Who needs planning? The best hikes are the fly-by the seat of your pants hikes.
The motivation for the recent hike was to test my healed fractured rib for an upcoming three-day venture. My plan required stuffing a pack with full water bottles and slogging nine miles. The unexplored Mabry-Carlton Preserve appeared perfect on the map: isolated, huge, and criss-crossed with trails.
Unfortunately I cannot speak to the reality of the preserve, because our planned hike was thwarted by a strict no-dogs rule. How could we leave behind our floppy-earred hiking buddy, wagging his nub with his head out the window as we drove by the woods?
Onto plan B. Alan and I rolled the dice and picked one of the unknown parks passed on the way out to the preserve. Sleeping Turtles Preserve looked thickly shaded, had a boundary with the Myakka River, and displayed a dog on a leash sign. We found a shady parking spot amongst the lot full of cars and threw on the packs.
I snagged a map from the information post. The park’s layout was simple: two trails framed each side of the park, curving to meet in the middle. In between zig-zagged several trails, creating the “five miles” of touted hiking paths. The number of covered pavilions along the way, and a glance at the wide, limestone path, signaled this preserve was a more leisurely hiking area.
Another fact became abundantly clear as we walked north: keep the dog on the leash! Not just because of the other people or the happy dogs along for the hike—poison ivy blanketed both sides of the trail. The thickets thinned out a mile in, but still, best keep all limbs clear.
Sleeping Turtles was pretty for a laidback stroll. Air plants crowned the oak trees, creating a sparkly canopy on most of the paths. The easternmost trail skirted the Myakka River with an access point at a kayak area and a picnic area on a bluff. The westernmost trail followed the fence line dividing the preserve from private backyards. Unhurried, we forged a path north on an oxbow peninsula, double-backed once, and still hiked about an hour and less than three miles.
Faced with walking two more loops in the park to get the mileage needed to test my bones, I pulled the plug and headed for a place we know well: Myakka River State Park. Isolated, huge, criss-crossed with trails and most importantly, dog-friendly.
Myakka River State Park is mostly open prairie, except for a portion of the trail paralleling the main road. The easily accessed western trail cuts through hammocks and swampy areas. We’ve hiked different sections in the past. Today, to get our mileage in, we begin at Ranch House Road and pick up the hiking trail heading north towards Fox’s Low Road. The first two miles weaves around filled, swampy ponds, hog-torn meadows, and pine hammocks. Then the trail wanders along the sunny prairie, grasses high as our heads, and by palm frond stands still black from a prescribed fire ages ago. The southern section of trail was new for us, as was the change in trail marker paint. The white rectangles blended in with lichen-stained trunks. I redirected Alan on a few missed turns.
By the end of the day, we reached 8.5 miles, with six-plus coming from our back-and-forth in Myakka, with no aches from the ribs: a good sign for hiking trips to come.