bridge and scan the water.
Head over to the lake, and you might even see a banded water snake, or perhaps, a water moccasin. But by far, my favorite Myakka critter is the not-so-elusive golden silk orb-weaver, also known as the banana spider. Hike any of Myakka's trails early in the morning and you are bound to get a face full of yellow spider's web.
You can find more information on park hours and pictures of the trail at www.myakkariver.org .
By Terry Tomalin, Tampa Bay Times Outdoors Editor