The Great Florida Outdoors: Oscar Scherer State Park

Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology
Nova Southeastern University

When my friend Ed said he and his wife Jan were camping at Oscar Scherer State Park, I knew I had to get down there from Tampa and visit. After fighting through a rubber-necking infused, nasty traffic jam that doubled my travel time, I was anxious to get into the park. Oscar Scherer State Park is a 1400-acre wilderness tucked into the urban sprawl of Tamiami Trail in Sarasota County, and I consider it an amazing respite from the drone of traffic and everyday stress. The park serves as a revitalizing and fresh recharge in a packed and growing area.

Within 15 minutes of arriving, I was in the water of South Creek on my favorite kayak, my drinks and cameras secure and my mind ready to take it all in. Within the first 100 yards, a beautiful black-crowned night heron appeared on an overhanging branch, and I warmed up my camera by snapping a bunch of pictures. I met Ed around a bend of the creek and we compared notes on what we had seen. Over the next couple of hours, I captured a number of wonderful species on my camera, including a green heron (see photo) and numerous other creek-dwellers.

After paddling, I unpacked my water home and put my kayak back up on my vehicle. Ed and I found a couple great trails to traverse and began hiking. I know over the course of the time Ed was camping that he would probably cover almost every one of the 15 miles of trails on the property. Along the way he would see the threatened scrub jay, and even had one land on his hat! (see photo)

We hiked on two main trails restricted to hikers—the Lester Finley Trail and the South Creek Nature. Although we are also avid off-road bikers, it was refreshing to have the trail to ourselves. The Finley trail is barrier-free and is a wonderful path for those with disabilities. As you traverse a hardwood hammock along South Creek, you end up at a wonderful garden of native species that you can explore before you turn back. The whole journey is only a half-mile long, perhaps 20-30 minutes in total round trip. The trail has a wheelchair accessible fishing dock, butterfly observation area, and drinking fountain. If you add on the half-mile long South Creek Nature Trail, you can go inside and explore the Nature Center before or after your journey.

Oscar Scherer State Park is a geologist’s dream. The recently emerged substrate consists of marine sediments overlying a limestone base. The upper limestone formation exposed along the banks of South Creek is the Charlton, a division of the Choctawhatchee Stage, in the Miocene Series, approximately 5 to 23 million years ago. In 1989, when the Florida Geological Survey drilled to a depth of 145 feet and extracted a stratigraphic column, precise geological data for the park became available.

Before the establishment of the park, marl was mined here for highway construction. Marl or marlstone is a calcium carbonate or lime-rich mud or mudstone which contains variable amounts of clays and silt from marine deposits and lake sediments. Marl was used as a soil conditioner and fertilizer for soils deficient in lime. The excavation pit, known as Lake Osprey, is currently used for recreation, including swimming and fishing. Another borrow pit located along the park’s southwestern boundary was created during the construction of State Road 681 and is used for fishing and bird watching.

The park lies in the South Creek drainage basin, one of the numerous small creeks that drain the flat land along this portion of the Gulf Coast. South Creek flows into the park from the north in a southeasterly direction, then turns southwesterly to flow under a bridge along the rail-to-trail corridor (The Legacy Trail) and out to Blackburn Bay. The Legacy Trail is suitable for walking, biking, jogging, or rollerblading and runs from Venice, Florida to Sarasota, Florida, passing through Oscar Scherer State Park. You can ride your bicycle on the paved 11-mile portion of the Legacy Trail, which cuts through the park atop an old railroad bed.

The land bordering South Creek supports a more xeric scrubby flatwoods community where Florida scrub jays are found. The creek was canalized upstream from the railroad bridge in the 1950s and the spoil placed along either side of the channel. Downstream of the bridge the creek is tidally- influenced and the channel widens and becomes shallow.

In addition to hiking and kayaking, activities abound here in the park. You may spot bald eagles, ospreys, warblers, woodpeckers, egrets, and the great blue and little blue heron in addition to the scrub jay. Lucky visitors might see bobcats, rabbits, foxes, North American river otters, American alligators, eastern indigo snakes, and gopher tortoises and gopher frogs. If you like to camp, this is the place—half of Oscar Scherer’s 98 sites (Nos. 1 through 20 and 68 through 98) are on the banks of South Creek. Picnic areas are equipped with grills, and pavilions can be reserved for a fee.

How did the park get started? Elsa Scherer Burrows, owner of the 462-acre South Creek Ranch, died in 1955, leaving the ranch in her will to the state to form a park dedicated to the memory of her father, Oscar Scherer, the developer of a shoe leather dyeing process in 1872. In 1956 the park was opened to visitors. Thirty years later, realtor and environmentalist Jon Thaxton began work to protect the neighboring Florida scrub jay territory. In 1992 the result was 922 acres being added from the adjacent Palmer Ranch that had been among the holdings of Bertha Honoré Palmer, in large part due to the Nature Conservancy, public support, and the use of Preservation 2000 funds, expanding the park’s size to 1,384 acres. In September 2008, in recognition of National Public Lands Day, Lee Wetherington, a local developer and long-time park supporter, donated an additional 16.6 acres of land to the park, including the buffer property adjacent to the Willowbend subdivision (a Wetherington development).

Enjoy the park while you can. Construction seems to encroach on every corner of our great state, pushing the native species into more restricted habitats. I often point out that the most populous birds in the state are the cranes, and by that I mean the towering cranes that fill the landscapes around every new building project.

Oscar Scherer State Park
1843 S. Tamiami Trail
Osprey, FL 34229
Phone: (941) 483-5956
Get out and enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!

Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.


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