On the eastern fringe of Collier County, along the edge of the Everglades’ silent flatness sits the largest remaining old-growth bald cypress strand in the world. Part of the 13,000-acre expanse known as the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, part of the larger Corkscrew Watershed in Southwest Florida, is an ancient, primordial slice of old Florida that is like no other place on earth.
Striking out into Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is like stepping back in time. Apart from the 2.25-mile boardwalk, the Blair Audubon Center and Tea Room, little has changed in this section of Florida since time immemorial. 500 year-old cypress trees up to 24 feet in diameter stand sentinel in a swampy domain, knees jutting from the murk, creating an ecosystem that is home to hundreds of plant and animal species. It is now preserved for generations to come, but there was a time when things were not so certain.
60 years ago, the very existence of this beautiful expanse was in danger, a near victim of a logging industry that was systematically cutting down and processing cypress forests throughout South Florida. The logging began south of what is now the sanctuary, in a place known only by its Seminole name, Fakahatchee, in 1944, decimating the strand. The logging crew’s sites were then set north on Corkscrew. Fueled by a desire to save these ancient trees, and, consequently, one of the most important and prolific wood stork rookeries in the United States, the National Audubon Society, along with a number of concerned individuals and organizations, purchased the acreage. By 1954, the National Audubon Society had secured 5,680 acres, saved from loggers and developers. Over the years, Corkscrew grew to include an additional 8,000 acres, creating a refuge for a laundry list of Federal and State listed species, and a place for curious eco-adventurers, birders and more to reconnect with nature at its purest sense.
2014 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the formation of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, with an array of anniversary events planned for the 2014-15 season. The reason behind it all, the protection of this priceless habitat, also acts as a great educational tool. A trip to Corkscrew is a great way to learn about the region’s natural history, gain a better understanding about the local ecosystem and the importance of watershed, how we can be come better neighbors with the native wildlife, and even catch a concert, spot some rare and exotic birds, or view local art—Corkscrew’s mission truly is dynamic. Here, we’re pulling back the curtain on what’s in store for visitors to Corkscrew Swamp Sancturay, one of the last, truly wild Florida landscapes.
If visiting Corkscrew Swamp for the first time, a great way to get acclimated, and prepare yourself for what you are about to see, is to make a stop at the Blair Audubon Center before hitting the Boardwalk. Crammed with all kinds of educational displays and exhibits, guests can learn about the sanctuary’s history, how it came to be, and the importance of the ecosystem it protects. In the Swamp Theater, guests can watch a short film that will take you on a virtual tour, complete with sounds from the swamp.
The center’s lobby also acts as an art gallery for local artists, with new exhibitions coming to the sanctuary every other month. Currently, guests can explore a collection of photographs by Mac Stone, a local photographer whose work in the Everglades are not only striking but quite illuminating. His large photography book, Everglades: America’s Wetland, was five years in the making, snapping shots from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, with a few Corkscrew Swamp selections included too. On display thorough January.
On display in February and March, work from photographer Dennis Goodman will adorn the walls. The wildlife photographer is as much at home in the swampy Everglades as he is on dry land, which helps him catch some remarkable shots that are simply inaccessible to those not willing to brave the muck.
Take a Hike
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a large space, most of which is off limits to visitors. This is not just to protect the ancient forest and the animal species that call it home, but also to protect amateur naturalists from themselves—you can easily get lost in a swampy forest with no trails, and like space, no one will hear you scream (except maybe an alligator).
That said, there is a fantastic 2.25-mile boardwalk loop that cuts through the forest, giving visitors a chance to explore some truly maginifcant sights, all with safety in mind.
The trail takes hikers through four distinct habitats of the sanctuary: pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marsh and old-growth bald cypress forest. Wildlife sightings are the norm: with an observant eye, expect to see raccoons, otters, alligators, a brave bobcat or two, and birds, birds, birds. The sanctuary, as mentioned before, is one of the most dynamic wood stork rookeries in the United States, but is also home to an array of additional bird species, many of which are endangered or threatened. Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, Blue Herons (both great and little), Osprey, Barred Owls, Florida Sandhill Cranes, and so many more flock to this slice of paradise, making it a must-visit for any birder looking to add to their life list.
Guests can either walk the boardwalk at a self-paced tour, or, which I highly recommend, join one of the Sanctuary’s many tours:
Early Bird Walk
For those who want to experience the swamp before most of the wildlife scurries away from the boardwalk, the early bird walk is a must. Embarking at 8 a.m. and running to 11 a.m., a Corkscrew naturalist leads guests through the trail, explain the sights and sounds along the way. As part of the Atlantic Flyway and the Great Florida Birding Trail, this is a great tour for birders—there have been 200 documented bird species at Corkscrew, from raptors and wading birds to song and ducks (for the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk Bird List [PDF], click here). And with the keen eye of the trained naturalist, guests will get a chance to spy along the way, with the naturalist explaining the bird species spotted and their importance to the local and regional habitat. If you are a burgeoning birder, this tour is a must.
- Limited to just 12 people, and costs $20.
- Remaining tour dates: January 20, February 13 and 17, March 13 and 17, April 1.
- Register at 239-348-9151, ext. 112.
Walking with Giants
For those interested in the history of the sanctuary and an in-depth view of the ecology of the old-growth bald cypress forest, the Ancient Forest Walking Tour is the tour for you. Free with the price of admission, guests can join a Corkscrew naturalist on a three-hour hike along the boardwalk, where they will point out highlights of the forest, like the Landmark Cypress trees and discuss the history of the forest, from fires that raged to the loggers that were stopped, as well as tell a few stories about some of the more colorful characters of Corkscrew’s history.
- Free with admission to the sanctuary.
- Limited to 10 people.
- Remaining tours: January 12, February 9, March 7, April 13.
Landmark Cypress No. 4, Roosevelt
Along the Boardwalk, 12 very special trees are marked with bright yellow signs. These are the Landmark Cypresses. Each tree tells a unique story that helps weave the overarching history of the sanctuary together. From fires and storms to cavernous hollows and clinging epiphytes (air plants), each tree is a unique, towering example of primordial Florida. Along your self-guided walk, take a moment to explore each tree: there is much more than meets the eye if you take the time to look. And if you have kids in tow, make a game of it: see who can spot the most air plants, birds or nests.
Ever hear of the film Adaptation? It was that crazy movie where Nicolas Cage, donning an awesome perm, played Charlie Kaufman (and his twin brother Donald), who was tasked with writing a screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. He gets swept up in this crazy story where Orlean (Meryl Streep) and John Laroche (Chris Cooper) are stealing ghost orchids—an exceedingly rare orchid—from the swamp for the Seminoles, who, in turn, are distilling it into drug. The movie is nuts, but the ghost orchid is quite real, and Corkscrew is home to two.
Home to what’s dubbed the “Super Ghost” orchid, Corkscrew takes rare, and doubles down—this is the largest ghost orchid ever discovered. It is a dynamic example of this exceedingly rare plant, producing more than a dozen blooms a year. What’s more, it can be seen from the boardwalk, albeit with a little luck and some binoculars. Located about a mile into the trek, near interpretive sign number seven, the “Super” ghost is about 100 feet away from the railing, some 50 feet in the tree. But wait, there’s more. Perched about 50 feet up in Landmark Cypress No. 5, Calusa, sits a smaller ghost orchid that usually produces one flower per year. The fact that these ghost orchids are so easily accessible to see, and that the super ghost is so prolific, makes Corkscrew somewhat of a pilgrimage for “Ghost Hunters” worldwide.
The best time of year to see the ghost orchids in bloom, as per the Corkscrew’s activity chart, is the summer. In the summer of 2014, the super ghost had as many as 15 flowers in full bloom in early July. For a complete activity chart, click here.
One of the coolest ways to explore Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is under the cloak of darkness, when the swamp wakes up in all its nocturnal glory. One night per month through April, the sanctuary stays open late, welcoming eco-curious to enjoy the sanctuary once night falls, giving guests an opportunity to experience the contrast of the daytime environment, while merging an educational component intended to enlighten about the sanctuary and the shrinking Florida wilderness. This is a truly unique experience, even for those afraid of the dark. There is an intimacy in the ancient bald cypress forest as it is folded in darkness; as the twitter of songbirds transitions to owl hoots and a symphony of croaks erupts from the swamp as toads and frogs make their call, the vastness of the sanctuary presses as your other senses compensate for diminished sight.
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk at Night.
Photo by R.J. Wiley
The next After Hours installment will take place on January 23. Interpreative activity stations will be open for children and adults to learn about the sanctuary, while a classroom presentation with Melissa Timo, RPA Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, will discuss the regions first human residents, the Calusa. There will also be live entertainment by Alan Bradford at the Blair Audubon Center.
Being so far removed from the beaten path, stargazing at Corkscrew is pretty great. Weather permitting, the Everglades Astronomical Society joins the After Hours programming, setting up telescopes at the Horseshoe March observation post. On a clear night, the skies truly open up, and with the guidance of the astronomical society, you can explore wonders.
- After Hours runs from 5:30-9 p.m.
- Admission is free with normal park fee ($12 per adult, $6 per child).
- Sandwiches, snacks and drinks will be available at the Tea Room.
- For more information, call 239-348-9151 or visit corkscrew.audubon.org.