A suspended boardwalk offers a rare glimpse into treetop ecology.
MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK - Most trails follow the forest floor. If you are lucky you might see a deer, hog, maybe a wild turkey or two.
But if you look up, you will see another world waiting to be discovered.
The forest canopy, or treetops, used to be the domain of biologists who studied the insects, plants and amphibians in this ecosystem above the ground.
Thanks to the Myakka Canopy Walkway, anybody can get a bird's eye view of the forest.
The walkway, 85 feet long and suspended 25 feet above the ground, was built by park staff and volunteers at a cost of $100,000 and opened in June, 2000.
"People are always amazed at the different perspective you get from the walkway and tower," park naturalist Paula Benshoff said. "People see a hawk or some other bird and have trouble identifying it. Then I have to remind them that they are looking at it from above, not below, which is the view you get in most bird books."
The highlight of any trip to the Myakka Canopy Walkway is the 74-foot tower at the end of the suspension bridge. It takes about 10 minutes to climb to the top but is well worth the effort.
From that vantage point you see the park's different ecosystems and can better appreciate how the hardwood hammocks, marshes and prairies provide critical wildlife habitat.
The walkway has proved to be a valuable research tool for biologists studying an exotic weevil from Central America that attacks Florida's airplants.
"We are already thinking of other research projects," Benshoff said. "The walkway might be helpful in determining where animals go when the hammock floods, which it does every summer."
Myakka River State Park is located about 9 miles east of Interstate 75 on State Road 72 in Sarasota County. It takes about an hour to get there from downtown St. Petersburg.
In addition to the Canopy Walkway, Myakka River State Park has canoeing, kayaking, fishing, 39 miles of hiking trails and a 7-mile scenic drive that cuts through the center of the park.
For more information write Myakka River State Park, 13207 SR 72, Sarasota, Florida 34241, or call 941-361-6511. Information also is available at www.floridastateparks.org