By JP Chartier
Step back to 16th century Florida, a time when Indians ruled the land and a ruthless Spanish explorer by the name of Hernando De Soto tried to stake his claim to the new world’s endless riches.
The De Soto National Memorial Park in Bradenton, Florida offers visitors a look back to the brutal conquest of Florida and parts of the southern United States by the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando De Soto.
The park resides in the area that he and his men splashed ashore back in 1539.
Bring a pack-lunch and a blanket when you come so you can sprawl out underneath the Gumbo Limbo trees and enjoy your lunch. Don’t forget your walking shoes so you can take a short hike on the trail just outside the visitors center too.
Learn all about De Soto and his 4-year 4,000 mile journey through Florida and the southern United States, then take home a souvenir to remember it by.
HOW TO GET THERE
The De Soto National Memorial Park is located in Bradenton, Florida about 45 minutes south of Tampa. Its perched along the Manatee River inlet and is also accessible by boat. There are two airports in the area about an hour away.
Upon entering the park through its wooden gate, off to the right is where you’ll find the Visitors Center. It’s a small building containing information, a theater, bookstore and a friendly clerk to help you with any questions you might have.
While inside the air conditioned building be sure to try on the conquistador helmets and their super heavy chain mail. Along with the heat in Florida, they had to deal with the overwhelming weight of their chain mail and armor on their expedition, and this brings it home for you.
There is a small bookstore in the visitors center that has several books on De Soto and his expedition. This is also where you can find and buy souvenirs to take back home.
Along with the bookstore, you will find the theater inside the visitors center also. There is an excellent 22 minute film all about De Soto and his journey through Florida and the United States.
There are artifacts inside the theater too, including: Full armor like the type they would have worn back in the mid 1500s.
There are guns, pistols, peace-pipes and more!
Within the park, just outside the visitors center is where you will find a 1.5 mile trail that takes you through the mangroves and up to the sugar white beach. During your walk keep an eye out for several species of plants like: Florida privet, sea purslane, strangler fig, saw palmetto, cabbage palm, groundsel, Spanish moss, ball moss and sea grape.
The trail begins with a real nice wooden walk-way which carries you through the mangroves. Look down! See them? There are literally thousands of little crabs crawling around doing crab things. Bring along your dog on your walk, they are welcome here!
GUMBO LIMBO TREES
If you know me, you know that I love trees! And here in the park you are treated to a most wonderful variety called the Gumbo Limbo, or the bursera simaruba. These trees grace the front of the visitors center with all their awe-inspiring beauty. The trees resin, called chibou, cachibouor or gomartis is used as glue, varnish and incense. Another interesting fact is that the wood is used for the manufacture of carousel horses in the United States.
During certain times of the year, reenactments of De Soto’s first encounters with the Native Americans can be seen on the grounds of the park. There is an area inside that includes a few huts and buildings, the type that would have been common in the 1530’s.
Be sure to call ahead for information about the reenactments, they don’t have them all the time.
Put aside about 2 hours to see all there is to see, including the trail. If you love history, you’ll love this place!
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Admission is FREE
Hours: Open dawn to dusk – if staying after 5pm, visitors must park outside the gates
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