That alligator was not going to budge. Its obstinacy surprised me nearly as much as its presence as I approached the boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park that cool December morning.
Normally an alligator flees at the approach of a human, but it stood fast, ahead in the safe distance, blocking my passage to the trail. Then I heard it. The delicate splashing in the water behind me and the beast. There in the river shallows played six or so yellow-striped baby 'gators, no bigger than salamanders. Needless to say, I left mamma to her guardianship. The boardwalk could wait for another day.
In and around Naples, I have experienced flurries of white ibises in the Ten Thousand Islands and encountered white-tailed deer alongside Route 29. I have been surprised by dead palm fronds on Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve that stood up to become alligators and crawled off into the water. I spied a secretive limpkin – the first on my life list – in the morning's light at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. I have hit upon what is apparently gopher tortoise rush hour, judging by the number of animals that crossed in front of my car, at Barefoot Beach Preserve.
I see something different each time I venture into the Naples area wilderness, whether it's to the beach or deep into Everglades territory. Therein lies the beauty of the experience. The experience here is real. It's a journey of serendipity, where the punch line changes no matter how many times you travel the same path, watery trail, or back road. It all depends upon time of day, tides, season, mating patterns, weather and being at the right place at the right time. In other words: luck.
You are bound to see something wild if you hit these favorite wildlife habitats. (You will see mosquitoes, so plan your forays when it's cool for best sightings and fewest bites.) And let the journey begin.
Everglades National Park & Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
The park and refuge preserve the crucial mangrove forests that provide habitat for 80 percent of all the area's marine creatures at some time in their lives, and more than 100 species of birds. To find sea creatures, book a fishing guide out of Everglades City. For kayak fishing and exploring the Wilderness Waterway, charter the Yak Attack mother ship from EvergladesKayaks.com. For birding, sign up for guided paddling tours with Everglades National Park or with North American Canoe Tours in Everglades City. The park's concessionaire also conducts pontoon boat excursions into salt waters to see shorebirds, ospreys, herons, egrets and more. For best viewing, go at feeding time – usually mornings or low tide – and in the winter, when migratory birds fly in and drought concentrates food supplies.
North of the mangroves – where there's fresh water and islands of land rising from the marshes – alligators, deer, Florida panthers, raccoons, snakes and turtles thrive. Airboat tours take you to see 'gators in the so-called "river of grass" marshes, but don't count on spying the rare and wary panther.
Big Cypress National Preserve & Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Big Cypress abuts Everglades National Park and affords an easy opportunity for spotting 'gators. Merely driving along Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), you can spy their snouts poking from canals that border the road. Often they'll lumber up on shore to sun once the day warms up.
Explore the new boardwalk at Kirby Storter roadside park, leading deep into the cool cypress dome. Spot alligators and snakes below from the safety of the boardwalk.
Stop at H.P. Williams Roadside Park and walk along the viewing deck to see a congested population of turtles, fish and alligators in Turner River Canal. The water is so clear, you can see the gators' entire bodies hanging below the surface in a sort of dead-man's float. You can continue along the dirt, washboard road and follow the canal for many miles. I recommend a truck or SUV, both for an elevated view and better handling on rough roads.
If you're the hiking type, a trailhead for the Florida National Scenic Trail can be found at the Oasis Visitor Center, along Tamiami Trail. Another observation deck at this visitor center hangs over a waterway where huge gators loll. The preserve's Loop Road begins to the west. Its first 15 miles are unpaved with stretches of washboard and some pot holes. But that's where you see the most wildlife. Gators sun themselves along the road and at your approach, rise and race into the mysterious, forest-veiled waterway alongside. On my last venture, I saw more than a dozen, plus a soft-shell turtle, raccoons and a river otter. Four panthers monitored by preserve officials range in the vicinity of Loop Road, so watch for signs of their nocturnal prowling. A new loop trail in adjacent Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge also delves into cat habitat.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
In addition to its boardwalk, experience nature along the 11-mile (one-way) Janes Scenic Drive, which ends in Picayune State Forest. I love its stands of native royal palms and once, when rounding a curve on the unpaved road, I was stopped by a flock of roseate spoonbills, egrets, and ibises feeding in the water. Trails off the road let you in for hiking. To really get into the wetland scene, ask about swamp walk tours led by park biologists to explore this unique ecosystem that is home to scores of rare orchids and bromeliads.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Frogs that oink and owls that ask about your chef: get the introduction to the swamp's subtle and not-so-subtle creatures in the Swamp Theater, which re-creates the moods and sounds along the sanctuary's 2.25-mile boardwalk. Home to a nesting colony of endangered wood storks, the old-growth cypress forest shelters the rarest of birds. You'll also see alligators, sometimes deer and otters, and if you look closely, claw marks from Florida bears on trees and scat from bobcats on the boardwalk. And when you hear "who cooks for you" you know (if you were paying attention at Swamp Theater) it's that nosy, noisy barred owl.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Clam Pass Beach Park, Tigertail Beach and Barefoot Beach are best for spotting wildlife in a maritime environment. Gopher tortoises build their burrows in the sand, shorebirds feed at water's edge, seashells slide along the sea floor, sting rays nest at water's edge in summer (shuffle your feet to avoid stepping on them) and fish flip in and out of tidal pools. Barefoot Beach also has a butterfly garden and a canoe trail into bird habit.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
This vast resource near Marco Island is the local secret of recreational fishermen and paddlers. Its 110,000 protected acres are accessible by small boat launch. An Environmental Learning Center interprets the crucial mangrove habitat and issues maps and tour and rental options for its kayaking trail.
On any given day, get near the water and you're likely to spot dolphins, but the best tour guides learn their feeding habits and the tides to figure out how to find them. Same goes for manatees, in which some tour operators specialize. Others help you find fish, shells and birds. Keewaydin Island, Coconut Island and the rookery islands around Marco Island are favorite shelling and birding destinations.