Day 1: Naples
For an excellent overview of the intriguing history of Florida's Paradise Coast, visit the Collier County Museum in Naples.
The museum's exhibits show what the area was like more than 10,000 years ago, when Paleoindians as well as mastodons, camels, mammoths and huge herds of bison and deer roamed the area. Also learn about the Calusa and Seminole Indians, and the first pioneers who moved to Southwest Florida. At the museum you can also see native plant gardens, two early Naples cottages, swamp buggies, a WWII Sherman tank and a logging locomotive.
Next, take a guided tour of Palm Cottage, the oldest house in Naples. It was built in 1895 out of tabby mortar, made of lime, shells and beach sand. In 1996, the house was restored at a cost of more than $300,000, and in 2014 it received a porch addition. Today Pal Cottage houses the Naples Historical Society and the society's collection of artifacts. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Day 2: Marco Island
Head south to Marco Island and visit the Marco Island Historical Museum, at the Shops at Olde Marco, which depicts Marco Island history and houses Calusa Indian artifacts discovered in the area. Notably, in 1896, archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing unearthed the famed Key Marco Cat wood carving and other artifacts here. The cat is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., but a replica is on display here.
But who says you have to stay indoors to learn about history? In the afternoon, take a guided tour of Calusa Indian shell mound sites with Florida Backcountry Adventures. The company offers trips of all activity levels to explore the mounds, from mild to extreme, along with the many waterways and inland hiking areas in the Gulf Coast Everglades.
From Marco Island, head inland to the Tamiami Trail. This 50-mile segment of U.S. 41, from Collier-Seminole State Park to Big Cypress National Preserve, passes by pioneer-era towns, mangrove forests, cypress strands and sawgrass prairies. At Collier-Seminole State Park, you can see a "walking dredge," considered a marvel of modern engineering used in the late 1920s for the construction of the Tamiami Trail. Or walk the nature boardwalks in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve to see what Florida's Paradise Coast was like for the Calusa Indians some 2,000 years ago.
Day 3: Everglades City
In Everglades City, check out the Museum of the Everglades, where the exhibits focus on the history of the southwest Everglades, the building of the Tamiami Trail and Collier County's development in the early 1920s. The museum building, originally used as a commercial laundry facility for the early Everglades City pioneers back when the Tamiami Trail was being constructed, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stop in at the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center. This free center offers information about the Ten Thousand Islands portion of the national park, along with backcountry camping permits for sites along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Hop on board one of the regularly scheduled sightseeing cruises to experience the saltwater portion of the park.
Cruise across Chokoloskee Bay on the causeway to the Historic Smallwood Store, filled with artifacts from its days as the post office and trading post for turn of the century pioneers, native Americans and infamous outlaws. Next, back out on Tamiami Trail, stop at the Ochopee Post Office, the country's smallest. The structure was originally an irrigation pipe shed, but became an official post office facility after a fire burned Ochopee's post office and general store in 1953.
When you leave Everglades City, trek north to Immokalee for a last historic treat – the Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch, one of the oldest historical cattle ranches in continuous use in Florida.