An Alligator perched off Myakka River. Photo by Beth Luberecki
An Alligator perched off Myakka River. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Jelks Preserve.  Photo credit: Beth Luberecki
Jelks Preserve. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Gator skull up close on Logan River. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Gator skull up close on Logan River. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Snook Haven. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Snook Haven. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Snacks at Snook Haven. Photo by Beth Luberecki.
Snacks at Snook Haven. Photo by Beth Luberecki.

One wild ride through Venice, North Port and Englewood

Get back to nature with a drive along River Road – an “old Florida” journey of wide-open expanses.

Looking for some Old Florida–style outdoor adventure? A leisurely drive along River Road in Sarasota County offers everything from alligator sightings to waterfront camping. This stretch of road traveling through Venice, North Port, and Englewood remains undeveloped, which means you’ll find lots of wide-open expanses and plenty of ways to enjoy them.

Snook Haven

Get off I-75 at River Road and head to Snook Haven Park in Venice. This two-and-a-half-acre site sits on the Myakka River, designated by the state legislature a “wild and scenic river.” Visitors can fish from the shoreline or rent a canoe or kayak to take to the water themselves.

Don’t feel like paddling? Book a tour Logan River Tours at Snook Haven. The one-hour jaunts meander along the peaceful Myakka several days a week from November through May, offering up all kinds of fun facts about the tropical vegetation, local critters (like alligators and turtles), and the river’s use as a location for Tarzan movies and other films.

Snook Haven
Snook Haven

For lunch, head to the park’s namesake restaurant. Snook Haven serves up a smokehouse-style menu featuring pulled pork, chicken, and ribs along with Florida eats like fried gator bites. Diners can opt for full service at tables along the river and inside the restaurant. Or they can order from a window and sit at picnic tables by the outdoor stage, where live musicians perform almost daily, including the popular Gulf Coast Banjo Society on Thursdays.

If there wasn’t any gator on your plate during your meal, you’ll probably spot at least one swimming stealthily through the river. Or head inside the restaurant to check out Big Hank, a stuffed giant gator pulled from the waters right outside that serves as a sizable reminder of nature’s power.

After lunch, see what’s growing at the Garden Center at Hazeltine Nurseries, which might include everything from flowering plants and fruit trees to specimen palms and bamboo. The center hosts special events in the spring and fall with free demonstrations, talks, and kids’ activities.

Jelks Preserve

Jelks Preserve
Jelks Preserve

Then take a walk on the wild side at nearby Jelks Preserve. Eight miles of trails wander through scrubby flatwoods, oak hammocks, and pine flatwoods where you might spot hawks, woodpeckers, and other winged creatures. Animals like bobcats, deer, and wild hogs roam the 600-acre site. You’ll probably see plenty of evidence of the latter (they like to dig things up) and maybe footprints from the former (if not the animals themselves).

A three-mile outer loop trail provides tranquil glimpses of the Myakka River to those who take the oak-lined spurs to the water’s edge. Examine the epiphytes and red blanket lichen (a sign of good air quality) growing on the oaks as you head toward the river, then keep your eyes peeled for manatees and alligators once down by the water. If you don’t want to do the whole loop, there are lots of opportunities to shorten the hike along the way.

The time of year affects what visitors might experience at the preserve. During the summer rainy season, trails can get a bit overgrown. Seasonal marshes can also develop during the rainy season, creating spots where wildflowers bloom and herons, egrets, and other wading birds gather. Spring is a good time see flowering plants like the prairie iris, Carolina jessamine, and Walter’s viburnum.

Ramblers Rest

As you continue on River Road, you’ll pass Ramblers Rest RV Campground. The all-age, riverfront spot offers RV campsites and rental units along with amenities like a tennis court, swimming pool, playground, and boat ramp.

Just to north of U.S. 41, lots of new development will start popping up along River Road over the next several years as part of the 10,000-acre West Villages planned community straddling the cities of Venice and North Port. The West Villages will also encompass much of the land lining River Road south of U.S. 41, but for right now it’s a lot of scenic vistas filled with palm trees and other Florida foliage.

Myakka State Forest, Myakka River

Myakka State Forest
Myakka State Forest

To explore all that greenery, stop in at Myakka State Forest. The 8,592-acre site in the City of North Port is home to 300 kinds of plants and trees and more than 100 species of birds (including bald eagles and the Florida scrub jay). Hikers, bikers, and horseback riders make use of the marked recreational trails as well as miles of unmarked trails and roadways.

The forest is also a small-game hunting area managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Expect to see hunters there if you visit November 5 to December 11, 2016 and December 24, 2016 to January 15, 2017. The forest remains open for all activities during hunting season with lots of signage to alert all guests when hunting is taking place.

Several primitive campsites can be found throughout the forest, including one along the Myakka River that’s accessible by boat. Another site sits near a small fishing hole with a floating dock where you might have some alligators as neighbors.

If roughing it’s not your thing, you can enjoy the natural setting in a more manicured way at nearby Myakka Pines Golf Club. The semi-private, 27-hole course features Bermuda greens and contoured fairways and offers affordable rates.

Englewood

Englewood Sports Complex
Englewood Sports Complex

Stay on River Road and you’ll pass by the 136-acre Englewood Sports Complex, home to baseball, softball, and soccer fields along with other recreational amenities. River Road eventually turns into Dearborn Street, which will take you right into the heart of Englewood’s historic downtown area, a throwback to the Main Streets of yore.

Finish off your day in Olde Englewood Village, a great place to hunt for antiques and vintage goodies, purchase paintings, photos, and other pieces by Florida artists, and pick up jewelry, bags, and other gifts for yourself or friends back home. Then grab dinner and a drink at Mango Bistro or Vino Loco. These two stylish spots pour wines from around the world to pair with small plates, salads, and other well-done dishes. Pick a vintage to make a toast to a day of Old Florida outdoor fun.

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