There’s an undeniable spiritual connection with nature that permeates Southwest Florida. Just imagine witnessing the majesty of an egret gliding over a moonlit sheet of glass, leaving a thin trail as delicate as a ripple in the wind. Or embarking on a sunrise hike to hear a chorus of indigenous wildlife echoing through the mangrove-dense swamp. Or marveling at the hot orange and purples of the sun as she tucks her children in for the night. Studies have shown a direct correlation between nature and happiness, and here we highlight a few interactive ways to destress and connect with Mother Earth in all her glory.
The best part about kayaking is that it doesn’t require a lot of athleticism. Sure, it helps if you have good upper-body strength, but this pastime can be as rigorous or relaxing as you like. Ask kayakers why they are devotees, and they’ll say it’s a fantastic way to get close to nature that you couldn’t do on foot. And they mean really close. Paddlers can sneak up on creatures in their natural habitats and watch as they go about their daily routines. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida hosts early morning and moonlight kayak tours through the mangroves on the Gordon River. For adrenaline junkies, Paddle Naples in Bonita Springs offers kayak fishing tours that promise interactive competition with tarpons that can weigh more than 100 pounds. Get ready to put up a fight because these feisty fish will test your strength and endurance with head shakes even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would struggle to reel in.
2. Jet Skiing
If you’re looking to experience nature at full speed, turn off the snooze button and take a Jet Ski ride over a crystalline highway brimming with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and aquatic flora that would delight any botanist. Breakwater Adventures in Marco Island will escort you through mangrove mazes that can be as wide as a football field or as narrow as the streets of Florence, Italy. Breakwater keeps its two-hour outings intimate with only three WaveRunners per tour, ensuring the best wildlife spotting. Sweetwater Lifestyles Adventures in Bonita Springs guarantees dolphin sightings at least 99 percent of the time on its dolphin Jet Ski tour. The paths are weather-dependent but typically start at Bonita Beach Road and snake through Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, past Lovers Key State Park, and onto Estero Bay’s backcountry.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) has become wildly popular due to its user-friendly, anyone-can-do-it appeal. What better way to commune with nature than by traveling at your own pace across the Gulf of Mexico, iridescent sea life just a few feet below? The savviest of paddlers love Clam Pass Park in Naples, home to boundless scenic beauty. Bring your own board or rent one from outfitters like Naples Paddle (naplespaddle.com). Marco Paddle Board Adventures will take you on a guided tour through the mangrove tunnels and bays at the Capri Paddlecraft Park off Marco Island.
4. Paddle Yoga
If you’re bored with your regular yoga class and want to do some Vinyasa in the midst of dolphins and manatees, try this peaceful SUP trend. Practicing on a board measuring 10 to 12 feet long forces you to work harder and engage your core for better balance. Naples Kayak Company offers Saturday morning SUP yoga, taught by a certified instructor. Sessions begin at 8 a.m. at the Gordon River Greenway, located behind the Naples Zoo. The best part? Your soundtrack is the serene whisper of wildlife waking up to greet the day. For a little less meditation and more sweat, sign up for the new Upbeat Fitness class, which focuses on stretches and exercises—all performed on a paddleboard. All levels are welcome as each class is customized to accommodate the group.
5. Swamp Walks
Leave those Manolos in the car and get ready for some down-and-dirty walks that will take you through the underbelly of Southwest Florida’s ecosystem at the closest range possible. Clyde Butcher’s Everglades swamp tours are legendary. An iconic landscape photographer once called the next Ansel Adams by Popular Photography magazine, Butcher first fell in love with the mysterious allure of the swamp in 1983. He decided to share his adoration with the public and proffered his backyard at his Big Cypress Gallery, located in the Big Cypress National Preserve, for eco tours and explorations he calls Photo Safari Swamp Walks. Both adventures are open to the public.
At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples visitors can traverse through the heart of the Everglades. There are various levels of swamp walks available, ranging from beginner (a two-hour, 1.5-mile program suitable for ages 10 and up) to advanced (a physically demanding, adults-only outing lasting at least four hours). Other local options include paths at Naples’ Collier-Seminole State Park. The Hiking Adventure Trail covers 6.5 miles, is wet most of the year (except for winter and early spring), and takes between three to four hours to complete.
A Stanford University study found that volunteers who hiked through a verdant portion of campus were more attentive and happier afterward than those who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic. Thankfully, Southwest Florida has many natural areas where you can put these findings to the test. The Sabal Palm Hiking Trail is an impressive 3.2-mile, packed-dirt trail in Picayune Strand State Forest. Here, amidst 100-year-old cypress trees, await various species of birds, including the hairy and red-cockaded woodpeckers, making it a definite must-do for bird-watchers. A little gentler on the knees, the Gordon River Greenway in Naples offers a scenic paved trail with water access along the Gordon River.
7. Mountain Biking
You don’t have to ride at full throttle down daredevil hills to enjoy mountain biking. Slow it down and take a nature tour through undulating terrain. The Pepper Ranch Preserve in Immokalee is a jewel of a track suitable for intermediate levels and above. While only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, it’s well worth the wait to ride through the bucolic fields and trails at this magnificent preserve, home to Florida panthers, black bears, and deer. For a less arduous experience, try an 11-mile ride through natural canopies at the Caloosahatchee Regional Park in Alva, or head to Lovers Key State Park to bike the Black Island Trail, which follows a 2.5-mile-long estuary.
8. Road Biking
Southwest Florida’s fantastic weather and scenery provide prime conditions for all cyclists. Whether you want a scenic ride or something more challenging, there are dozens of trails and paths through parks, along U.S. 41, and beyond. Janes Memorial Scenic Drive in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Copeland boasts an 11-mile, hard-compact dirt trail that travels across various ecosystems including cypress domes, pine forests, and prairies. For a more leisurely ride, Naples’ Gordon River Greenway has paved pathways and a boardwalk that crosses a cypress and mangrove swamp. In addition, Naples and Marco Island Guided Bike Tours offers a recreational tour that is fun for the whole family.
These three area businesses deliver unique ways to try this educational, family-friendly activity.
Traditional: Sand Dollar Shelling begins tours with a boat ride to a secluded island, hopefully passing by dolphins at play. Once on dry land, you’ll be on the lookout for rare species, especially the Junonia. Ask captain Jim Edgar about this coveted find, or any other shell for that matter, and he’ll gladly share his comprehensive knowledge. He offers three tours a day, three hours each, for a maximum of six participants.
Laid-back: Time to relax in style and take part in a wildlife and shelling tour on the Calusa Spirit, a 45-foot catamaran operated by Marco Island Water Sports. An onboard naturalist helms the cruise, which travels across the Gulf of Mexico and through the Ten Thousand Islands. During a leisurely stop on Cape Romano, you’ll be able to stuff your bags with exotic shells.
Adventuresome: For a truly interactive sightseeing and shelling experience, try out a two-person CraigCat boat courtesy of Backwater Adventure Marco Island. A guide will lead the way in a separate vessel, steering you in and out of narrow channels along the Ten Thousand Islands, home to manatees, dolphins, shore birds, and other sea life. Midway through the trip, you’ll visit a private island for shelling and swimming.
10. Airboat Tours
These aquatic excursions are one of the most popular ways to navigate the River of Grass. The Everglades Day Safari (ecosafari.com) is an all-day adventure that covers land and water. Begin with a 1.6-mile nature walk at Big Cypress National Preserve, then take a boat cruise around the Ten Thousand Islands. Stop for lunch at a local seafood restaurant before embarking on a wildlife drive in the backroads. For the grand finale, you’ll hop onto an airboat and ride through the Western Everglades for the last hour of this amazing tour.
Captain Mitch House of Captain Mitch’s Airboat Tours has been in the airboat tourism industry for more than 60 years. His tour takes you through acres of private swampland while a guide entertains and educates with stories and anecdotes that date back generations. For a more personalized experience, try Speedy’s Airboat Tours. Speedy’s boats are smaller (maximum of six passengers) and therefore able to sneak into narrow pathways, meaning you can tour the Everglades like a true native.
11. Jeep Tours
To take part in Southwest Florida’s version of a wildlife safari, book an adventure with Orange Jeep Tours in Ave Maria. This 90-minute guided tour is limited to six passengers and crosses privately held property. Ride through native wetlands and grasslands while observing indigenous wildlife. Like lions on the Serengeti, Florida bobcats may glance your way, but don’t expect anything more than a yawn. This tour is suitable for all ages and promises animal sightings, so don’t forget your camera.