Length: 3.4 miles
Lat-Long: 26.72170, -81.651391
Type: network of loops
Fees: per-hour or per-day fee, payable at automated machine
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
The park is open from 8 AM to sunset. If you’re hiking with small children, stick to the River Hammock and Overlook Trails. Only the Overlook Trail is accessible. Trails near the river may flood in times of high water. There are separate trail systems for equestrians and mountain bikers.
From I-75 exit 143, drive 3.3 miles east on SR 78 (Bayshore Rd). The road ends at T. Turn left onto SR 31, and continue 1.2 miles to CR 78. Turn right on CR 78. After 6.6 miles, you pass the Northside Trails entrance (for equestrians and bicyclists) Keep alert for the main entrance on the right at 7.2 miles. The trails start near the restrooms.
Starting from the parking lot, follow the sidewalk down to the left to the trailhead sign for the River Hammock Trail. You immediately plunge into the darkness of a palm hammock, surrounded by tall cabbage palms draped with goldfoot ferns. Live oaks provide a dense canopy, with each oak limb swaddled in a thick growth of wild pine and resurrection fern. Shiny-leaved tropical plants dominate the understory, including marlberry, myrsine, and wild coffee. The dark, rich soil squishes under your feet.
Passing a side trail to the campground at 0.2 mile, the trail continues past a bench to a fork—the beginning of the loop portion of the trail. Take the right fork. You walk down a corridor of tall cabbage palms as the trail curves to the right and the canopy of shrubs drops down low. The trail curves to the left past a bench as you duck under the pink roots of a grapevine, dangling like a beaded curtain from a swinging vine. Off to your right, you can see a bright open area beyond the forest—the Caloosahatchee River.
After you cross a bridge over a sluggish stream, you come to a trail junction at 0.6 mile. If you’re continuing back on the River Hammock Trail, continue straight. But if you’re up for following the more adventuresome route – where you might get your feet wet – turn right. This short connector takes you down to the Shoreline Trail, meeting it at a T intersection. Off to the left is the park’s kayak launch. Turn right to follow the Shoreline Trail down the river. The footpath meanders along the river’s edge but provides few direct views of the water. As it curves to the left, you get a brief glimpse of the river before the trail drops back down into the grasses.
Climbing up and over spoil banks, the trail winds back out towards the water, still hidden from view by the tall grass. Wading across a swampy drainage, you continue into a long stretch of sawgrass. The trail turns back out towards the river, where the outflow from a freshwater marsh pours across the footpath. Skirting a marshy puddle filled with elephant ears, the trail continues along the river past small pond cypresses. After 1 mile, you reach the observation deck and the Overlook Trail. Take a moment to look out over the velvety-blue waves, down the unspoiled shoreline on the northern bank.
Turn around and follow the solid shell-and-clay footpath of the Overlook Trail past the picnic table and into a dark palm hammock. You walk under dangling citrus fruit, sour wild grapefruits that provide both raccoons and insects a tasty treat. When you emerge from the forest behind the restrooms, turn left and follow the sidewalk down through the picnic pavilion to the parking lot.
Turn left again and walk down the sidewalk to the “Palmetto Path” trailhead sign. During the wet season, this portion of the hike may involve some stretches of shin-deep wading, and park personnel will post a warning at the trailhead. Don’t let a little water get you down—it’s a pleasant loop through the wildest portion of the park. You enter a wet pine flatwoods, where a small herd of white-tailed deer lives. The path winds through pine and palm flatwoods with scattered sand live oaks— look up in the limbs of the oaks for giant bromeliads in bloom.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the trail junction for the loop in the Palmetto Path. Stay to the right, following the broad path through the pine flatwoods, skirting an oak hammock. The trail curves left under a large oak furry in epiphytes, and continues through a mix of cabbage palms and oaks, passing another bench. Turning to the left and away from an old trail, the footpath meanders up to a bench along a sluggish tannic stream piped under the path. After the next bench, you reach a fork in the trail at 2 miles. If you turn left, this shortcut cuts off 0.6 mile from the hike and avoids the swampiest part of the trail. Turn right to continue on the outer loop.
Heading down a corridor of saw palmettos, you emerge into scrubby flatwoods, with Chapman oaks and gallberry rising up between the palmetto fronds. The slash pines overhead provide little shade. Passing the back side of a sign that says “Horses and Bicycles Prohibited,” you come out to a T intersection at 2.1 miles. Turn left and follow this jeep trail along the swiftly flowing ditch. Keep alert for the left turn at 2.3 miles. The trail enters a dark hydric hammock with standing water. Off to the left, you can see an open space between the trees, where the river lies. Depending on the time of year, this portion of the footpath may be under water.
Rising up out of the swamp, you pass a palmetto icon sign, and the trail turns to the left under towering cabbage palms. The trail rises up into the pine flatwoods to the junction with the shortcut trail, at 2.6 miles. Keep right to stay on the outer loop, and you pass another bench. Turning back into the hydric hammock, the trail has a slight amount of elevation, just enough to keep it dry. As you continue down the dark corridor through the hydric hammock, the trail becomes a narrow track bounded by tall grasses and casearweed. Rising back up into pine flatwoods, you meet the beginning of the loop at 3.1 miles. Turn right to head back to the parking area, completing your hike after 3.4 miles.
0.6 River Junction Trail junction
1.0 observation deck on river
1.5 Palmetto Path junction
2.0 fork in trail
2.1 T intersection
2.6 junction Shortcut Trail
3.1 end of loop