Secret Woods Nature Center
Where Interstates 95 and 595 meet, you’d hardly believe there’s a place for green space. Port Everglades looms to the east, and jets take off and land at the nearby Fort Lauderdale International Airport. But Secret Woods is very special. It’s hidden under such a dense canopy of mangroves that most people buzzing past have no idea it exists. It’s a place where families can discover nature together, watching giant land crabs scurry under the mangroves and cormorants hang out along the South Fork of the New River. As the state’s first urban wilderness area, it is not at all quiet. The buzz of interstate traffic, the roar of jets, and the clanking of nearby industrial businesses is a distraction. But the habitat was worth saving. A cypress strand and tropical hammock are edged by mangroves along the river floodplain.
Royal palms soar overhead. Birds make this green space their home. With a mile of gentle interpretive trails centered around a top-notch nature center to teach the kids about Southeast Florida habitats, it’s perfect for a family outing. Walk in from the parking area, passing a map with an overview of the trails in the park. Follow the boardwalk, and you’ll encounter the first trail loop off to the right. It is a very short loop that leads through a restored upland area, Butterfly Island, a butterfly garden planted to attract native butterflies. In it, watch for cloudless sulfur, gulf fritillary, giant swallowtail, and zebra longwing. It’s always a-flutter in colorful wings and brilliant blooms. Back on the boardwalk, reach the nature center complex after 0.2 mile. For an overview of the preserve, stop in for a visit at the Monarch Interpretive Center before walking the rest of the trails.
There are bees making mangrove honey, archeological artifacts, reptiles, and videos. A large mural depicts the first modern settlement of the area. Just beyond this complex of buildings, the two main trails begin in earnest at a well-signed trail junction. The Laurel Oak Trail is a bark chip footpath that meanders through upland forest and around a cypress swamp. The New River Trail is an accessible boardwalk which winds through floodplain forest and mangroves en route to the shores of the New River. For an up-close look at giant land crabs, the Laurel Oak Trail is one of the better places to see them along this coast. Turn right to head down the mulch path, and take a left at the T. It’s primordial South Florida in here, the murky swamp lapping at the bases of tall royal palms, the giant leather ferns towering overhead. Pond apples groan under the weight of their fruit. The trail crosses a boardwalk and passes a bench, where you start to see large holes in the sand. These are tunnels stretching several feet deep to the water table, created by giant land crabs for shelter. This forest is one of their last serious strongholds in the area. These crabs are Florida’s largest terrestrial crab, spanning up to six inches across their shells, and they prefer living amid the roots of mangroves. The trail continues past a cluster of benches at the base of a strangler fig, and crosses another boardwalk, leading you into an area dense with moistness and color. Circling behind the nature center, the loop ends after 0.5 mile; turn left to exit back out to the main trail junction.