Everglades City, Fla. – Not far from the chic shops lining the streets of downtown Naples and the sun-kissed sands of Marco Island is the only subtropical wilderness in the United States lies the western Everglades.
Many people don't realize that the Everglades contains both temperate and tropical plant communities, including sawgrass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, pinelands and hardwood hammocks, along with marine and estuarine environments. The area is famous for its rich bird life, particularly large wading birds such as the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and a variety of egrets.
There are many scenic drives through the western Everglades for spotting bird and animal life that are perfect for more restrained sightseers, but for those willing to delve a little deeper, there are several wonderful ways to truly experience the western Florida part of the Everglades in Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand. Hikers who don't mind getting their feet wet should try a swamp walk and canoe and kayak paddlers will find endless opportunities for backcountry wilderness routes.
Call it a swamp walk, slough (slew), slog or the more mirthful "muck-about," it all means getting your feet wet to explore the mysterious and strangely beautiful world of the cypress swamp in Southwest Florida.
Within a 45-minute drive of Naples, you could be marveling at wild orchids, bromeliads and other rare exotic plants.
Within a 45-minute drive of either Naples or Marco Island, you can be knee deep in the crystal clear water of a pristine cypress strand, marveling at native Florida orchids, bromeliads and other rare plants while birds and butterflies flit overhead and the wind gently wafts through the tall trees.
Most first time swamp walkers anticipate the experience with a mixture of fear and trepidation, anticipating run-ins with mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. The mosquito myth is quickly swatted down when participants learn that a little fish living in large numbers in the swamp, the gambusia, dines hungrily on mosquito larvae. The so-called mosquito fish's botanical counterpart is the carnivorous bladderwort, whose lovely little yellow or purple flowers belie its passion for devouring, you guessed it – mosquito larvae. With all of that mosquito munching going on, there is no sign of the biting beasts once you are within the swamp environment. And while there are snakes and alligators living in the swamp, they are notoriously shy and typically depart before ever being seen.
Rangers and park biologists at both the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve lead free, guided swamp walks on a regular basis during the winter season, when water levels are at their lowest. Year round, several nature guide services operating in the region will arrange tours for individuals or groups as part of an Everglades experience. And during his annual Big Cypress Gallery Fall Festival, famed Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher and his team lead members of the public on his annual muck-about in the cypress strand directly behind his Big Cypress Gallery.
The Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park's Gulf Coast entrance in Everglades City are prime launch spots for canoe and kayak paddlers in search of a true wilderness environment.
Many paddlers put in at the Turner River alongside the Tamiami Trail in the Big Cypress and paddle all the way to Chokoloskee Bay in Everglades City. It's an approximate eight hours of paddling that begins in the cypress, navigates through tunnels of mangrove roots and then out into the open bay. This is also a great spot for a half day paddle if you just want to go part way and then turn around.
Navigate your way through winding mangrove tunnels and wide-open bays.
From the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City there are a number of paddling trails that provide trips ranging from two hours to nine days. This is the launching spot to begin what many people consider the paddling trip of a lifetime along the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile route through the Everglades backcountry from Everglades City to Flamingo. You have to carry all your food and water with you, because you won't see civilization the entire time you're out there. You will see spectacular sunsets and have encounters with bottlenose dolphins, manatees, birds and Florida's most prized game fish – snook, redfish and tarpon. Fly fishing and spin casting from kayaks in this backcountry wilderness is catching on as one of the hottest fishing experiences in the state.
The Paradise Coast Blueway is a system of paddling trails that provide GPS-marked trail routes. The Blueway twists through the Ten Thousand Islands and includes one long trail route from Everglades City to Goodland, along with at least five shorter day trip trails allowing paddlers to experience the coastal mangrove estuaries teeming with bird and wildife.
If You Go
Big Cypress National Preserve
Free ranger-led swamp walks and canoe trips depart from the Oasis Visitor Center from December through March.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Ranger-led swamp walks depart from the ranger station on Janes Scenic Drive several times a month in the winter season.
Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery
Scheduled swamp walks are offered Fridays through Mondays from late fall through spring. Private walks may be arranged for groups on other days. The annual Fall Festival at the gallery, usually the last weekend in October, includes swamp walks, photographic demonstrations, and more has become very popular and requires advance reservations. The gallery is also a great stop for drivers traveling the Tamiami Trail. The gallery, filled with Clyde Butcher's unique large format black & white Everglades photographs, is located between Shark Valley and the Big Cypress National Preserve's Oasis Visitor Center, halfway between Miami and Naples.
Located in The Ivey House Bed & Breakfast in Everglades City – full backcountry outfitters for canoe, kayak and swamp exploration trips.
Everglades Area Tours
An extensive menu of trips and explorations includes a variety of motor boat assisted kayak tours, as well as guided swamp walks and educational tours.
Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center
Backcountry camping permits and assistance for planning Wilderness Waterway as well as shorter paddling trips. Open year round.