Within a five-minute walk from the parking lot at Moody Branch Preserve into the oak hammock habitat, one steps into a back country experience. Unlike at other Manatee County preserves, the only trail markers are gold marks on trees called blazes.
The blazes lead visitors along the East Manatee preserve’s three-quarter-of-a-mile gold trail through the oak hammock, pine flatwoods and scrub habitats.
Moody Branch Preserve offers visitors “a different type of hiking,” said Melissa Nell, manager of the programming/education and volunteer division in the county’s Parks and Natural Resources Department.
“Not a lot of people come out here,” she said Friday at the preserve, 13805 Taylor Grade Road, Duette. “It is a site where you can really find yourself alone with nature. You can really get your hike on.”
You can really get your hike on.
Melissa Nell, Manatee County parks and natural resources
Tucked off a windy road in Duette, Moody Branch Preserve is north of State Road 62 and just south of the Hillsborough County line.
But with the county’s coastal preserves, like Robinson and the newly opened Perico, already highly trafficked, Nell is hoping residents and visitors will explore the preserves in East Manatee, which are among the largest in the county. This weekend was the first ever volunteer work day at Moody Branch Preserve.
“This year we would like to invite you to go east and experience the different sites that are a little bit different but still extremely beautiful in Manatee County,” Nell said.
Just a short drive from the nearly 1,000-acre Moody Branch Preserve are Duette and Headwaters preserves. Altogether, the three East Manatee preserves total about 24,000 acres.
“The experience that you’ll get out here is quite a bit different than what you’ll find in town and so we really like you to come out here and enjoy and just really experience wild, natural Florida,” Nell said.
Improvements to Moody Branch Preserve
Within the past few months, the designated hiking trail and the more than four-mile-long horse trail were completed along with the parking lot and picnic pavilion. A playground will be added to the preserve in the near future, Nell said.
960 Number of acres at Moody Branch Preserve
“They have really worked hard to get some new amenities out here,” she said.
In 2004, the county purchased the property entirely with grants, and the improvements were part of the grant agreement with state agencies, including Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Forever Program of the Florida Communities Trust, said Charlie Hunsicker, the county’s parks and natural resources director.
“The connectivity of that property ties in with water management district-owned land and state of Florida-owned land,” he said. Together, they “make a huge complex from county line down to State Road 62.”
While Moody Branch is county owned, FWC helps manage the 960-acre site “to integrate the needs for a regional approach to natural resource protection and local, passive public recreation,” according to the county’s website.
Driving along U.S. 301 to the county line, it becomes apparent why East Manatee preserves are important, Hunsicker said, adding that work on the county’s eastern preserves is just beginning.
“Land first, management second, people third,” he said.
With the county’s population growing, the time is now to preserve Florida’s native habitats, Hunsicker said.
“If we don’t take the steps in this decade or the decades to come or the decades to follow, we would have lost the opportunity forever,” he said.
Habitats at Moody Branch Preserve
A Florida scrub jay sat at the top of an oak tree along the horse trail at Moody Branch Preserve on Friday morning. The bird calls the preserve’s scrub habitat home.
“The scrub habitat is pretty rare in the state,” Nell said.
With several different habitats throughout the preserve, there are a number of different species that call the preserve home. Mark Proch, a county park ranger, has seen animals including bobcats, white tail deer, quail and gopher tortoises at the preserve.
“The plants and animals tell you that you are in a different type of habitat,” Nell added. “If you watch for movement, you get to see a lot of cool insects.”
Without restrooms and water fountains on site, Nell said visitors should come prepared: Bring a hat, sunscreen, long pants, water, a snack and a camera.
In Manatee County, one can drive from a coastal habitat to the uplands in an hour, Nell said.
“We are super blessed in this county to have this many different amazing things to visit,” she said.