History and mystery at Rye Preserve in Manatee County

I’m a big fan of “neighborhood campgrounds” – those little, out-of-the-way campgrounds with few amenities and even fewer campers.  Probably because I don’t care too much about campsite grills and frills, but these campgrounds tend to be cheaper, quieter and ready on short notice.

In Manatee County, Rye Preserve is one such campground.  It’s about as in-the-middle-of-nowhere as you can get in that county, and it’s a pretty cool place to spend the weekend. There are about 20 sites at the campground, and they are rented on a first-come-first-served basis for $20 a night.  You can easily fit three tents on a single site.


The chocolate gets extra melty if you leave it in your car all day.

There is nothing special about the campground, at all.  It’s as ho-hum as they come – clean bathrooms, occasional picnic tables, a small ranger station – but its relative isolation means there are all sorts of cool things to do nearby.

There’s plenty of biking and hiking trails wandering away from the campground and into the surrounding shrubs and scrubs.  One trail winds back to the Rye cemetery.  The family that settled this land, lived and farmed on it, are buried in a small clearing a few miles from the campground.  A fairly easy hike back into the woods leads to a big clearing, where the cemetery is still well maintained, despite its age (many of the tombstones were from the late 1800s).

It’s hard to imagine how tough life must have been back then.

Hard-shelled turtle

Turtles like to hike too.

We searched around for a sign of their settlement, but aside from a few conspicuous clearings, we didn’t come across any tangible proof that people lived on the site.  I’ve been looking for more information on this family – who they were, where they are, and what happened to the many young children buried here – but to no avail.  Still, a fascinating hike and it left me thinking a lot about Florida frontier culture (especially looking at the tragically short life spans on some of the tombstones).

Hiking back to the campground, we saw armadillos, tortoises, deer and birds of all shapes and sizes.  We got a little turned around on one trail, hiked a few extra miles and ended up on the wrong side of a big fence, but scaled it and were back on our way.

Side note:  There’s lots of hiking out here, but the trails aren’t very well defined – so bring a charged cellphone or GPS and lots of water.

The best part about the campground is its easy and convenient access to the Manatee River.  From the campground, there’s a 100-foot trail down to the waters edge.  It’s an easy spot to put in a kayak or canoe, but nothing larger.

The campground sits near the river at a pretty low-flow area.  Near the campground, the water is very shallow (2 feet, when I was there), but as you paddle in either direction, it quickly opens up.  This section of Manatee River is absolutely beautiful.  There’s no development in either direction, the trees are lush and the alligators plump.  The flow is slow, so it’s easy to paddle up or down river.

Manatee River Kayak

Glassy waters and green trees. Nothing better.

Heading down river, we spotted a sideways palm tree that was just begging for a cannonball.  We beached the kayaks, jumped from the tree and had a blast splashing around in the water for a while.

We got back in the kayaks and paddled around the bend and came face-to-face with a big gator – it’s eyes sitting like marbles on the water and the end of its tail a good 8 feet away from the tip of it’s snout.  A few feet later we spotted the baby gators.  I was glad we got out of the water when we did.

Tree jumping

Don’t try this at home.

baby alligators

I’m guessing the big one was the momma.

We also did a bit of river tracing, hiking the smaller tributaries up the river to see where they went.  We found some wild orange trees, and snacked on those while we paddled.

We spent two full days at Rye Preserve.  Ninety percent of the time we were paddling, and the rest was spent hiking and S’mores-ing.  For $20 a night, you can’t beat the access to the river and the interesting, historic hiking trails.

I’m always looking for little campgrounds like this.  If you know of any of any especially good ones, let me know!



  1. Great Post – I can’t wait to check it out. You might want o visit Crowley Museum and Nature Center near Myakka, Fl. Their primitive campground not open to the public but I take groups down there and you are welcome to join us on one of our upcoming trips! Just let me know!

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