From state parks to national preserves, the Paradise Coast offers plentiful opportunities to experience a pristine, untouched Florida just as it looked hundreds of years ago – from rustic Everglades trails to spectacular paddling trails. Whether you prefer to explore on land or by water, these nature trails in and around the Everglades are treasure troves for all levels of hikers, cyclists, boaters and kayakers to get up close with the area’s unique native flora and fauna.
Hiking at Big Cypress National Preserve
Start your nature hike through Big Cypress National Preserve at the Oasis Visitor Center on Tamiami Trail. From here, more than 40 miles of trails extend north to Alligator Alley and south to Loop Road, with primitive campgrounds located along the way. Tent camping along hiking trails is also permitted. Wildlife sightings are likely in the roadside canals and throughout the pinelands. Keep an eye out for barred owls, otters, wild turkeys, bobcats, water moccasins and, very rarely, a Florida panther. Early morning hours are best for spotting wildlife. Birdwatchers may recognize red-cockaded woodpecker colonies, bluebirds and brown nuthatches.
IF YOU GO: 33100 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; 239-695-2000; Website.
Explore Wetlands at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
For a glimpse of wild Florida, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
provides a 2.25-mile-long boardwalk through wetlands, pinelands and the largest old-growth bald-cypress forest in North America. In addition to alligators, otters, white-tailed deer and red-bellied turtles, thousands of wood storks nest in this 13,000-acre sanctuary when Everglades water levels are low, and they can frequently be seen from the boardwalk. Corkscrew Swamp is also one of the few places in the United States where you can see a blooming ghost orchid
. For the best insight, join a ranger-led hike, which departs from the visitor center.
IF YOU GO: 375 Sanctuary Road W., Naples; 239-348-9151; Website.
Rookery Bay by Land or Water
Visitors to Rookery Bay
can explore its 110,000 acres by land or water. Guided kayak excursions are led by active local biologists, certified naturalists and certified kayaking instructors. These tours take paddlers through mangrove tunnels, teeming mudflats and intricate oyster reefs as they search for wildlife, including sea stars, large snails, birds, dolphins and manatees. All experience levels, from first-time paddler to pro, are appropriate. Kayaks are also available for individual rental for those who prefer to explore on their own.
On land, a series of four hiking trails – each approximately one-quarter-mile long – is located near the end of Shell Island Road. The Shell Mound Trail follows a mangrove-fringed shoreline adjacent to pre-Calusa shell mound sites, historic sites and an active habitat restoration project. Visitors can learn about the native peoples and pioneers who previously lived in the Rookery Bay area, as well as the role of the local community in establishing the reserve, through self-guided interpretive signs. Botanical signage also has been installed along the trails to assist visitors in identifying various native trees.
IF YOU GO: 300 Tower Road, Naples; 239-530-5940; Website.
Bike or Hike Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
The largest state park in Florida, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve features plentiful nature trails and hiking and biking opportunities. The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is about 2,500 feet long and winds through a pristine section of the Fakahatchee Strand swamp to an alligator pond and observation deck. The more adventurous can hike approximately 60 miles of trails, all of which are cleared tram roads created when the land was logged from the 1940s to the 1960s. The two most popular hiking trails are the East and West Main trams. The West Main tram passes through two miles of strand swamp before opening up into an expansive marl prairie, a tidal freshwater marsh ecosystem. The East Main tram, ideal for hiking and biking, passes through the central slough, one of the most picturesque spots in the park. Park staff offers guided swamp walks from November through February.
IF YOU GO: 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland; 239-695-4593; Website
Spot Flora & Fauna from the Trail at Collier-Seminole State Park
The 7,271-acre Collier-Seminole State Park lies partly within the great mangrove swamp of southern Florida, one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world. It features four nature trails for hiking or biking. Bring your own bike or rent one from the park’s concessionaire.
The Royal Palm Hammock Nature Trail/Boardwalk (0.9 miles) spans a tropical hardwood hammock and low wetland area, where visitors can spot pond apple trees, thick patches of giant leather ferns or stands of white mangrove. The far end of the boardwalk has a 200-yard spur trail that ends at a scenic platform extending to the salt marsh. Birds are often seen feeding or nesting in the area.
The Strand Swamp Trail (5.25 miles) and Flatwoods Trail (3 miles) feature a variety of wildflowers in bloom, cypress trees and pine islands where native animals take refuge during the wet summer and fall months. (Both trails are typically wet except in the winter and early spring.) Hikers must register at the ranger station to get a map and gain access to the trail; the full loop typically takes three to four hours. The Prairie Hammock Trail/Off Road Bike & Hiking Trail (3.5 miles) is suitable for either biking or walking. Deer, gopher tortoise, Florida black bears, wading birds and a variety of songbirds are seen frequently. Though rare, it is also possible to catch sight of endangered species like Florida panthers and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Visitors must register at the ranger station before departing on this trail.
IF YOU GO: 20200 Tamiami Trail E., Naples; 239-394-3397; Website.
Everglades Wilderness Waterway Paddling Trails
Everglades City is the launch site for a visit to the Ten Thousand Islands
and the Wilderness Waterway. Ideal for canoes, kayaks and small powerboats, the Wilderness Waterway is a 100-mile marked boat trail through mangrove-lined creeks, rivers, lagoons and open bays. The Turner River Canoe Trail, which begins on the Tamiami Trail and ends on Chokoloskee Island, makes an excellent day trip amid breathtaking cypress trees and mangroves.
Along the way, cast a line – there’s some great fishing to be had – and catch glimpses of birds, alligators, manatees and sea turtles.
IF YOU GO: Website