Obscure parks and nature preserves dot the landscape from I-75 to the Gulf of Mexico — if you know where to look.
Sometimes these spots are tucked away on side roads with narrow drives and tiny signs. Sometimes they lay low on the banks of local rivers and creeks. Other times they hide in plain sight.
Take Payne Park.
This is a popular open space just east of downtown Sarasota. It has a skate park and tennis courts, along with a half-mile cinder path and a new circus-themed playground.
Yet the meadows of Payne Park feel breezy and carefree. Leaning back on a grassy mound, looking up at the sky, it’s hard to believe you’re just a block off U.S. 301.
Payne Park is at 2050 Adams Lane.
Try Bayfront Park.
This is a high-visibility spot on Sarasota Bay. Hundreds of boaters visit every year. Thousands of kids play in the splash fountains.
Yet on weekdays, especially, the waterfront paths through the park remain a quiet place to take a walk and enjoy the view.
Bayfront Park is at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
Pinecraft and Water Tower
A little farther from downtown, to the north and south, are a pair of parks that epitomize Hidden Sarasota.
Start with North Water Tower Park at 4700 Rilma Ave.
A little brown sign on U.S. 41 points people east toward 47th Street and the curving drive that leads to a wooded slot of North Sarasota. The park does indeed have a water tower, but it’s best known for the the disc golf course that winds through the oaks and palmettos.
The Sarasota Sky Pilots disc golf club helped build the course and save the park from crime and neglect. Now North Water Tower draws families from around the neighborhood and golfers from around the state.
“The park’s doing good; it’s getting cleaner,” says Cal Lincoln of the Sky Pilots. “It just keeps getting better every year.”
Down south, just off Bahia Vista Street, is Pinecraft Park at 1420 Gilbert Lane.
This lies near the heart of Sarasota's Mennonite community. During winter, especially, men wear beards and women wear bonnets. Families ride bicycles, pitch horseshoes and play shuffleboard along Phillippi Creek.
A different world.
Downstream, but still within the park, is a wilderness area called the Mesic Hammock Trail. A whole network of shaded paths crisscross the woods along the water. The only clue you're in the city is the distant hum of traffic.
A world within a world.
Phillippi and the Bay Preserve
Farther south, and further downstream, is Phillippi Estates Park, 5500 S. Tamiami Trail.
Everyone driving down the U.S. 41 sees the Edson Keith Mansion along the creek. Few visit the park grounds or dock. Fewer still walk the short nature trail that follows the creek away from the highway.
Phillippi Estates Park is at 5500 S. Tamiami Trail.
Down in Osprey, lots of people visit Historic Spanish Point, which offers colonial history and Native American archeology. Hardly anyone visits the Bay Preserve, 400 Palmetto Ave., which is reached by a shell road behind the bigger attraction.
There’s not as much history at the Bay Preserve, but it’s hard to beat the view of Little Sarasota Bay. The Burrows-Matson House is flanked by gorgeous oaks draped with Spanish moss. Paths under those trees lead to a pier and observation platform on the bay.
Lots of times, you’ll have this view to yourself — unless a lucky couple is having a wedding on the grounds.
East and easter
East of downtown, where Eighth Street should be, runs a mile-long path called Tuttle Walkway Park.
No traffic. Lots of a shade. And a turtle statue that welcomes students to Tuttle Elementary School.
Twice a day, lots of kids ride their bikes down Walkway Park. In between, you see moms pushing those elaborate new baby carriages. Once in awhile, you might spot a man hiking with a full backpack, preparing for the Appalachian Trail.
“This is the place to be,” says Jadon Higdon, 10. “In the morning, people walk their dogs. They jog down here. There's lots of trees and squirrels in the trees. I once saw two baby raccoons in a tree. It was pretty cool.”
Tuttle Walkway Park runs between Lime and Tuttle avenues.
Rothenbach Park — far east, east of I-75, at the east end of Bee Ridge Road — just might the weirdest park in Sarasota County.
It’s also one of the most beautiful.
Don't be freaked out by the fact that the huge mound at the center of the park is a former landfill. Remote-control airplane enthusiasts fly their planes off the top of the mound. Cyclists and skaters enjoy the loop trail that winds through lovely oak hammocks.
Early birds often spot deer wandering through the woods.
Rothenbach Park is at 5650 Bee Ridge Road.
Bradenton and North Port
In Bradenton, some of the best (and best-hidden) scenery is along Riverview Boulevard.
This is not a long drive or a famous one, but the street curves nicely through old neighborhoods along the Manatee River. You can trace Bradenton history from Rogers Cemetery to Warners Bayou and the DeSoto National Memorial.
Riverview Boulevard runs from 20th Street West to 75th Street West.
In North Port, closer to Port Charlotte than Sarasota, Myakkahatchee Creek flows beneath Interstate 75.
To the east is Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. To the west is a homegrown gathering place that was called “The Oaks” for years before being officially recognized as Oaks Park.
Rutted streets off Sumter Boulevard lead to a sandy parking lot shaded by a grand stand of trees.
A dip in the creek is tempting, especially during summer. Mountain bikers work up a sweat pedaling up and down trails they’ve painstakingly carved through the woods. Less strenuous visitors take walks or enjoy picnic lunches.
Oaks Park is on Mandrake Terrace in North Port.