Hiking The Fab Four Trails Of The Fakahatachee Strand Preserve State Park: #1–The West Main

For my hike on the East Main Tram Trail, see: https://hooknfly.com/2023/01/26/hiking-the-fab-four-trails-of-the-fakahatchee-strand-preserve-state-park-2-the-east-main/

Late November 2022

Welcome to trekking through what the Miami Herald newspaper has called Florida’s best kept outdoor secret. Even on holiday weekends the preserve is rarely crowded, especially its trails. From its rare orchids to its extraordinary animals and unique landscape, the preserve is a special place. This series describing hikes in the preserve covers four of the main trails—the West Main, East Main, East Prairie, and South Tram that can be seen on the park map in the Overview section below.

The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve Is Located In SW Florida Near Everglades City

The Fakahatchee Strand, located in southwest Florida next to Everglades National Park, is a gentle wilderness, but it must be explored with care and caution. It is a place for ambling and observing, not rock’n rolling, rushing to set speed records. Hidden treasures and beauty abound. I hope you’ll enjoy these hikes, taking care to leave nothing behind but memories. And please consider joining me as a member of the Friends of the Fakahatchee, a wonderful non-profit organization that plays an essential role in protecting and interpreting the preserve. (Their website can be found at https://orchidswamp.org)

West Main Trail Overview

Location:  The turnout for the West Main trail is located about 4.3 miles northwest of the park entrance and headquarters on Janes Scenic Drive.

Difficulty/Length:  The trail, which follows a narrow two-track old logging road, is easy hiking and mostly flat with very little elevation gain from start to finish.

 

It is approximately 2.1 miles long from the gate to the prairie to the west.  It takes about 2.5 hours to hike through the Strand Swamp to the marl prairie and back but can easily take longer for the observant hiker. 

History/Highlights:  This trail follows an old tram road that was cleared when the cypress in the area was logged in the 1940s-1960s. 

Lush marsh vegetation featuring giant sword ferns, bald cypress, and beautiful wildflowers is the main attraction along with possible sighting of alligators, deer, bear, and numerous species of birds such as egrets and herons.  Lucky hikers may see the endangered Everglades Mink and Florida Panther.  Generally, the animals like the alligators are not aggressive, but should be respected and kept at a distance.

Essential gear:  Any time of year, but particularly from June through November, the trail can be muddy in spots and the vegetation covering the two-track trail dripping wet. These conditions call for long pants and long-sleeved shirts made of a fabric like nylon that will dry quickly as well as waterproof hiking boots.  I like my shirt or pants to have big pockets so I can grab my cell phone camera quickly.  During the winter dry months shorts may be okay, but the vegetation on the trail can be knee high in places and scratchy, especially for smaller children.   Don’t forget the bug repellant—the mosquitos and no-see-ums can be fierce, although less bothersome during the dry winter season, December through March.  I always carry a hiking staff as well as plenty of water.

Tips:  A good place to stop and soak in the scenery and environment is one of the many culverts that allows the Strand’s water to flow under the trail and continue its way to the Ten Thousand Islands in the Gulf. Let your eyes adjust to the dappled lighting of the swamp.  Slowly scan the forest and vegetation and you’ll be rewarded with views of flora and fauna you will miss if you hurry by.  

Some caveats. Before hitting the trail, make sure you tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back in cell phone range. Cell phone coverage in the park is spotty. I also carry a Garmin inReach emergency satellite phone as a backup. Keep an eye peeled for alligators that frequent the deeper water around the culverts, and don’t be tempted to go wading through the shallow swamp or sloughs that parallel and cross the trail without an experienced guide (Swamp tours are offered by Friends of the Fakahatchee).  You may soon find yourself waist deep in water and muck or coming face-to-face with a big alligator!  There is a good rest spot with a picnic table about 1.25 miles into the hike near a couple of private cabins (that are on private inholdings in the preserve).  This is a good point for a turnaround if you are with younger children.  The rest of the trail is less traveled and more overgrown.  Keep an eye out for vines hanging over the trail—some have nasty thorns.

A Brief History And Overview Of The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

At over 70,000 acres, the park is the state’s largest although it hosts only about 100,000 visitors a year, far less than others like much smaller Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys which sees over 700,000 annually. It is 20 miles long north to south and about 10 miles at its widest east to west.  However, the actual Fakahatchee Strand, the park’s namesake marshy central core where freshwater flows towards the Gulf of Mexico, is about 20 miles long by five miles wide. 

The preserve’s relative obscurity is due in large part to the fact that the park does comparatively little outreach to attract visitors, its primary mission being to protect the rare environment and its fauna and flora.  Nowhere will you find a visitors center even though this is the largest state park, although one is in the works   The park is world famous for orchids and rare vegetation like bromeliads and tropical epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants for support, but are not parasitic, getting water and food from the air. 

The park also is home to endangered species like the Florida Panther and Everglades Mink as well as a host of other critters ranging from scads of wading birds, ospreys, and hawks to diamondback terrapins, bobcats, river otter, bear, manatees, alligators, and crocodiles.  A skeleton staff of five work hard to protect the park. 

They are assisted by a remarkable group of volunteers called Friends of the Fakahatchee.  The organization is currently collaborating with the park to fund and build an interpretive pavilion on the Tamiami Trail at the Big Cypress Bend and open a visitors center near the park headquarters.  In addition to an interpretive display, the pavilion will feature a rain shelter, restrooms, and connections to a rebuilt boardwalk out into the preserve.

Work On New Facilities At The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Nears Completion

The history of the park is fascinating, both troubling and promising.  It was one of the last pieces that was put together to protect the Everglades, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ River of Grass.  Everglades National Park was created in 1947, but not until 1974 was land purchased for the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.  The property was acquired in response to development pressures and sprawl in Collier County, which rarely turned down any project.  Grandiose development plans associated with Golden Gate Estates in Naples and Port of the Islands envisioned residential projects that would house thousands of people with homes on canals carved into the west side of the Everglades.  As the early phases of these developments proceeded, the devastating impacts on the Everglades became all too clear.  The residential canals sucked water out of the Everglades into the Prairie and Faka Union Canals, lowering groundwater levels up to eight feet in some areas, stealing life-giving water from native plants.  Looking at an aerial view of the area today on Google Maps, the leftover scars are plainly visible.  The park purchase in 1974 help stem the assault on Everglades from the west, but much work remains to be done.  Today the west end of the state park and those leftover scars are part of a multibillion-dollar, multi-agency effort with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to plug the Prairie Canal and restore natural water flows through the western Everglades to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Area and Gulf. 

Canals Dug For Residential Development On The Preserve’s West Side That Disrupted The Natural Water Flow Are Being Filled In.

Despite the importance of the park in protecting the Everglades, it existed in relative obscurity until a best-selling publication, The Orchid Thief, was published in 1998. The book has been called a tale of beauty and obsession, a true story of a fanatic orchid poacher in the preserve named Larouche and his Seminole assistants. The book was later turned into a highly rated popular movie, Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. It was the plethora of orchids, over 40 and many rare, and the amazing variety of bromeliads and air plants that led the Fakahatchee Stand to be dubbed the Amazon of North America. Even today the park staff must keep a sharp eye out for orchid poachers, assisted by remote video cameras hidden in key locations.

Fortunately, the park has recovered nicely from being heavily logged from 1944 into the 1950s for pine and cypress.  Cypress wood is highly water resistant and was in demand during World War II for making aircraft carrier decks and PT boats among other vessels.  Today it is used for more peaceful products like decking and coffins.  The tiny communities of Copeland and Jerome within the park are reminders of those days, having served as home to loggers in that era.

As the timber harvesting slowed in the 1950s, several freshwater lakes were created in the 1950s and 60s when limestone rocks and gravel were gouged out for Alligator Alley and other highways.   The canals in the park to the south along the Tamiami Trail were carved out much earlier in the 1920s with big steam-powered dredges to provide fill upon which to build the highway linking the east and west coasts of Florida, a daunting task. Back then the highway was called the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The fact that the Fakahatchee Strand recuperated into a reasonably functioning ecosystem after all this is poking and prodding is a testament to nature’s resilience.  Now the question many ask is if the park can survive global warming and sea-level rise as well as the invasion of non-native plants and wildlife like Brazilian pepper and Burmese pythons.

The Hike

I’m at the park gate on Janes Scenic Drive a few minutes before 8 a.m. when it opens.  I deposit my three-dollar entrance fee in the pay box located at the nearby kiosk and dutifully hang the little blue pass from my review mirror. 

Anxious to get going and beat anyone else to the trail, I pop my SUV into gear and start down the gravel road.  But out of the corner of my eye, something catches my attention.  There’s a beehive of activity just off the main road.  I make a quick turn to the left towards the lakes and realize I’ve stumbled on what appears to be a meeting of some fellow attorneys (I’m a retired lawyer.)  But as I get closer, I recognize that it’s not a bar association meeting, but actually a congregation of some giant red-headed and black vultures warming in the early morning sun  before heading out for breakfast.

We exchange pleasantries, and I resume my trek up the road.

The Janes Scenic Drive route to the West Main trail starts out through a broad prairie, something you might not expect to see in the Everglades.  But this time of year, it’s a wet prairie, very popular with wading birds like the majestic great egrets, colorful roseate spoonbills, herons, and ibis. 

Soon the road curves to the west and is enveloped by sabal (cabbage) palms and bald cypress trees. This looks more like a swamp I think. The speed limit is only 10 mph, so I force myself to slow down and take in the scenery.

I see a sign for a mink crossing that puts a smile on my face—reminding me I’m in the habitat of the endangered Everglades Mink.  Then incredibly just a minute later I see a tiny foot-long mink scurry across the road!  This is going to be a good day!

I drive slowly, hopping out of the car here and there at culverts that allow the water to flow south through the strand.  The water is fresh and tea-stained but clear.  I see lots of small fish darting hither and yon, then come to one where the flow deepens to several feet.  Here I spy some bigger finny critters—Mayan Cichlids, invaders from South America, that resemble bluegill and some two-foot long, toothy gar, antediluvian creatures that have been around since the dinosaurs.  Maybe next time I’ll throw fishing rod in with my hiking gear.

Long-Nose Gar

By 8:30 a.m. I am at the turnout for the trail, park the SUV, and walk over to take a look at the array of informational exhibits.

At The Trailhead And Ready To Roll

It’s a late fall day, unseasonably hot and humid.  My eyelids are actually sweating as the temperature creeps into the 80s.  The trail will have some muddy stretches courtesy of Hurricane Ian and Tropical Storm Nicole.  I’m lathered up with a non-Deet bug repellant, but oddly, despite the surfeit of water, the mosquitos won’t be bad today.  A light breeze helps matters.

I slide around the big gate and start down the trail.  Having spent the summer in the mountains of Colorado, I’m immediately struck by how flat the path is and closed in by vegetation of all sorts.

First Look–The Isn’t Colorado or Kansas!

It’s not unusual for a trek into the mountains or a canyon there to involve an elevation gain of a thousand feet or more.  Here I’m only a few feet below the prairies that flank the slough where the water accumulates and flows to the Gulf.  And in contrast to the wide-open vistas in the Rockies, here the scene is much more cloistered, more subtle, with the environment closing in. 

The dominant feature is the vegetation which can vary greatly within a few feet. Giant sword ferns line the trail with a verdant green in many stretches, and the most prominent trees are the ubiquitous sabal/cabbage palm and bald cypress.

Being follicley challenged myself, I feel a particular affinity with the bald cypress, a relative of the redwoods.  Although they are conifers, bald cypress are not evergreen.  They lose leaves (and become bald) in the autumn and in southern Florida grow new ones in the winter.  They also have odd looking bulges that are called “knees” at their base in the water.  Some experts think they help the roots breathe while others feel they are for support in the marshy wet muck. 

I can hear birds in the bush, but they are hard to see. A catbird is mewing at me, and I answer him with my patented cat-like call that immediately elicits a response. I can hear an osprey screeching on high nearby. Here and there I will get quick glimpses of egrets, ibis, and herons as they flap away to hide in the forest. Tiny warblers flit quickly for cover. Suddently a red-shouldered hawk swoopes in for a look at this visitor.

I keep a sharp eye out for wildflowers and am soon rewarded with a close-up view of a lovely lavender pickerelweed tucked away in a corner. Soon a dainty Florida swamp-lily reveals itself. A little further down the trail I spy a bushy plant with red berries that my go-to plant app PictureThis identifies as St. John’s wild coffee. My old hippie friends probably know it better by its scientific name, Psychotria Nervosa! Wink, wink, say no more!!

Then I come to what looks to be a grove of oranges.  And it is–Seville or bitter oranges.  Reportedly Seville oranges were brought to Florida in the 1700s by the first Spanish to land in St. Augustine.  By 1800  they had become widely planted by early settlers and local Native Americans and have now spread throughout southern Florida. 

Today, they are primarily grown commercially for rootstock for grafting budwood for sweet oranges.  Believe me, they are bitter, but can be used for making marmalade or certain liqueurs or as a substitute for lemons in cooking.  Just don’t pick any in the park!   

As I meander up the trail, I notice little critters–frogs and lizards–scurrying for cover. Despite putting some of my speedy basketballer moves on them, they elude my grasp and then disappear into the undergrowth. I keep at it and manage to corner a cat-like quick caterpillar of the Tetrio sphinx moth clan. He’s a striking specimen and will eventually morph into a giant hawk moth with a wingspan of 5-6 inches!

A few hundred feet further down the trail I come to a big culvert and sidle up close to the waters edge for a look, and have a holy **** moment. A six-foot gator lies submerged only a few feet away, his eyes fixed on me. I quickly shift into reverse. Fortunately the gator probably figured there wasn’t enough meat on my ancient scrawny frame to bother. I rarely find alligators in the park to be aggressive, even when I am kayaking near them on one of the preserve’s creeks or lakes, but it’s a reminder to be cautious.

I take a few minutes to admire this stunning, positively prehistoric-looking creature. He doesn’t move a muscle. Finally, I take a deep breath and continue on, soon coming to a fork in the tram road. I stay to the right to remain on the West Main trail. The left fork takes you down the South Tram Trail.

Keep Right At The Fork To Stay On The West Main Trail

After about an hour of ambling at a slow pace from the trailhead, I arrive at a wide spot in the path with a picnic table.    I have walked about a mile and a quarter.  This is a good place to rest, have a drink and a snack. 

Time To Relax And Refuel

The views down the cypress forest and marsh are stunning.  Nearby across the water to the north, two rustic cabins stand on private inholdings within the park.    You can photograph one of the cabins from the trail, but please obey the no-trespassing signs.

After recharging my batteries with some Gatorade and a trail bar, I continue hiking to the west. The trail becomes more overgrown, clearly getting less traffic than the first leg of the trek. In a few minutes I come to one of the biggest culverts on the trail with water gurgling through it on its journey south. The sun breaks through and lights things up, letting me peer deeper into the forest.

After snapping a few more photos, I pick up the pace, anxious to see the vast open prairie not far ahead that I explored several years ago.  I remember feeling that I had wandered into Kansas, my boyhood home, with the beautiful expanse of prairie grasses and wildflowers buzzing with big colorful grasshoppers.  

Prairie Bugs Just Ahead…Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

But it’s not to be this trip. As I see things get brighter just up ahead as the forest thins, I can make out an image in the trail—it’s a big pool of water reflecting the surrounding cypress where the road should be. 

Wash Out!!

Darn! Too much water this year still coming down from the north.  I should have brought my kayak wading boots, but don’t feel like getting my tootsies wet today. 

I have come about 2.25 miles from the trailhead, it’s pushing 10:30 a.m., and getting hot, so with a good hour hike back to my vehicle, I decide to turnaround now so I’ll have plenty of time to see things that I missed. It’s always interesting what a different perspective tracing your steps back on a trail will bring, often leaving me wondering how it was possible I missed something obvious, passing it by on the way in. This time it is a bright red wildflower called Firebrush, then a brilliant yellow Creeping-Oxeye, followed by the colorfully named Bull-Tongue Arrowhead.

I stop to investigate all the white splotches on trees along the path and discover its a gnarly looking tree fungus called Arthoniaceae that form lichen communities with algae or bacteria. Nearby I spy another striking member of the fungi family call Polyporaceae. My plant ID app says it contains a neurotoxin and not to eat it! As if I was just drooling to do so!

But the highlight ot the trek back is some cute baby gators that catch my attention when they start squeaking as I walk over a culvert.  I take a video of them I know my granddaughter Aly back in Colorado will get a kick out of.

Just over an hour later I’m at my SUV, proud that my aging septuagenarian body was able to pull through without any major aches and pains and only a few minor lacerations.  Now I’ll enjoy a quiet drive home.  After shedding my pack and boots, I decide to head north on Janes Scenic Drive to check out the East Main trailhead and maybe see a Florida panther on the road as I did a few years ago.  Instead, as I am craning my neck looking at some air plants in the forest, I nearly run over a giant gator lounging in the sun on the edge of the road.

I get out of the car and chastise him severely for not using the designated gator crosswalk, but he seems to ignore my warning.  I decide not to pursue the matter any further.

Soon I come to a deadend that marks the start of the long East Main trail. I take a few photos, noting that the road that formerly went all the way to the Picayune Forest five miles away now has been blocked off as a specially protected wildlife area.  Good to know there is another quiet, remote trail to explore.

Miles More Wild Country To Explore

I turn around and head back south to the park entrance, keeping my eyes peeled for the frisky Everglades Mink I saw earlier in the day, but I don’t rate a return performance by the little guy. Soon the forest and swamp turn to prairie. I see bushes along the road loaded with some pretty small yellow flowers–Peruvian Primrose-Willow and many more delicate marsh-lilies.

And another mile down the drive, I am treated to an avian sideshow—a huge vortex of white birds spins out of the sky and descends into the tall grass along the road.  It’s a mixed flock of egrets and ibis with a couple of roseate spoonbills added for good measure.  I pull over quickly, and as they land, I can see they are feeding on something in the standing water around the prairie grass, their heads bobbing up and down as they chase down their prey.  Then as another car drives by slowly, they erupt into the air, putting on a great show before swooping back in for more victuals. 

So ends another fascinating day in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.  Can’t wait to get back and explore that prairie!

8 thoughts on “Hiking The Fab Four Trails Of The Fakahatachee Strand Preserve State Park: #1–The West Main

  1. Chris, what a nice hike! I appreciated your narration — the history of how the preserve came to be, stopping the development. Incredible plants, and so many gators! Even if the little ones were cute. Yikes!

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  2. Chris good hike. Just two days ago, a youtube popped up, and I watch a guy with a wearable camera walk along the tram road in the everglades. He was mainly looking for gators. Your hiking was a bit more primitive, and a lot more informative. but, both were interesting. Again, thanks for taking us along.

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