Dry Tortugas National Park
Miles from Naples: 238
North America’s most inaccessible national park, Dry Tortugas National Park, lies almost 70 miles west of Key West and is reached exclusively by seaplane or boat. Composed of seven small islands, the park teems with downy sand beaches and crystalline waters that lap over undisturbed patches of coral reef. While seabirds rule six of the Dry Tortugas, the seventh and largest island houses Fort Jefferson, a striking 16-million-brick fortress and former prison that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
A seaplane to the Dry Tortugas is an once-in-a-lifetime experience. While gliding 500 feet above patchworks of blue-green oceanic expanses, travelers can often spot sea turtles, shipwrecks, and schools of sharks. It’s also possible to charter a private yacht to reach the islands or visit for the day via the Yankee Freedom III ferry (prepare for a journey of more than two hours each way). Overnight camping requires advance reservations with the park service, personal equipment, and a penchant for roughing it, as the island lives up to its dry moniker and lacks running water.
Miles from Naples: 85
The riverbeds of Central Florida’s Peace River surface as paleontological fantasylands lined with petrified remains dating back to the Pliocene epoch, when mastodons and megalodons held court. Departing from Arcadia and Wauchula, outfitter Fossil Expeditions offers trips to sites around the river. Led by amateur paleontologist Mark Renz, the excursions include a morning crash course in all things fossils followed by a quick kayak ride to prime digging territory. An exhilarating afternoon of shoveling, sifting, identifying, and Indiana Jones–style discovering follows.
Renz helps classify all the fascinating finds, which are likely to include teeth from prehistoric species of sharks and bears, as well as bones belonging to ethereal creatures of the past like mammoths, hornless rhinos, humpless camels, and giant sloths that were four-stories tall. The afternoon is suitable for adults and children alike, especially for budding paleontologists. Exact departure details are given upon reservation, and excursions usually last between four and eight hours.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Miles from Naples: 241
The pristine rivers of Citrus County are home to several hundred endangered West Indian manatees, gentle giants believed to have evolved from four-legged land mammals more than 60 million years ago. Often referred to as sea cows, manatees reach an average length of 10 feet and an average weight of 1,000 pounds.
At the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge—one of the manatees’ preferred habitats—the Crystal Lodge Dive Center leads trips to swim with these docile creatures. Both above and under the water, the manatees are sweet, gregarious, and curious, fulfilling all expectations of bonding with nature.
Crystal River is the only place in Florida where it is legal to swim with the endangered manatee. The growing popularity of this activity, however, has saturated the river with tour companies. While it’s still far from the mainstream whale-watching trips in Maui, it’s only a matter of time until it grows into a mass-market activity.
Miles from Naples: 270 (Key West); 542 (Panama City Beach)
People travel far and wide for an artificial dolphin experience in glorified fish tanks, but far more rewarding—and cruelty-free—encounters beckon across Florida, where you can observe and swim with dolphins in the wild.
The shallow waters surrounding Key West are optimal for up-close yet unobtrusive interactions with the numerous resident pods of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Rather than join the masses on uncomfortable, impersonal large fleets, spend a half-day with Dolphin Safari Charters and canoodle with the Keys’ most charismatic residents.
In the Florida Panhandle, off Panama City Beach, Island Time Sailing facilitates a rewarding experience in the dolphin’s natural habitat. Cruise on a spacious catamaran around Shell Island, a pristine, undeveloped island between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay, before snorkeling in the surrounding waters among a large concentration of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.
Miles from Naples: 87
A vast expanse of roughly 1.5 million acres, Florida’s Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Many dismiss the Everglades as little more than a mosquito-infested middle of nowhere, but this national treasure is a wildlife wonderland brimming with chatty birds, eerie alligators, stealthy crocodiles, frivolous otters, lounging turtles, and adorable manatees.
Access to the parklands begins at one of four visitor centers. The most visited is the Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, headlined by the short and easy Anhinga Trail (which almost always guarantees great gator and bird sightings). The more exciting Shark Valley Visitor Center provides an extraordinary opportunity to bike through 15 miles of the Everglades, where cyclists are likely to encounter dozens of wild gators sunbathing on the bike trail.
While these areas of the park are excellent during winter and spring, the most comfortable—and least mosquito–frequented—region for summer is in the park’s western reaches, across the labyrinth of coastal mangrove islets and narrow channels that make up the Ten Thousand Islands. Everglades Area Tours offers guided kayak trips, swamp walks, and photography tours from Chokoloskee Island, three miles from Everglades City. If partaking in the photo excursion, expect to saturate memory cards with incredible scenes of roseate spoonbills taking flight, predatory hawks fishing for breakfast, terns blanketing sand bars, bottlenose dolphins leaping through the air, and rookeries teeming with just-hatched pelicans, ibises, and egrets.