10 Things to do at Rookery Bay

Summer marks the time of the year that you should be outdoors on the weekends, soaking up the sun while accidentally gargling salt water.  Of course, everyone rushes to the beaches in the summer, leaving them crowded and you feeling claustrophobic.

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

   So why not switch up your plans and head to Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve? The 110,000-acre reserve stretches from Naples to Ten Thousand Islands and offers visitors a versatile getaway from the tourist-filled beaches. With more than 150 different species of birds and animals found in the reserve’s waters and mangrove forests, plus a myriad of islands, it’s almost harder to find what not to do than what to do. Here’s a look at ten fun activities to do at the reserve this summer.

Rookery Bay map

Courtesy of Rookery Bay

Join a Guided Nature Tour

Grab a paddle, hop in a kayak, and navigate your way through the maze of mangrove forests and backwater bays alongside one of the reserve’s experienced naturalists for a two-hour guided nature tour of Rookery Bay. Wildlife sightings abound, with excellent chances of encounting wading birds, osprey, fish, dolphins, and possibly a manatee. For a more relaxing and serene tour, step into one of the reserve’s boat tours. The cost for a kayak tour is $55 and paddlers must be 12 or older. Boat tours vary each month and range from $85-90.

Manatee - Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Map the Reserve with Geocaching

If you’re more of a free bird who likes to explore without guidance, geocaching could be perfect for you. Geocaching is like treasure hunting, but instead of using an old-timey pirate map, explorers use GPS-enabled devices like smart phones. Once seekers navigate to the cache, usually a container, you log its components onto a geocaching website and place your own items back in the container. The reserve offers multiple caches along its nature trails if you’re more of a land pirate, and more than 20 caches along a more extensive kayak trail for those with their sea legs.


Wildlife Sleuthing

River Otters - Rookery BayEastern Indigo Snake - Rookery Bay

Become a field operative and search out the reserve’s many wild inhabitants. Saying that the scope of the Rookery Bay’s animal inhabitants is vast is an understatement. The waters are rife with marine life, from dolphins and manatee, to a multitude of fish and crustacean species all calling the watery nursery home. If you’re lucky, you just might be able to catch a glimpse of some of the reserve rare land animals, including bobcats, black bears, and ultra-illusive Florida panther. Not as rare, but no less a treat, otter sightings are often the norm as kayakers quietly glide through the early morning waters. For those who scare easily from the cold-blooded, keep an eye out for the reptile life, with alligators, turtles galore, and more snakes than you can shake a stick at, while the insect life, well … bring a can of bug repellant.

Snowy Egret - Rookery Bay birding

   But when it comes to Rookery Bay, birds are where it’s at. As the name suggests, Rookery Bay is an important bird habitat, with migratory birds of a vast variety making pit stops here to nest and feed, while many of Florida’s native birds call the 110,000-acre slice of paradise home. A birder’s dream, reserve guests can spy predatory birds like Bald eagles, osprey, hawks, and owls; beach-nesting birds like least terns, black skimmers, and Wilson plover’s; coastal water birds like herons, egrets, ibis, pelicans, and cormorants; and much more, making this a destination for those looking to add a few notches to their life lists.


Island Hopping

Slip your toes in the silky white sands of Key Island’s (also known as Keewaydin) shores for a relaxing afternoon. The isle, which stretches eight miles long, allows for hiking, horseback riding, and camping in designated areas if you’re up for a more active experience. Besides being a recreational strip of paradise, Key Island also serves as a vital sanctuary for Rookery Bay’s wildlife, as least terns and loggerheads sea turtles nest along the beach.


Immerse Yourself in Art

Stroll through the Rookery Bay Art Gallery to catch a glimpse of some of the reserve’s wildlife through paintings and photographs done by local artists, students, and artistically-minded residents. The gallery, which hosts exhibitions year round, is currently showcasing the region’s avian friends and the garden life with Kirsten Hines’ solo-photography exhibit “South Florida Birds and Gardens,” on display May 25 through September 23. For more on this exhibition, click here.

Kirsten Hines - Rookery Bay - United Arts Council

Photo by Kirsten Hines

   Help create your child’s next masterpiece at the reserve’s Art for Mom and Me. Held every Wednesday, 10-11 a.m., the Environmental Learning Center will transform into an artist studio from June 10 through August 5, when local artist Marjorie Pesek leads moms and kiddies in creating their own wildlife-related works of art using hr “layered imagery” art technique with photo and magazine clippings. The $25 registration fee includes all supplies and complimentary admission to the learning center; children must be 5 or older. To register, click here.


“Trails Through Time”

Who needs a treadmill when you have trails?  The reserve’s “Trails Through Time” is a series of four trails that offers visitors an enriching opportunity to learn about Rookery Bay’s history and absorb some of the bay’s captivating landscape. Each trail is only about a quarter mile long so you won’t have to strain yourself. The trails are located near the end of Shell Island Road, about five miles from the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center.


Paddle Party

Kayaking Rookery Bay

If you’re looking for a place to paddleboard, canoe or kayak, the Isles of Capri Paddlecraft Park has got you covered. As Collier County’s lone public access facility designed solely for launching paddle crafts, this park features a ramp to depart from and provides access to McIlvane Bay – a more peaceful section of the reserve. The park is located a few miles south of the learning center off of Collier Road. 



Camping at Rookery Bay

There’s only one way to fully experience Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve: camping. Pitch a tent, gather around an open fire and gaze at the stars while soaking in the sounds of the wildlife at one of the nearly 10 designated camping locations within the reserve. If you do choose to go camping, make sure you follow the reserve’s campfire, hygiene, and safety guidelines – as illustrated here.


Kids Free Fridays

Strap your kids into the car and head to the reserve on Fridays for Kids Free Fridays. The summer program, which runs from June 12-Aug. 7 every Friday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., offers children aged 12 and younger a free chance to connect with nature in a fun and interactive experience. There is a wide array of activities to keep kids’ attentions, including: a marine animal touch tank, crafts, films, stories, and educational, yet entertaining presentations. Children must be accompanied by an adult, and there’s a limit of five children per adult. Adult tickets are $5.


Coastal Connections

Tag along for one of Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center’s Coastal Connections Daily Program to learn about local wildlife and the surrounding environment. The 45-minute programs, which occur daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., are included with admission. Topics vary day-to-day but can include manatees, snakes, birds, and shells.

June’s schedule of topics includes:


  • 11 a.m.: Manatee Marvels
  • 2 p.m.: Slithering Snakes


  • 11 a.m.: Touch Tank
  • 2 p.m.: Shells of Southwest Florida


  • 11 a.m.: Skulls and Bones
  • 2 p.m.: Birds of the Beach


  • 11 a.m.: Slithering Snakes
  • 2 p.m.: Feature Film


  • 11 a.m.: Creature Feature
  • 2 p.m.: Feature Film


Bonus Fun: Volunteer

Help sustain Rookery Bay and volunteer. Volunteerism is a vital part of any natural reserve, preserve, or park (county, state, or national), and Rookery Bay is no exception. Volunteers login more than 18,000 hours a year at the reserve, playing a vital role in the preservation, restoration, and management of the mangrove estuary. People of all ages can volunteer (children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult) to help in the learning center, with special programs like the Estuary Explorers, as well as working in the park, helping with maintenance, construction, and exotic species removal.

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