As the temperatures start to dip a little, one of the best ways to relish the cooler fall breezes is to head outdoors for a hike on the Paradise Coast. From scenic, shady walks to solitary slogs through verdant swamps, the trails around Naples offer beautiful and diverse pathways that offer many ways to connect with nature.
Johnny Molloy, an experienced hiker with a goal of backpacking in the wilderness of every state in the nation, has written 55-plus books based on his personal experiences. His latest guide, Day Hiking Southwest Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014), includes some of the best hikes to see the natural beauty in and around Naples with a renewed sense of wonder.
“I think the Naples-Fort Myers area has as good a representation of hiking opportunities as anywhere in the country, if not better,” says Molloy, who has spent his last 15 winters in the Sunshine State.
The hiker-author shares insight on several treks in our area that outdoor enthusiasts of all levels can enjoy, from just over one-mile walks in Clam Pass Park and Rookery Bay to a 12-mile adventure through the Bird Rookery Swamp Loop.
Whether you’re a weekend warrior looking to explore untamed wilderness or the casual enthusiast in search of a leisurely stroll, grab your compass (and GPS) and pack your sunscreen, hat and plenty of bottled water. Let the adventures begin!
Barefoot Beach Preserve
Distance: 3-mile balloon loop
Hiking time: 2 hours
The hike at Barefoot Beach Preserve takes you along Saylor Trail before ending at Wiggins Pass, where, as its name suggests, you can go beachcombing along the shore and even catch a glimpse of aquatic wildlife, including dolphins, crabs and sand dollars. The best place to start is at the south end of the beach preserve, towards Wiggins Pass. Saylor Trail will bring you past the education center before looping back around.
“This hike gives you a big overview of the ecosystems of Southwest Florida—you get that beautiful coastal maritime forest, the mangrove woods, and you can experience that coveted beach effect,” Molloy says.
Bird Rookery Swamp Loop
Distance: 12-mile loop
Hiking time: 7 hours
The longest trail in the Naples area, Bird Rookery Swamp Loop features remote terrain with untamed cypress-maple swamps to explore. Molloy suggests heading north once the boardwalk ends. The loop passes an elevated berm where you cross a slough. Staying on this route leads southward past an iron gate before looping around and back to the boardwalk. “This trail is nice if you want to tackle a long walk and get deep into the swamp, because there are elevated logging trams for you to walk on,” Molloy says.
Clam Pass Park
Distance: 1.2 miles there-and-back trail, excluding beach walking
Hiking time: 1–1.5 hours
Clam Pass Park‘s year-round beach destination’s trail winds through a mangrove forest and ends at the beach. In this straightforward hike, the trail crosses a bridge over the tidal stream before passing beachfront facilities, where you can choose to eat at the restaurant or hop on the passenger tram to take you back to the start.
“Since you walk a boardwalk and end up at the beach, Clam Pass Park is great for both exercise and people-watching,” Molloy says, “and there aren’t many hiking trails that include a restaurant and passenger tram.”
Collier-Seminole Adventure Trail
Distance: 7.4-mile loop, including spur to backcountry campsite
Hiking time: 4.5 hours
The wild Everglades surrounding the Collier-Seminole Adventure Trail promise swamp slogging for experienced hikers, diverse wildlife, and an array of environments, from pine-palm forests to hardwood hammocks. For the best experience, Molloy says to veer off the main loop, which brings you across two service roads before leading to a backcountry campsite. A boardwalk takes you on a hike along a mangrove-lined stream.
“This trail is the best way to experience Florida as it used to be; you take a single-track path over natural surface,” Molloy says. “It’s also your best bet if you want to go backpacking, since there’s a campsite as well as a boat and kayak launch site.”
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Distance: 2.2-mile loop
Hiking time: 3 hours
The raised-platform boardwalk of this sanctuary takes you through a magnificent old-growth cypress swamp filled with wildlife and trees more than 500 years old. “Without a doubt, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Aptly named, it truly is a sanctuary; you get to see Southwest Florida the way it used to be,” Molloy says. After passing through the Blair Audubon Center, the boardwalk takes you to the right of Lettuce Lakes, past the Plume Hunters Camp and right into the heart of the swamp.
Distance: 1.4-mile loop
Hiking Time: 1.5 hours
At the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Snail Trail loop brings hikers to the Kirkland homesite. Then, Molloy recommends, keep right on the Catbird and Slash Pine loops before resuming the Snail Trail, which eventually leads back to the visitor center. There are also water pathways for boat touring, canoeing and kayaking, as well as the opportunity to view an aquatic preserve.
“The Rookery Bay Hike is unique because it includes an aquifer recharge zone where the land is preserved, and there’s an old-time homesite where you can see how the original settlers of that area lived 150 years ago,” Molloy says.
Sabal Palm Trail
Distance: 3.5-mile double loop
Hiking time: 2 hours
“The Sabal Palm Trail is especially nice because it’s very near Naples and civilization,” Molloy says, “but it’s isolated enough to provide some solitude and wild enough that you might even see some bears back there.” The Sabal Palm’s multiple trails feature a richly diverse habitat, with pine and cypress forests, open meadows and viewing platforms for a closer look at various bird species. Sabal Palm Trail leads to a four-way intersection offering a nice spot for a picnic. If you turn left at this intersection, you’ll reach an elevated logging berm heading west before the trail brings you back around.