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Sunday Favorites: Myakka State Park

Cabins at the park are available for rent.

Eastern Sarasota County is a whole different world.

In terms of distance, its not too far removed from the beaches, condos and overpriced tourist traps of Siesta Key and St. Armand's Circle, but worlds away in terms of feel and natural beauty.

A quick day trip to Myakka River State Park with my boyfriend Drew proved this, as the park features 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pine lands. It was almost a lark when we decided to go; we had just finished exercising at one of the county parks and we thought it would be fun.

A fifteen minute drive on State Road 72 brought us to the park's gates. It was a Sunday, so it was busy, but we quickly gained entrance after we paid our $6 fee and found a host of maps and guides to help us plan our day.

A scenic seven mile dive winds its way through the park, giving visitors access to all of the attractions, including 39 miles of hiking trails that provide entry to the park's remote interior.

We stayed mostly to the seven mile drive because we weren't really prepared to hit the back country, but even the paved drive proved to have its own easily visible wildlife. We saw four alligators (each one 8 feet or larger), two gaggles of roseate spoonbills, two white tailed deer and a host of other birds.

We checked out the five furnished cabins the park offers for rent (you can't even touch these things in the winter, so make your reservations well in advance); we climbed the canopy walkway and tower - one of only 14 such structures in the continental United States - and we checked the "outpost", which served food that was far better than you'd expect, including tons of locally brewed craft beers on tap (the gator stew was particularly excellent, by the way).

A treetop bridge at the park is one of 17 in the nation.

The park not only represents a great chance for people to get to know the "Real Florida", as the state park slogan suggests, but also ties directly into the history of Sarasota which, by Florida standards, is relatively young. The city, as it's come to be known in the modern era, was founded in 1900.

The city's first mayor A.B. Edwards decided that a natural area needed to be set aside, and started working with a local fish and wild game protection association to make it a reality.

The park really began to take shape in 1934, after the state had foreclosed on 6,000 acres in the Myakka lower lake region. Edwards then persuaded the trustees of a local improvement fund to buy an additional 17,000 acres, while another 1,900 acres were donated by the estate of Bertha Palmer, a woman who helped to transform the once sleepy town of Sarasota into a winter destination.

With thousands of acres of land to work with, the Civilian Conservation Corps was brought in to tame the wild, to make it accessible to people. Established in the 1930's by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his "New Deal" program, the corp acted as a way to provide jobs during the Great Depression by enlisting single men aged 18-25.

Under the watchful eye of a man named C.H. Schaeffer, who was put in charge of the Corps, they began building roads and bridges and cabins. They dug drainage ditches, cut trees and underbrush.

Crews slept in huts while they built the permanent structures using all native materials. The sides of the buildings were made of palmetto logs, roof shingles were cut from blocks of cypress and fireplaces were built of stone from Manatee County, records show.

The food at Myakka State Park is great, especially the gator stew. 

Between 1934 - 1941, the CCC, as it came to be known, employed between 140 to 210 people at once. For most of those guys suffering the effects of the depression, the work at Myakka represented steady employment, access to health care and meals. They also had the chance at ongoing education and recreation.

The men labored until 1941, when the park was finally finished and dedicated. The CCC helped to build parks across the country, making the Myakka River part of their legacy.

Many of their efforts still stand today, including the five log cabins that can be rented by park visitors. Of course, many modern amenities are available now that were several generations ago, including air conditioning, microwaves and refrigerators.

The park, which is visited by thousands of people each year, is a connection to not only Florida's history, but also America's, as the CCC was an integral part of it's glory. We plan on going back, ready to hike some of the nature trails, maybe take a boat out on the large and beautiful Upper Myakka Lake. We'll be better prepared next time we go, but it's comforting knowing that such a beautiful, historical and enjoyable park is just minutes from our home.

One thing is for sure, we'll continue to enjoy one Florida's oldest state parks, and I recommend you do the same.


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