Explore the Outdoors

Deer at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Two deer walk through Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Immokalee.

By Terry Tomalin

The sun is hanging low on the horizon as I paddle my sea kayak along the beach at Marco Island. The days are long this time a year, a blessing for an outdoors lover like myself, for there is far too much to do in the measly 24 hours we call a day.

While some prefer cooler months, the locals will tell you that summer is the time of year when nature really comes alive. From Naples to Everglades City, you will find no shortage of places to go, things to see.

Paddling

My transportation of choice is a 17-foot, fiberglass sea kayak – sleek, silent and shallow-running. I've paddled all over the world, but for some reason I always come back to this stretch of coast.

These waters were once the exclusive realm of seasoned paddlers, but now the guesswork has been taken out of it. The new GPS-guided Paradise Coast Blueway, Collier County's official paddling trail, has opened the beaches and mangrove-lined creeks up to kayakers and canoeists of all skill levels.

To begin your adventure, all you need to do is visit www.paradisecoastblueway.com. The first phase of this user-friendly route traverses the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, beginning in Everglades City, at the northern end of Everglades National Park's Wilderness Waterway, and ends at the old fishing village of Goodland. Paddlers can choose from six different day trips or do the entire thing.

Fishing

Anglers wait all year for the summer to come so they can chase Florida's premiere game fish, the common snook, from dawn 'til dusk. These tackle-busters, when fought on light line, have no equal in Florida waters.

This time of year, you will find these sport fish prowling the backcountry creeks and out along the beaches where 36-inch monsters can be caught on a lightweight rod and reel.

But this corner of Florida is also the jumping-off point for deepwater spots that hold grouper, snapper, amberjack and king mackerel. These deepwater denizens are prized by anglers as both sport and table fare.

The most difficult thing about fishing out of Naples and Marco Island is deciding where to go – inshore or offshore?

Hiking

But there is more to this region than beaches, rivers and creeks. Strap on a pair of hiking boots and head inland, deep into the realm of the reclusive Florida panther. Once found throughout the state, the cats are now confined to only the wildest tracts of land, such as the 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Located in the heart of the Big Cypress Basin, the refuge is home to more than this well-known endangered species. Thousands of other animals and plants also call the refuge home, making it one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in Florida.

The refuge has two trails, a 1/3-mile, wheelchair-accessible loop trail that snakes through a hardwood hammock of majestic oaks, many older than the state itself, and a 1-and-1/3-mile trail designed for more adventurous souls.

Nature watching

In hopes of spotting the secretive panther, people stake out Janes Scenic Drive in Fakahatchee Strand, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Bear Island section of Big Cypress National Preserve.

And that's not all. Deep in the forests of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, botanists come from all over the world to see the rare ghost orchid bloom. Each summer, word travels like wildfire to head to this Audubon sanctuary, the last virgin strand of bald cypress trees in Florida, to see the flowering orchid during the summer months.

But nature lovers come here for more than just panthers and air plants. The swamps, marshes and beaches of Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades make the area one of the most popular birding destinations in the world. During the summer months, it is not uncommon to sight birds from below the equator as they fly north for the winter.

Exploring the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades

Round Cape Romano and turn southeast, you will find most signs of civilization soon slipping away. The Ten Thousand Islands is the gateway to the Everglades and a veritable highway for boaters traveling up and down the southwest coast of Florida.

You'll find plenty of secluded beaches to land a kayak (or whatever your mode of water transport), pitch a tent and enjoy a quiet sunset and campfire. House boaters love to anchor in the numerous coves and bays, or "gunk holes," as the old-timers call them.

Florida's Paradise Coast is a wild region waiting to be explored by motor, sail, paddle or foot. During the summer months, you might have the place to yourself, with little restrictions, just the 24 hours we call a day.

Terry Tomalin writes for the Tampa Bay Times and is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He is also VISIT FLORIDA's Boating and Fishing Expert.

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