Outdoor Adventures in Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades

By Chelle Koster Walton

As Florida's final wilderness frontier – where Everglades wetlands meet the Gulf of Mexico, and mangrove forest meets beach – the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades area gives you weeks' worth of outdoor fun in the wildest of settings. Experience the natural surroundings with this four day itinerary.

Day 1: Pristine Beaches to Primeval Swamps

Ease into the primeval nature scene with an introduction to beach ecology at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park in North Naples. Work on your tan as you comb the sands with the local shorebirds, scouting out the minute sea life that inhabits the shore.

A boardwalk in one of the natural habitats found in Florida's Paradise Coast.

A boardwalk in one of the natural habitats found in Florida's Paradise Coast.

In summer, you might notice trails that look like tractor treads. They're actually sea turtle tracks, and they end where the mother sea turtle has deposited eggs. Ranger patrols cage the nests to protect the eggs from marauding raccoons, and they lead turtle talks to teach about the prehistoric creatures. Other guided tours focus on snorkeling, kayaking, birds and local flora. Climb the observation tower for an overview and cast a line into the pass to meet some of the local underwater residents.

After a beach picnic, head to Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for your first taste of Everglades ecology. Get a preview in the Swamp Theater, then follow the 2.5-mile boardwalk to look for alligators, roseate spoonbills, black bears, deer and bobcats. Corkscrew is also home to an annual wood stork migration and boasts the largest mating population of these endangered birds in the country. Finish the day with a Cocohatchee Nature Center sunset eco-cruise into the protected Cocohatchee River – home to egrets, herons and the occasional bald eagle and kestrel.

Day 2: Paddling & Hiking the Everglades

Bird watching at a local preserve.

Collier-Seminole State Park provides easy modes for Everglades exploring. In the morning, set up camp (attempt camping only in the cool months); otherwise, opt for a mosquito-free room at nearby Port of the Islands Hotel. Then paddle along the 13.6-mile Blackwater River canoe trail loop into mangrove forest, home to fish and birds. Boat tours also ply the local waters.

After a picnic lunch, head to the park's trails by bike or foot. The 3.5-mile hiking and biking trail traverses bird and alligator habitat. Other hiking trails explore a salt marsh, cypress forest and royal palm hammock.

Day 3: Alligators, Boat Tours & Wild Orchids

An airboat operator takes a tour group on a wild ride through mangroves and marsh grass near Everglades City.

An airboat operator takes a tour group on a wild ride through mangroves and marsh grass near Everglades City.

Now you're ready for the extreme 'Glades experience. Start with a morning drive into the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve along Loop Road, where alligators crawl along the unpaved road and hawks swoop in front of the car. On your way back west, stop at the preserve's Oasis Visitor Center and H.P. Williams Roadside Park to watch alligators from viewing platforms. Adventurers can join the sanctuary’s outreach/education program for an expedition into the swamp that introduces explorers to orchids, dwarf cypress, pond apple trees and the colorful, carnivorous bladderwort that feeds on mosquito larvae.

For lunch, sample fare from the Everglades – fried alligator tail, Seminole Indian fry bread, stone or blue crab, and frog legs – at rustic Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe.

Head to Everglades National Park, the only subtropical preserve in North America and part of the country’s largest wetlands system, for an hour-long Everglades National Park Boat Tour that departs from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. End the day with a stroll along Big Cypress Bend boardwalk trail at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, known for its wild orchids. For an Everglades-immersing experience, ask about the preserve's guided swamp walks in fall, winter and spring.

Day 4: Birding & Shelling

Today, go eco-lite. Hit Tigertail Beach on Marco Island for morning birding and shelling. Ranger-led programs examine shells, sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, birds and more. Learn more about the ecology you've been experiencing from nearby Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center's super-sized and interactive exhibits.