SARASOTA HAS LONG BEEN DEFINED by its ultra-white sandy beaches and glittering sunsets. But just nine miles east of I-75, you’ll find an environment just as beautiful, an enormous swath of primal Florida that’s alluring, exotic—and sometimes savage.

Established in the 1930s, Myakka River State Park is Florida’s largest state park, sprawling over 58 square miles. Its 37,000 acres of unspoiled wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands teem with plant and animal life. The Wild and Scenic Myakka River runs through the park, its dark tannic waters flowing through bottomland swamp and freshwater marsh and spilling into lakes and sinkholes. Alligators, turtles and cottonmouths swim in the river. Herons, cranes and limpkins strut through its shallows, feeding in the muck. In the rainy season, the river rises and floods large swaths of the park; in the dry months, it shrinks and wildlife again lines its banks.

Many locals and visitors know the park at least a little. They’ve cruised the main north-south roadway, spotting alligators and deer. Many have taken a spin on the Upper Myakka Lake aboard the Gator Gal or Myakka Maiden airboats, or strolled the canopy walk suspension bridge. You can go home satisfied after any of those experiences. But only when you step away from the main attractions do the park’s enormity and beauty come into focus. You’ll discover a world that seems centuries away from the chatter and congestion of modern life. Bike or horseback ride through the vast, dry prairies, where service roads cut through gnarled landscapes of saw palmettos. Or venture to Deep Hole, a sinkhole where more than a hundred alligators can congregate in the spring. Camp. Fish. Kayak. Wherever you go, you’ll find seclusion and natural splendor. You can go a dozen times and not see everything.

“It’s a special place.” We kept hearing that as we worked on this story. We heard it from rangers and volunteers, river guides and tour operators, and park visitors from all across the country. And we learned that for ourselves as we left behind our cell phones and computers to hike, kayak and marvel at the park.

Go explore. We’ll help. 

In This Feature:

The Making of Myakka River State Park

Generosity, vision and the Great Depression all played a role.

11/29/2017 By Kay Kipling

Where and How to Camp at Myakka River State Park

From barebones basics to rustic comfort, find your site in the park.

11/29/2017 By Cooper Levey-Baker

Deep Hole is Home to Hundreds of Alligators

The park’s No. 1 attraction is a prehistoric predator.

11/29/2017 By Pam Daniel

What to Look For on Myakka's Canopy Walkway

The walkway is one of the park's most popular attractions.

11/29/2017 By Ilene Denton

Into Myakka's Flooded Forest

Here's what it's like to kayak through the park during the rainy season.

11/29/2017 By Cooper Levey-Baker

The Myth of the Skunk Ape

Legend has it that Myakka River State Park is home to the fearsome Skunk Ape.

11/29/2017 By Cooper Levey-Baker

Volunteers from All Over the Country Help Keep Myakka Running

Some are locals who sign up for a few hours or days a month; others—mainly retirees—come in their campers from all over the country and live in the park for months on end.

11/29/2017 By Pam Daniel and Kay Kipling