Happy Trails

5 Hiking Adventures for Every Level

Here in Southwest Florida, there's a trail for every kind of hiker.

By Ilene Denton April 5, 2016

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1 For Hikers with Disabilities

Oscar Scherer State Park’s award-winning Lester Finley Barrier-Free Nature Trail—the first ADA-compliant hiking trail in the state park system when it was built by the all-volunteer Friends of Oscar Scherer in 1996—is a half-mile path meandering through a shady hardwood hammock along South Creek. Easily traversed by wheelchair, the trail is so popular among Oscar Scherer’s 220,000 annual visitors that the Friends have created a second, wheelchair-accessible Lake Osprey Trail. “We want everybody to be able to experience the wonderful outdoors, no matter your ability,” says park manager Tony Clements. floridastateparks.org/park/oscar-scherer

2 For the Urban Hiker

County-owned Lemon Bay Park and Environmental Center has well-used meeting rooms and a pavilion, but its little-known nature trails provide entry to a whole other world. The 210-acre park has 1.7 miles of shoreline on the Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve, with a black mangrove forest and huge slash and longleaf pines. Its proximity to Englewood’s West Dearborn Street shopping-dining district makes it an ideal urban hike. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagle nests. scgov.net/parks/pages/lemonbay.aspx  

3 A Hike to Tweet About

A fave hike for birders among the 39 miles of loop trails at Myakka River State Park is Mossy Hammock Trail, a fairly easy two-plus-mile triangular trail with a leafy tree canopy to keep it cool. The dense oak hammock shelters lots of birds—wild turkeys, warblers, hawks, kits, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, an occasional northern harrier, and tree swallows in some of the open areas, sometimes thousands of them at a time. A word of caution: The trail does flood in summer. floridastateparks.org/park/myakka-river

4 For Family Hikers

A pleasant family hike that ends in lunch at nearby Snook Haven? Its proximity to the rustic riverside restaurant, a five-minute drive away, is just one of the many pleasures of Jelks Preserve, one of Sarasota County’s first environmental lands acquisitions, purchased back in 1999. Cars rush by along River Road, but enter this lush 614-acre tract, with its eight miles of wide, well-marked trails meandering along the wild and scenic Myakka River, and you’re quietly one with nature. The kids can’t get lost, either; sooner or later all trails lead to the river or River Road. scgov.net/naturallands/pages/jelkspreserve.aspx

5 For the Hardy Hiker

The 6,400-acre Deer Prairie Creek Preserve, between Venice and North Port, offers a whopping 84 miles of networked trails for the hardy hiker. There’s no ranger station or restroom (port-o-lets only), and it’s not paved or elevated, so you will have some water crossings after a rain. The preserve’s land manager Mike Barker recommends the trail that follows the Myakka River. “That’s the wild and scenic portion of the river,” he says, “and it’s very scenic.” And good news for the casual hiker: They’ll be creating some easier 1-mile loop trails soon. 

The Geocaching Craze

With GPS, geocaching turns hikers into treasure hunters.

Want to participate in the world’s largest outdoor treasure hunt? If you have a smartphone and a sense of adventure, geocaching may be for you.

Geocaching is an outgrowth of GPS technology. Players hunt for hidden objects using GPS coordinates posted on a website. According to geocaching.com, the sport’s main clearinghouse, more than 2.7 million geocaches have been placed in parks and other public places all over the world, and 15 million geocachers are out there searching for them. To start looking for at least a few of them, go to geocaching.com and download your free account to your smartphone. When we plugged in Sarasota as our location and used a 10-mile perimeter as our boundary, we were astounded to find dozens of geocaches listed nearby, one as close as a quarter-mile. You enter the coordinates of the geocache you want to find on your smartphone, and let your phone’s GPS function lead the way.

The “caches” are usually marked boxes that contain a small prize and a logbook, but some come cleverly disguised as a birdhouse, bottle or even wooden bird. Enter your geocache nickname and date in the logbook and take the prize—but remember to leave one in its place.

Geocaching.com even offers GeoTours of places as disparate as Helena, Mont., where 38 geocaches are hidden, and Williamson, W. Va., where there are 150. The tour in Manatee County takes you to 15 caches hidden in popular birding areas.

Venice nature photographer Rosalie Coddington and her husband, Barry (geocache monikers R&B Trailwalkers), discovered the sport when they bumped into a pair of elderly geocachers while hiking in Myakka River State Park. A few weeks later, while hiking in another park, Rosalie came across a geocache—an old ammo can—in the base of a tree. “Once you find one, even if it’s by accident, it’s so cool,” she says. “We signed up right away, and now I’m nuts for it.” (How nuts? Their online profile says they’ve found 3,138 geocaches in just three years.)

Of the 300-plus geocaches hidden in Myakka River State Park, the Coddingtons have placed 36. One is hidden near the Canopy Walk nature trail. (Hint: Look for a rusty old wind chime someone hung on a walk.) “You have to use a little tomfoolery to find them,” she says. They enjoy geocache get-togethers at area restaurants and twice-yearly campouts in state parks, where it’s typical for a couple hundred fellow cachers to attend. One is coming up in November at Myakka.

 “We’ve geocached in Florida, Georgia, New York state, Pennsylvania, New Jersey,” says Rosalie. “Wherever we go, even to a new doctor’s office, we always look to see if there’s one nearby.”

The sport is fun, she says, but it’s the people they meet who make it extra-special. “I have met people from every walk of life, from countries all over the world. Everyone has stories to tell.”

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