Off the Beaten Path: Southwest Florida Nature Day Trips
Hone your explorer skills and experience a different side of Mother Nature at one of these scenic sites.
This summer, explore the natural wonders of Southwest Florida. From parks and preserves to angling adventures and historical heritage sites, these day trips will make you feel at one with nature.
What to do: Drive scenic Loop Road for wildlife sightings without leaving your car
The “big” in Big Cypress refers to its size. At 729,000 acres, it can easily overwhelm visitors. For a perfect introduction to the environment, take a drive along Loop Road, which is about 7 miles east of Highway 29 off Tamiami Trail at Monroe Station. Especially in the morning hours, you are likely to see alligators, huge softshell turtles, anhingas, egrets, herons, ospreys and hawks. If you are lucky, a river otter may also make a cameo appearance. The entire loop is 45 miles, though about halfway through, Loop Road reconnects to Tamiami Trail to bring you back to where it starts. The best time to drive Loop Road is in the dry season as the first stretch of Loop Road is unpaved. (239-695-2000, nps.gov/bicy)
Best for: Sunday drivers, safari photographers, wildlife watchers
Insider tip: Stop at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center before you drive Loop Road to learn about the preserve’s ecology and history. In the morning, manatees often congregate around the boardwalk outside.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island
What to do: Walk with the family to the Wildlife Education Boardwalk
With three campuses on Sanibel Island, the “Ding,” as locals call it, provides countless opportunities to observe wildlife by foot, bike, paddle, car and tram or boat tour. Its newest trail takes visitors into freshwater habitat via boardwalk to a two-story observation deck, ideal for spotting alligators, river otters and coastal birds. The Wildlife Education Boardwalk also helps you identify a variety of creatures with replicated tracks and scat. Scat? Yes, that’s right: biologists’ term for animal poop. Kids love to look at the realistic scat reproductions and guess what kind of animal did that. Then they open the box and find the answer plus educational tidbits on the diet and lifestyle for everything from alligators, white ibis, black snakes, bobcats and other critters that frequent the habitat. (239-472-1100)
Best for: Families with young detectives, curious minds
Insider tip: To get to the boardwalk, follow Indigo Trail under the free Visitor & Education Center. You can walk the trail anytime, even on Fridays when Ding’s scenic Wildlife Drive is closed.
Otter Mound Preserve Trail, Marco Island
What to do: Go for a hike and a history lesson
Centuries ago, Calusa tribesmen walked this island, feasting on shellfish and building midden mounds from the leftover shells. Despite development over the years, Marco Island has retained two of the mounds. Otter Mound Preserve Trail, on the southeastern end of the island, circles the forested site of one such mound. It is named for the property’s more recent owner, Ernest Otter, who used the hundreds of ancient whelk shells he found on his land to shore up terraces he built around the mound starting in the 1940s, something of a landscaping wonder. Interpretive signs along the 800-foot mulch-carpeted pathway through tropical hardwood hammock tell the mound’s history and impart information about the site’s historic plants, such as native gumbo-limbo trees. Hikers can see the impressive terraces, a historic outhouse, and often wildlife, such as armadillos and indigo buntings. (239-252-2957)
Best for: History and botany geeks
Insider tip: Visit the Marco Island Historical Museum before or after your trail walk for background on the Calusa, depicted in realistic vignettes.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Everglades
What to do: Mountain bike along Janes Scenic Drive
Famous for its rare wild orchids and bromeliads, Fakahatchee Strand is one the easiest and most fascinating accesses to Everglades habitat you will find. To get the most adventure out of the state park, head down the unpaved Jane’s Scenic Drive with mountain or hybrid bikes. The 11-mile (one-way) road penetrates thick, subtropical forest atop the strand that rises above swamp waters. You could drive the roadway, but biking allows you to spot the rare orchids and other native flora and fauna, including cypress trees and a stand of native royal palms. Birds flock to the protected wetland, particularly at a feeding pond about 10 miles in. Other denizens of the wet, shadowy world include Florida panthers, black bears, mangrove fox squirrels, Everglades minks, alligators, white-tailed deer and various snakes. (239-695-4593)
Best for: Strong cyclists, serious wildlife watchers
Insider tip: Three hiking trails—actually, old cypress logging tramways—traverse the strand off Janes Scenic Drive. Park your bikes at the trail gates and walk their 1- to 2-mile lengths.
Koreshan State Historic Site, Estero
What to do: Canoe and kayak to Mound Key Archaeological State Park
Paddle into the past from Koreshan’s canoe launch to Mound Key, believed to be the ceremonial center of the ancient Calusa kingdom thousands of years ago. Jesuits once established a mission there—the first of the Spanish New World, but it was short-lived because of violent Calusa clashes. The 5.5-mile paddle takes you down the lovely, oak-lined Estero River, designated a Florida Paddling Trail, to Estero Bay. The Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve is known for its populations of dolphin and wading birds. A nature trail with interpretive signage explores 39-foot-high Mound Key, built from more than 2,000 years’ worth of human habitation. You can rent canoes at Koreshan or bring your own paddle craft. Nearby Estero River Outfitters rents kayaks and canoes. Koreshan’s College of Life Foundation offers a shorter, three-hour guided paddle including equipment, from Lovers Key State Park. Mound Key has no facilities, so come prepared. (239-992-0311)
Best for: Experienced paddlers, peace seekers, dolphin fans
Insider tip: Plan to extend your visit to Koreshan, and tour the park’s intriguing historic settlement.
The Dolphin Explorer, Marco Island
What to do: Join in an up-close-and-personal research study of dolphin
There’s nothing like a dolphin sighting to turn a boat excursion magical. With the Dolphin Explorer, passengers are more than mere observers, they become part of a research study that began in 2006. The Ten Thousand Islands Dolphin Project is the only survey to track wild bottlenose dolphins in Southwest Florida. Dolphin researchers lead daily trips to find and photo-record the local dolphin population. Passengers enjoy unique opportunities to help spot, photograph, observe behaviors and sometimes even name newly sighted dolphins. The survey team has catalogued nearly 200 dolphins to date, named by passengers from around the world. The excursion departs from Rose Marco River Marina on Marco Island and cruises the waters of Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay, stopping at uninhabited barrier islands for shelling. Advance reservations are strongly recommended. (239-642-6899)
Best for: Fans of the Dolphin Tale movies, kids of all ages
Insider tip: Shaded areas and bathroom facilities onboard accommodate families, who also get a complimentary souvenir photo.
Big Shark Fishing Charters, Goodland
What to do: Catch and release sharks
Bull sharks, lemon sharks, hammerheads, blacktips, spinner sharks and Atlantic sharpnose sharks: Capt. Chris DeWitt can put you on these fierce fighters in the backwaters of Ten Thousand Islands—without having to depend on weather conditions to head to deep waters for them. He is one of a select group of local captains permitted to charter in Everglades National Park waters. DeWitt can arrange a private half- or three-quarters-day adventure. He puts multiple lines in the water with various kinds of bait to maximize his clients’ opportunities to reel in thrashing sharks up to 7 feet long for immediate release. He also will search out tarpon, snook and other prized catches, but says shark fishing constitutes 60 to 70 percent of his business. “People just love the thrill of it, pulling something up to the boat that could eat them,” said the charter guide of 15 years. “They like to take a lot of nice pictures.” (239-253-4248)
Best for: Extreme anglers, Shark Week fans
Insider tip: Big Shark Fishing customizes adventures to the wants of the group and does not combine charter groups in a boat.
Lovers Key State Park, Fort Myers Beach
What to do: Take the geocaching challenge
One of Florida’s most-visited state parks, Lovers Key hoards beautiful beaches, rampant birdlife, kayaking waterways and year-round rangers programs. If you are looking for a new way to explore the park, Friends of Lovers Key (FOLK) has devised a geocaching challenge with six riddles leading to a final prize cache. If you’re not familiar with geocaching, it’s an outdoor activity using a GPS-enabled smartphone or tablet to track down waypoints and prizes. Simply search for “Lovers Key” on geocaching.com and print out the clues or download the site’s app. The challenge directs you to different park attractions via encrypted clues—a fun way to get to know Lovers Key State Park. Once you complete the challenge, stop at the ranger’s station for your final prize. Then head to the beach for the best reward of all—beautiful white sand and calm Gulf waters. (239-463-4588)
Best for: Techie kids, treasure hunters, beach lovers
Insider tip: Lovers Key State Park spreads from the Gulf to bay, but the geocaching clues are restricted to the park’s bay side.