Hidden Gems of Florida’s Paradise Coast
From beautiful wetland trails to interesting small museums, you will find plenty of fun at these hidden gems in Florida’s Paradise Coast, encompassing Naples, Marco Island, and the Everglades. You will not need a shovel to dig these hidden treasures in and near Naples.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
A National Audubon Society gem, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is stunning. About 30 minutes east of I-75, it is a birder’s paradise but also has a super rare ghost orchid. Originally set aside to save the largest virgin bald cypress habitat in the world (700 acres), Corkscrew now contains 13,000 glorious wetland acres in the western Everglades.
Collier County Freedom Memorial / Freedom Park
After driving past the large U.S. flag monument on Golden Glade Parkway several times, I finally stopped to check it out. What a pleasant surprise to find a glorious wetland habitat behind the monument. A 1/2 mile raised boardwalk at Freedom Park allows you to walk above gators, snakes, fish, and wetlands. It is also a Collier County park and residents can rent the 100-seat recreation center room for events.
Ten Thousand Islands Boardwalk Hike (Marsh Trail)
A few miles into the Big Cypress Swamp portion of the Everglades along Tamiami Trail, look for the Marsh Trail parking lot around Mile Marker 31. The trail provides both hiking and paddling access to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Walk about 1 mile on the level dirt Marsh Trail and then climb the tower for a better view. We were trapped in the tower for a few minutes because a giant gator decided to cross the trail back to the parking lot. Would you have dared step over her?
Museum of the Everglades
This small museum in historic Everglades City highlights local history and artists. The remarkable Dade County pine floor of the Museum of the Everglades was restored after Hurricane Irma and you can still see the mud level lines on the walls. The photos in the Abandoned Vehicles of the Everglades exhibit astounded me; check to see what the current exhibit is. Window covers in the main museum section are large banners made by local artists depicting local historic scenes. Take a selfie with the fun gator bicycle rack in front of the museum.
Naples Depot Museum
Explore Southwest Florida's railroad heritage at the Naples Depot Museum. Take a fun ride on the scale train on an outdoor track that weaves around the property. A few full-size train cars, and a multi-level miniature train display, are also on site. The train depot is a short walk from the Tamiami Trail / 5th Avenue South intersection. Nearby at Bayfront is the quirky Shane's Cabana Bar.
The eight-mile long Keewaydin Island is the only Naples beach allowing dogs. On weekends, hundreds of boats turn Keewaydin into Kokomo. A popular burger boat and an ice cream boat provide yummy treats. During the week, you might have the island to yourself, as I did on a Pure Florida ecotour, where I found dozens of intact sand dollars.
Gordon River Greenway Park
The Gordon River Greenway has several sections and access points. I start at the section just past the Naples Zoo parking lot. Take a short one-mile walk across a magnificent boardwalk over the natural wetlands. Look for gators, snakes, birds, fish, and sawgrass. And watch out for bicyclists.
You do not even have to drive from downtown Naples to see some of my favorite local gems. Along 5th Avenue South, 3rd Street South, and on adjacent streets, walk around and discover your own magnificent banyan trees. Some majestic banyan trees can be found on the St. Ann's property and in front of various homes and apartment buildings.
Charles McCool works with destinations and brands to promote fun and unique travel experiences to highly engaged audiences. Follow him on McCoolTravel.com and Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Flipboard.