You can’t take a hike in the woods on many barrier islands, but you can on Sanibel.
As the first public access point to nature just after you cross over the causeway, the Pond Apple Park Trail not only immerses you in lush tropical hardwood forest, but it also meanders through wetlands and wide open retention ponds to the 1896 homestead of one of the island’s founding families.
Since it’s the height of the dry season, mid-April is a perfect time to hike the trail, which can get flooded during the rainy season, from July-October. And, with spring migration underway, way, it’s also a great time to check some birds off your life list, as warblers have been stopping for a rest, eaglets are known to fledge there and nearly 150 bird species have been spotted on the 2.4 mile trail.
Access to the Pond Apple Park Trail is to the back left in the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce parking lot, where you can park. Its name reflects one of its wetland habitats that you may also want to check off your life list — a Pond Apple Slough.
With buttressed trunks, similar to cypress trees, the pond apples are in springtime mode, budding up with creamy white flowers that will fruit and ripen by late summer/early fall.
“When we were first writing a grant to create the park back in 2000, we came up with the name based on the pond apple being one of the predominant habitats,” says James Evans, director of natural resources for the city of Sanibel. “We continue to improve upon the trail in ways that make it more attractive for both wildlife and people. We’ve created ponds for wading birds and have planted more fruit bearing trees, like strangler figs for the birds.”
Amenities, such as ample boardwalks, benches, a chickee hut built by Miccosukee Indians and picnic tables as well as shared restroom with the chamber, make it a good place to slow down and spend some time in nature.
“Living in harmony with wildlife on Sanibel is our goal,” says Mr. Evans. The trail connects with a wildlife corridor that protects American alligators, bobcats, armadillos, otters and raccoons among other rare and endangered species. The trail transitions — in name only — from city land into a preserve owned by a conservation foundation with a history of leading the incorporation of the island.
A sanctuary island
Known for changing its fate by becoming a city in 1974 and staving off county plans for a high-rise, densely developed barrier island akin to Miami Beach, Sanibel is a self-proclaimed “sanctuary island.”
“About two-thirds of the island is undeveloped and in preservation. I say about because it depends on whether it’s high tide or low tide,” says Kristie Anders, who has been the director of education at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation for more than 30 years. “We’re just lucky that people thought about this in advance.”
The Pond Apple Park Trail and how it connects to the Bailey homestead is synonymous with the Sanibel story.
Because without islanders standing up for conservation, the trail wouldn’t exist.
Once slated for a major resort, shopping center and a 36-unit community, those lands are now a vital greenway that is one of the island’s best 21st-century environmental success stories.
Back in 2001, Sanibel voters passed a referendum that authorized more than $5 million in city funds to be matched with a $2.12 million grant from the Florida Communities Trust’s Florida Forever funds to purchase land that was slated for a major resort and shopping mall right at the island’s gateway.
“That land was zoned commercial and there were a lot of concerns about congestion and traffic issues,” recalls Mr. Evans, who had just started with the city of Sanibel as a conservation officer.
The referendum passed with 57 percent of voters in favor of the project.
Some of Mr. Evan’s first assignments included reclamation of the lands for the Pond Apple Park, including removal of invasive species, building wetland ponds and trail blazing.
“In 2005, we opened a 1.62 mile loop trail,” he adds.
An educational experience
The first part of the trail is through wetlands and can get muddy most of the year. When dry, like now, it’s loose with dirt, so be sure to wear closed shoes. You can even take it as an opportunity to wear your hiking boots.
Heading west, the trail crosses over the paved Bailey Road. Look north to see where the ferry boats used to land and Bailey’s General Store was the only place to buy supplies back in the early 20th century.
Back into the Pond Apple Park Trail, you’ll continue through marsh into upland habitat as the island’s natural ridge and swale pattern alternates. Soon you’ll find yourself feeling like you’re hiking in the woods, as the canopy of strangler figs, gumbo limbos and oaks draped with Spanish moss shades the trail edged by the brown underside of leather fern and the vibrant purple hue of morning-glory vine.
The trail leads to an expansive opening with wide open sky and traces the edges of two rectangular ponds.
“We decided to make the re-use ponds from the Donax Wastewater Treatment Plant part of the educational experience of the park,” says Mr. Evans. “They also provide habitat for migrating birds and year-round wildlife.”
The trail loops around the ponds, providing what some walkers have discovered and use as one of the best tracks for walking on a flat, non-paved surface on the island. And, they provide a bird-friendly feature that has earned the Pond Apple Park Trail status as the 14th most popular spot in all of Lee County for birders, based on E-bird data.
“The birds know it’s a great resting place. They know the buffer is there and they’ll be safe resting on cattails along the pond’s edges or in the trees that surround — you really get a great cast of characters from anhingas, to cormorants, to bald eagles and herons, egrets and osprey,” says Ms. Anders, adding that the sea grapes are in bloom, which attracts insects that migrating warblers and other songbirds like to eat.
If you wondered why the ponds are so very full of water at the height of the dry season, when ponds and lakes throughout the island have more shore exposed than usual, it’s because they are filled to the brim by the height of tourist/snowbird season.
The ponds hold gray water that has been treated at the city’s sewer facility that is filtered through and is pumped on to irrigate the island’s three golf courses. Informative displays explain how the retention works.
Bridging the Lands
The city-owned trail continues past the ponds into canopied wetlands crossed by a long and winding boardwalk where the trail transitions into the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Shipley Trail that passes through the Bailey Homestead Preserve.
When Mr. Evans and the city originally planned Pond Apple Park, they didn’t know it would be the first phase of connecting various parcels of land into such a vital greenway corridor. Neither did the folks at SCCF until it hit them several years later as great opportunity.
“It was one of those ah-hah moments when we realized it was another missing piece to the puzzle,” says Ms. Anders. “If you look at an aerial photo, you can see how the Bailey preserve connected a corridor for wildlife to safely pass through without crossing the road.”
In 2010, the SCCF initiated a $5.3 million campaign to purchase the 28-acre Bailey homestead property, which was zoned for development of 36 houses. Within nine months, they reached their goal, with islanders contributing gifts from $5 to $1 million.
The Bailey Homestead Preserve features the restored home with an interpretive center and the SCCF’s Native Landscaping and Garden Center on nine acres. The remaining 19 acres is a wildlife preserve that isn’t accessible.
“It made sense to have some public use and to bring our native plant nursery down here,” says Ms. Anders.
The Pond Apple Park trail was extended onto the preserve in 2014 when the 400-foot-long Starr Thomas Memorial boardwalk was completed that connected it to the Shipley Trail.
The garden center at the homestead features native plants that grow well in various island habitats. Jenny Evans, who manages the garden center, offers pond apple trees for sale in the flood- resistant section.
“If you have a part of your yard where it floods in rainy season, Pond Apples are perfect,” she says. “They are semi-deciduous though and will lose their leaves. On the trail right now they have brand new leaves and some buds.”
Wildlife camera data suggests the Pond Apple Park Trail is fast becoming one of Sanibel’s most popular nature hikes. “We had 12,824 humans visit the trail in 2017 — up 40 percent from 2016. That’s an average of 39 per day with the peak season of January through April,” she said.
With all its preserved land, the island has about a dozen public walking trails, each with its own back story of conservation efforts and unique island habitat.
“A lot of people really put their heart and soul into preserving this island,” says Ms. Evans. “It’s very unusual for a barrier island to have so much land in conservation and accessible.”
A well kept secret, I guess. Been going to Sanibel for 30 years, first I have heard of this place. Thanks!
Thank you to everyone who work so hard to preserve this beautiful island. Nature is God’s gift to us .