Picayune Strand State Forest: Experience Naples’ Wilderness

Picayune Strand State Forest in Naples is brimming with raw Florida wilderness waiting to be explored.

Aerial view of car driving through the forest

Florida’s Paradise Coast is known for its beautiful beaches, luxury resorts, fine restaurants, upscale shopping, sophisticated entertainment and plush spas. Picayune Strand State Forest is the opposite of all that. It’s a large tract of genuine Sunshine State wilderness — raw Florida, if you will.

The Basics of Picayune

The 74,000-acre forest, just 12 miles east of downtown Naples, is a table-flat mosaic of pines, cypress, marshes, wet prairies and subtropical hardwood hammocks. It also features an extensive grid of unpaved roads, which can make for fun rides in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. (Note: ATVs are prohibited.) The forest also has long canals for boating and fishing.

Bike parked in field


Wildlife in Picayune Strand

Picayune Strand — there’s no definitive information on how the name came to be, by the way — has extensive animal life that includes some threatened and endangered species. The elusive Florida panther prowls these acres, and though you’re quite unlikely to spot one, you might see its tracks. Foremost, the forest is a birder’s dream. You’ll see various species of eagles, woodpeckers, wood storks, egrets, ibises, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, herons, snipes and many other feathered sorts. One online reviewer wrote, “the birds are right out in the open, easy to see, ID and photograph.”

Off-Road Cycling, Hiking and Riding

Hikers and off-road cyclists can count on plenty of fun. The most widely used route is the Sabal Palm Trail, which consists of two loops of 1.9 and 1.3 miles, and traverses a dwarf cypress forest. Hardcore striders can opt for the Blue Trail, which runs 16.7 miles — and you may not see another person for the entire trek. Feel free to bring your dog to keep you company in the park, but it must be on a leash.

Picayune Strand is the ideal place to ride horses on Florida’s Paradise Coast. It includes one dedicated 22-mile trail and a primitive equestrian campground. There are no RV hookups and no bathrooms, only portable toilets.

Group of horseback riders


A Troubled History

The area that is now Picayune Strand State Forest was logged for cypress and pine trees in the 1940s and ‘50s. After the trees were all but depleted, the then-swampland was acquired by Gulf American Land Corporation, which drained much of the water and carved out roads and canals for what was to become the largest subdivision in the world.

In the late 1960s, salespeople would fly prospective buyers over the land and pressure them to buy without ever having set foot on a parcel. What the salespeople neglected to say was that the area flooded during the rainy season. Plus, there was no electricity or other utilities. Lured by the dream of owning a home in Florida, some 40,000 buyers signed on the dotted line. However, few homes were ever built.

Restoring the Forest

The massive ruse did significant ecological damage to the nearby Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. In the mid-1980s, the state of Florida kicked off a rescue mission and began to purchase land from 17,000 absentee owners. The area was officially named the Picayune Strand State Forest in May 1995. The Picayune Strand Restoration Project, which began in 2007, aims to revive the natural hydrology of the forest and related ecosystems.

The first phase of the massive project was completed in 2016 and the hope is that the entire restoration will be completed by 2024.