Going with the Flow: Many Ways to Experience the “Wild and Scenic” Myakka RiverMay 10, 2022 06:57PM ● By BETH LUBERECKI
Maybe you’re paddling a canoe past a lush, tropical landscape, taking in the view from a trail that winds through a tree-filled park, or just enjoying a bite to eat at a table by the water. No matter how you experience the Myakka River, the phrase “Old Florida” probably comes to mind.
All this well-preserved natural beauty makes it easy to see why the Florida Legislature designated a 34-mile stretch of the Myakka River as a Florida Wild and Scenic River. “One need not be on it but for 15 minutes to understand why it has received such a high recognition,” says Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community leadership at Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, Florida. “It is truly spectacular. You can go for miles and miles on the Myakka and continuously see near-pristine landscapes.”
Thaxton knows of what he speaks. The fifth-generation Floridian grew up in Sarasota County and spent 12 years as a Sarasota County commissioner, where he helped usher through a number of environmental protection initiatives. “The Myakka River is just so beautiful,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the state of Florida.”
Originating in Manatee County and ending at Charlotte Harbor, the waterway is easy for people both to take in and to take to, whether on foot, in a canoe or kayak, on a tour boat, or at an outdoor table at a riverfront restaurant. A good place to start is at Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks.
The park encompasses 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands, which can be explored on foot, bicycle, and horseback, as well as from above the treetops via a lofty canopy walkway. “There is so much diversity at the park,” says Paula Benshoff, who worked at the park as a ranger and land-management specialist for 33 years and wrote the book Myakka. “And everything is always changing with the seasons.”
The Myakka River runs through the site, offering a picturesque background for wildlife watching and a great place for canoeing and kayaking. If you don’t have your own watercraft, you can rent canoes and kayaks from the park’s Myakka Outpost.
Those who would rather have someone else at the helm can take a guided boat tour of the river’s Upper Myakka Lake to view the postcard-worthy landscape and all kinds of wildlife. Visitors often spot alligators sunning on the shore or swimming alongside the boat; sightings of herons, anhingas, and other birds are common. “The Myakka has been well known for its bird life for more than 100 years,” says Benshoff.
Farther south, as the river winds through the Venice area, there are lots of places to observe and admire its almost primordial appearance, since so much of the land surrounding the waterway has been protected from development. This section of the river is “virtually unspoiled,” says Thaxton. “It looks very much the way it did when aboriginals paddled the same waters over 1,000 years ago. So you’re seeing something very hard to find in our region of Florida.”
The water is a rich brown color, not from dirt or pollution but because of tannins from decomposing vegetation. Spanish moss–covered live oaks tower overhead, palm trees arch out over the water, and ferns line the riverbank. Herons prowl the shoreline in search of food, turtles sun on rocks or tree branches, and alligators slowly emerge from beneath the surface.
That’s the kind of scene hikers can encounter from the trails at Venice’s Sleeping Turtles (the north portion), Deer Prairie Creek, and Jelks preserves. Much of the land lining both sides of the river here is located in one of these sites where nature still runs wild, helping the Myakka keep its back-in-time appearance.
You don’t have to be an active, outdoorsy type to enjoy the river. Venice’s much-loved Snook Haven restaurant occupies prime real estate on the river’s edge, where diners can order up some tasty barbecue and cold beer in a decidedly down-home setting. The full-service portion of the restaurant features umbrella-topped tables on a riverfront deck and indoor seating set up under a mounted giant gator named Big Hank, who was once pulled from the waterway right outside. Those looking for something more casual can order at the front window and grab a seat at a picnic table near the stage where live bands often perform.
If a meal here does inspire further exploration, rental canoes and kayaks are available at Snook Haven, and Logan River Tours' pontoon boat departs from right outside the restaurant for one-hour tours of the river. Guides offer information about the natural setting, point out interesting flora and fauna, and tell tales of how the river served as a location for Tarzan and other movies. It seems even Hollywood took note when it came across something as special as the Myakka River.
Beth Luberecki is a Nokomis, Florida–based freelance writer who is a frequent contributor to TOTI Media. Learn more about her at bethluberecki.com.
IF YOU GO
10201 S. Tamiami Trail and 7001 Forbes Trail (North Entrance),
2300 N. River Road, Venice
Logan River Tours
5000 E. Venice Avenue, Venice
Myakka River State Park
13208 State Road 72, Sarasota
Sleeping Turtles Preserve North
3462 Border Road, Venice
5000 E. Venice Avenue, Venice