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What is the Fakahatchee Strand?

Jun 24th, 2024

Nestled amidst the sprawling Everglades ecosystem lies one of Florida’s natural hidden gems — the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. 

Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Everglades National Park, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park boasts a unique wilderness unlike any other in Florida, with a higher level of biodiversity than even the Everglades can offer! It’s also the largest state park in Florida at over 85,000 acres!

This often-overlooked park is packed with biomes ranging from salt marshes to sloughs to hardwood hammocks, mangroves, prairies and more, with a massive concentration of creatures thriving in the marshy park. In fact, its vibrant ecology has earned the park the title of the “Amazon of North America,” and it's one of the only places in the country where native trees like royal palm exist in such large numbers. 

Here’s what you need to know about the Fakahatchee Strand before you head out there to check it out!

All about the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Natural history of the Fakahatchee Strand

It’s worthwhile starting with some basic info about where the Strand is and why it’s so abundant with life, since that will provide a lot of context for understanding its importance to Florida’s ecosystem. 

The Florida Peninsula lies on a large landmass that sits mostly underwater, creating a shallow sea that surrounds the above-water portion of Florida we see today. This shelf-like formation is called the Florida Platform, and it extends about 100 miles west into the Gulf of Mexico before dropping off into the deeper waters below. 

This platform is key to many of Florida’s natural features. The warm, shallow waters deposited limestone on the seafloor which, when sea levels fell, would erode into smooth, sandy shores. This is how the Florida Keys formed, actually — each time the waters rose, coral reefs would grow on the limestone, and each time they sank, they’d erode into smooth sand. The silky white sands of the Florida Keys are the remnants of these coral reefs and limestone formations! Neat, huh?

But anyway, back to the Fakahatchee Strand.

The 20-mile-long and 5-mile-wide area containing the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park has a bedrock of limestone created by those ancient shallow seas. This bedrock is covered with more layers of clay, sands and silts that were deposited from rivers while the limestone was still underwater. The sea levels eventually fell enough to expose this part of the Florida Platform to the surface, and the precipitation over the subsequent years has carved shallow valleys into the limestone bedrock. 

These shallow valleys are what make up the strand swamps and what allow seasonal flooding to bring water to the various biomes in the Fakahatchee. The park therefore acts as a critical water source, filtering rainwater from the Big Cypress Swamp and slowly releasing it into the Everglades.

All this has taken place over the past six million years or so, so it’s been a long time in the making!

Fauna and flora of the Fakahatchee

The ancient formation of the Fakahatchee Strand makes it the perfect place for a wide variety of flora and fauna to thrive! Like we mentioned earlier, it’s so densely populated with life that it’s considered to be the “Amazon of North America,” and it’s home to some animals and plants that you just can’t find anywhere else!

The park encompasses 14 distinct natural communities ranging from strand swamps to wet flatwoods to salt marshes, marl prairies, blackwater streams and more. 

(If you want a detailed list of them all, check out this in-depth research plan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that details almost everything you’d want to know about the Fakahatchee Strand!)

Each of the biomes has its own special ecosystem that houses its own mix of insects, birds, animals and plants. 

Here are a few of them you can see!

Strand swamp

The quintessential Fakahatchee Strand biome! Towering cypress trees with buttressed roots form a dense canopy, while strangler figs and air plants create a lush, almost mystical atmosphere in the understory below. This watery world provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, from elusive panthers to brightly colored orchids — including the famous ghost orchid!

Cypress dome swamp

Islands of cypress trees rising above the surrounding wetland create a unique microhabitat that once featured trees over 700 years old! Though logging in the 1940s decimated many of these forests, they’ve grown back slowly and are looking closer to their original state each year. Anhingas with their distinctive wing posture and otters frolicking in the water are common sights in this biome, while the shallow water below teems with fish and insects. 

Mesic flatwoods

These are drier flatwoods with a mix of pines (longleaf or slash) and hardwood trees like oaks and cabbage palms. Look for signs of past fires in the blackened ground, which create a habitat for wildflowers and insectivores like gopher tortoises and blue jays.

Rockland hammock

These rare hammocks grow on exposed limestone outcrops, creating a challenging environment for most plants. Specialized vegetation like coontie (a type of ancient cycad) and certain cacti thrive here alongside drought-tolerant oaks and bromeliads, and if you watch closely you’ll see nimble lizards darting between the rocks.

Shell mound

Not technically a biome, but a unique archaeological feature! These mounds of discarded shells were created by Native Americans over centuries, offering glimpses into the human past of the Strand. Look for plant life adapted to the slightly-alkaline soils of the shell mounds, such as saltbush and certain wildflowers.

Glades marsh

These are freshwater marshes dominated by sawgrass and dotted with scattered trees like willows and pond cypress. This seasonally flooded habitat attracts a variety of wading birds like limpkins and white ibises that stalk for prey in the shallows, while amphibians like frogs and salamanders also find refuge in the dense vegetation.

Mangrove swamp

Though not a typical Everglades biome, the Fakahatchee Strand boasts a fringe of mangrove swamp along its southern boundary. These saltwater-tolerant forests provide critical nursery habitat for fish and shelter for birds like pelicans and ospreys

Prairie hammock

This is a unique blend of open prairie and hardwood hammock, created by islands of live oaks, cabbage palms and strangler figs rising from a sea of sawgrass. This diverse habitat attracts a variety of wildlife, from treetop dwelling birds like hawks to secretive mammals like bobcats that stalk through the understory.

Salt marsh

Similar to a glades marsh, but dominated by salt-tolerant plants like cordgrass and pickleweed. This coastal fringe area provides a vital habitat for shorebirds and wading birds that feed on the rich bounty of the intertidal zone. Look for crabs scuttling across the mudflats and fish jumping in the shallow water!

Blackwater stream

Blackwater streams are slow-moving streams with tea-colored water stained by decaying vegetation. This unique habitat provides a haven for fish species adapted to the low-oxygen environment, such as bowfin and gar. Keep an eye out for water snakes basking on logs and listen for the calls of frogs and insects along the banks.

Visiting the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park 

Now that you’re basically an expert on the flora and fauna of the Fakahatchee, you can go check it all out for yourself!

The park boasts plenty of great experiences and amenities for visitors, making it easy to enjoy the scenic strand however you’d like. Biking and hiking trails wind their ways through the various biomes, and water routes along the East River are perfect for canoeing or kayaking. 

A 2,000-foot boardwalk is one of the best ways to really see the dense beauty of a cypress swamp, allowing guests to wander through the trees and above the swampy waters. Bring your binoculars, too, because birding and wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant here in the strand. 

Picnic sites are scattered all over the park, as are fishing spots — just make sure you have your up-to-date fishing license! Pets are allowed on their leash in most areas of the park, aside from the boardwalk area. 

The park is open from 8:00 a.m. to sunset and costs $3 per vehicle and $2 per pedestrian or cyclist —  you can find pay stations at the visitors center and at the East River canoe launch.

If you live anywhere in or near our luxury South Florida apartments, then a trip to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is a must-do. No question about it. Not only will you get to see one of the most ecologically diverse locations on the continent, but you’ll experience Florida’s natural beauty in a way you never have before. 


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Featured photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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