Hiking The Fab Four Trails Of The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: #2 The East Main

For my hike in late 2022 on the West Main Tram Trail, see: https://hooknfly.com/2022/11/30/hiking-the-fab-four-trails-of-the-fakahatachee-strand-preserve-state-park-1-the-west-main/

Mid-January 2023

Welcome to trekking through what the Miami Herald newspaper has called Florida’s best kept outdoor secret.  Located about halfway between Miami and Naples near Everglades City, even on holiday weekends the preserve is rarely crowded, especially its trails. From its rare orchids to its 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 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. (The organization’s website is https://orchidswamp.org).

East Main Trail Overview

Location:  The parking area for the East Main trail is located about six miles northwest of the park entrance and headquarters on Janes Scenic Drive.

Difficulty/Length:  The trail, which follows a well-maintained old two-track logging road, is probably the easiest hiking of the Fab Four trails.  It is mostly flat with very little elevation gain from start to finish.

The East Main is approximately two miles long from the parking area/entry gate to the private cabin and small lake to the north.  It takes about 2.5 hours to hike to the cabin and back,  but can easily take longer for the observant hiker.  For the ambitious trekker, the trail extends another 10 miles almost all the way to Interstate 75 and the Jones Grade Road and lakes to the north.

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, royal palms, bald cypress, and beautiful wildflowers is one of the main attraction.  The park is the only place in the world where the bald cypress trees and towering royal palms share the forest canopy, and the East Main Trail is a great place to admire them.  You will almost certainly see alligators and possibly 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.  This is a good trail for families with children and also one of the best in the park for bicyclists as it is wider than others and well-maintained.

Essential gear:  Any time of year, but particularly from June through January, the trail can be muddy in spots and the vegetation covering the two-track trail damp to 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 north of the cabin can be higher as it sees few hikers and bikers.  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 April.  I always carry a hiking staff as well as plenty of water and wear a hat.

Tips:  A good place to stop and soak in the scenery and environment is one of the 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.  

The boardwalk to the small lake next to the private cabin offers great views of alligators and abundant bird life.

Some caveats.  Before hitting the trail, make sure you tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back in cell 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 the small lake 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 into the hike at the private cabin about two miles into the hike.  This is a good spot for a turnaround if you are with younger children.  The rest of the trail to the north is less traveled more overgrown, and with weaker cell phone service in parts.

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 Is Known For Its Beautiful Air Plants

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 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 get a late start this morning, waiting for the sun to warm things up from the frigid temperatures in the 40s the last couple of nights.  I deposit my entry fee at the park headquarters and am on Jane’s Scenic Drive headed to the East Main Trail by about 10:30 a.m. under a cloudless sky.  As I drive the first couple of miles, what I call the prairie section, I’m surprised to see only a few egrets here and there, probably the result of the cold weather.  My spirits sag a bit, and I hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come for the hike.

Soon the road curves, and I pass the “mink crossing” sign that always makes me chuckle, but then for the second trip to the park in a row, one of the rare little critters goes scampering across the gravel in front of me.

I slam my brakes on and hop out of my SUV, camera at the ready.  But he’s disappeared into the thick roadside vegetation.  I wait quietly for a few minutes, but the mink is too tricky and refuses to reveal his whereabouts.  What a great way to start the day, the chill already ebbing and spirits revived.

I drive slowly down the road, stopping at each culvert to see what I can see.  There’s definitely less water flowing down the slough and under the road than a couple of months ago as the dry season commences, and I don’t see any fish in the pools.

Water Levels Begin To Drop In December As The Dry Season Takes Hold

Soon I pass by the turnout for the West Main Trail and continue north towards my destination.  Suddenly another Everglades Mink scampers across the road in front of me and dives into the thicket.  I bolt from my vehicle, but again can’t get a photo of the little rascal.  I peer into the undergrowth but it’s no use.

I turn dejectedly, but then something catches my eye, a tiny white delicate flower only a few feet off the road. I get down on my knees and snap a photo, then run it through my plant ID app called PictureThis. To my surprise the little beauty is a Soldier’s Orchid, a native of Asia that has made its way to the park where it is thriving. My first orchid sighting of the year, and I’m thrilled!

Soldier’s Orchid

A few minutes later around 11 a.m., I am at the parking area and gate for the East Main Trail.  There are a couple of cars already there, certainly not very crowded for a federal holiday, MLK’s birthday.  Before setting out, I take a look at the informational kiosk at the trailhead.  I chuckle when I see the photo of the so-called Fakahatchee Hilton, the private cabin on a pond along the trail that is my destination today.  I throw on my little day pack and am off.

Before long I come to a stand of majestic royal palms that tower over the landscape.

Royal Palms

Next I catch sight of some unique air plants that the park is known for.  They are epiphytes that anchor themselves to other plants or downed logs for support but absorb moisture and nutrients from the air through their leaves, not their roots.  One of my favorites is the cardinal air plant that will sport a showy red and purple bloom soon.  

As I trek on, I see some movement on the trail ahead and a lot of squawking by crows.  Something is going on.  As I get closer, I spy a brigade of vultures squabbling over something, no doubt a delectable lunch.  Sure enough, as I get closer I see they are picking at what turns out to be an expired possum.  When I return in a couple of hours, the poor creature’s bones will literally have been picked clean. 

Now the buzzard brigade is circling overhead and several raptors—an osprey and maybe a red-shouldered hawk that I can hear but not see–are chastising me severely.

Aerial Show

I keep my eye peeled for other birds that I can see slipping away into the woods—herons, egrets, and small songbirds and warblers.  Usually they flee at the first glimpse of humans or sound of hiking boots, but if I’m patient they may reveal themselves hiding in the thicket or even come back in closer.  That’s what a shy white Ibis does, playing hide and seek with me as he wades through the shallows feeding close to the trail.  These wading birds, also known as Chokoloskee chickens, were a mainstay in the diet of early settlers in the Glades.  Then I see movement among some dead branches.  A small bird poses for me as I shoot photos wildly.  A few even turn out so I can identify him—a lovely little Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

The aerial show continues a short way up the trail as several butterflies flit around my head, just daring  me to catch them.  I resist the urge, but follow them, hoping to get a photo of these elusive beauties.  They flit back and forth, teasing me, and then one finally relents and lands on a nearby flower.  I creep up cautiously and snap away wildly with my phone camera, managing to get a couple of decent shots before she slips away into the woods. It’s a zebra butterfly that protects itself using the pollen it feasts on to produce chemicals that poison predators.

Needless to say I’m happy I didn’t succumb to the temptation to catch one!  Sadly, the zebras have reportedly been decimated in much of its range by mosquito spray. 

There aren’t many flowers blooming this time of year. The pretty white one the zebra butterfly was feeding on is a hairy beggartick, so named after its penchant of attaching its seeds to animal and people who brush by. It’s also called devils needles! But there are plenty of interesting plants to examine like the stands of giant sword ferns that line the trail and Bird’s Nest Ferns that are an unusual fern in that they are epiphytes, anchoring themselves to downed trees and other plants but getting their nourishment and moisture from the air instead of their roots.

I saunter up the trail further, stepping aside to let several friendly bikers pedal by, then see two ladies on the trail ahead who seem to be frozen in place, looking at something.  As I get closer, they warn me off.  They point to a gray lump in the middle of the path, a sunbathing gator who isn’t about to move. 

Gator Posing For Coppertone Ad

They ladies look and sound forlorn, telling me they’ve been stuck there for 10 minutes and don’t know what to do.  Being a chivalrous gentleman, I spring into action.  I find a long, dead palm frond next to the trail, then creep close enough to the cheeky reptile to launch the branch through the air which lands near its tail.  The gator swirls around, hissing, but scurries for cover in the nearby slough as I run in the opposite direction.  He gives me the evil eye I as he slides down the shallow slough water past me.

Gator Glare!

The ladies clap their applause while I execute a deep bow.  We chat for a bit, they telling me they thought they might be stuck there for hours.  Fortunately, in all my time hiking and kayaking in the Everglades, I rarely find that the alligators are aggressive unless they are used to being fed by humans.  Most will run for cover when prodded or disturbed as this one did. 

Having done my good turn for the day, now I’m getting close to the Fakahatchee Hilton, and I am not disappointed.  What a picturesque setting!

The owners of the weathered old hunting cabin allow visitors to rest on their front porch and walk out to the lake on their boardwalk.  Please respect their property so their hospitality continues.

Before taking a break, I decide to go out on the dock to see what’s happening.  The first view is a showstopper. 

A half dozen gators are lounging around the pond, with more seeming to emerge from the surrounding swamp every minute.  And several are VERY big, at least 10 feet.  Needless to say it would be folly to get off the dock and walk the shoreline!! 

Gators On Parade!

After the requisite photos, I retreat to the cabin porch where I have a snack and drink, shooting the bull with a couple of other septuagenarian hikers from the nearby big city of Naples who just got off the trail.  Like everyone I meet today, they are affable and cordial.  We trade lies, er stories, about our fishing exploits and experiences on the park’s trails. 

We decide to continue on the trail past to cabin where fewer people seem to venture.  One of my new friends mentions that there should be some orchids blooming just off the trail ahead along a boardwalk that skirts the pond and swamp.  But when we head that way, we are met by a platoon of gators who are firmly ensconced and don’t show the slightest inclination to move.  Seeing that a couple are around 10-feet long, we demure and scamper back to the trail. 

Gator Guards

North of the cabin the East Main Trail extends another 10 miles or so.  We make it a half mile further.  The path is narrower and clearly less traveled, but well-maintained.  However, when the sun breaks through the canopy it melts our resolve.  It’s hot, the temperature pushing 80 degrees.  We take that as a sign to head back.

Geezer Buddies On Trail North

On the way we walk casually at a slow pace, exploring this and that, and taking photos.  We pause to admire one of the region’s signature trees, the gumbo-limbo, with it trademark showy red bark.  The red bark peels–reminiscent of sunburned skin—which gives it the nickname of “tourist tree.”  Its berries are popular with wildlife in the summer.

The Geezer Brigade is back at the parking area in an hour. We exchange phone numbers and promises to chase some snook together.  It’s been another interesting hike in the Fakahatchee Strand, full of surprises as usual.  Can’t wait to get back during the dry season to hit those prairie trails.