Saw grass and gators are two native Florida species that few people want to encounter close up. Fortunately for nature lovers, at Sawgrass Lake Park you can watch from the safety of an elevated boardwalk.Once, this was home to the Tocobaga Indians. Now it's within a stone's throw of Interstate 275, at 62nd Avenue and 25th Street N in St. Petersburg, but you still have the feeling of being in the wilderness. "We can usually guarantee a gator or two, especially in the middle of the day when they come out to sun themselves," said Carole Brooks, who works at the park.
"The canal used to be the peninsula's shoreline," she added. "It now leads down to Riviera Bay."
Just past the entrance, the boardwalk begins. There are two trails that lead past stands of giant leatherleaf fern, yellow Carolina willow and red dahoon holly, in full fall bloom. The terrain is covered with pickerel weed and elephant ears (taro). Through the trees the webs of the Golden Orb spiders stretch for nearly 10 feet. A few iridescent blue-green dragonflies drone overhead, making their last flights before the winter's cold.
The Sawgrass Trail leads off toward the canal, and at the end is a two-story observation tower looking out over Sawgrass Lake. A small 4-foot gator is basking in the sun, and several sizable soft-shell turtles paddle about amid the water grass. A cooter, a native hard-shell turtle, emerges from the mud, leaving a trail of cloudy water behind him.
Bird watchers, peering through their binoculars, point out some gallinules. Soon migrating geese and other northern birds will be stopping by the park on their way to Central and South America.
"I've even seen an otter play in the canal," said Pat Boynton, a frequent visitor to the park.
The Maple Trail, which winds through the red maple swamp, traverses some higher ground. Here is the only trail that's not a boardwalk _ the Oak Hammock Trail, an offshoot of the Maple Trail, leads through a glen of live oaks.
The park also is used as a nature classroom for many Pinellas County schoolchildren. In the area just past the information booth is the Anderson Environmental Education Center, where there are displays of plants and animals native to central Florida. There's even a quiz, with things like Tampa Bay geodes and swordfish bills to identify.
"We have two classes a day from kindergarten through fifth grade," said Joe Maier, the resident teacher at Sawgrass Lake Park. "We teach them ecology and respect for their environment. It's a good place for them to learn."
Sawgrass Lake Park is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"We are usually open until sunset, but we're closing at 5 now to avoid the mosquitoes," said Mike McGoff, a park naturalist.
The park covers 309 acres, and if you have a friend who can't stroll the nearly mile-long trails, there are wheelchairs available at the entrance.