People visit Southwest Florida (SWFL) for many reasons including enjoying the beaches, freeloading off relatives with spare bedrooms and experiencing the area’s nature attractions.
This part of Florida offers a nice selection of nature preserves that are untainted by commercial interests. Most of them are educational and fun places to learn and experience the unique species and habitats of the region. Here’s a brief introduction to two of our favorites.
Nature on display at the Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a place you can visit for the day from Naples, Marco Island, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and various other towns in Southwest Florida. You will see a varying (by season) assortment of birds, animals, plants, trees and reptiles in the largest remaining stand of ancient bald cypress in North America.
The bird you usually hear locals cite in SWFL is the Snow Bird – visitors from cold climates who spend their winters in the warmth of Florida. However, Florida actually has over 500 native species of birds.
At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary you can see both year-round and migratory birds that fall into the categories of Wood Storks (very dependent on the health of wetlands), Raptors (Ospreys, Eagles, Hawks) Wading Birds (think Herons and Egrets) and Ducks (think walks like a.., quacks like a.., and talks like a..). Although the birds are easy to see as you walk around many people like to bring binoculars and startlingly large zoom lenses to do more personal examinations of the birds. (Should birds in an Audubon preserve have an expectation of privacy? Discuss.)
On our recent visit, we saw quite a few alligators and one impressive snake. One of the alligators ate a turtle while we watched in horror/fascination. Turtles are quite crunchy.
The flora of the Sanctuary is impressive too. In addition to the cypress forest, there is a marsh, a wet prairie (at least in the rainy season) and “Lettuce Lakes” which are watery clearings for wading birds and snack-happy ‘gators. You traverse the forest by a 2.25-mile boardwalk that is very well marked and has plenty of places to sit down for a rest. (The boardwalk has steps so may not be accessible for people in wheelchairs. Call to ask.)
If you have a curiosity about history you’ll be interested to learn how Corkscrew became a hunting ground for bird plumes for ladies’ hats in the 1800s. Entire breeding colonies were destroyed before the practice was halted. The area was also nearly cleared of its virgin cypress forests until, once again, concerned individuals were able to stop the plan. Currently, the wetlands in Corkscrew are threatened by environmental changes and in need of restoration. A visit here is a reminder of the importance of protecting the environment (whether or not the EPA agrees).
Planning your visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Although it’s fairly easy to get to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary we used trusty Google Maps as our GPS so we didn’t miss the turn-off. Once you see how long it will take you to get there add another 3 hours to give yourself ample time for leisurely exploring. They’re open every day of the year from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m but 4:30 is the latest you can enter the park.
The fees are:
Adults: $ 14.00
Full-time college students with photo ID: $ 6.00
National Audubon Society members with membership card: $ 10.00
Student (6-18 years old): $ 4.00
Children under 6: free
There are a number of guided walks and events held at the park. Check the schedule before you go if you want to take one of the free guided walks.
We recommend full-length pants and long sleeves if you want to be sure to emerge without any bug bites. It’s also well worth taking along some bug spray or wipes for ankles and hands if you find yourself there near dusk when the mosquitoes can become quite inspired. Also, bring water (although you can buy it there) and a camera
There’s a cafeteria, restrooms, a small museum an art gallery and a nice gift shop at the Visitor Center where you enter the park. Parking is free which is always a good thing.
And if you go with small children please don’t do what we heard one parent doing; tell the kids the alligators will be afraid of them and won’t eat them. Egad.
Boat tours in Everglades National Park
Before we get too much into this topic be aware that this is not an activity that you probably do on the same day as a visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The two are about 55 miles apart.
We’re just going to tell you about the boat outings at Everglades National Park but the whole park is well worth some serious exploration. The Park is “a World Heritage site, International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty”. (Stole that straight from their website – have to admit that we don’t know a lot about the Cartagena Treaty.) The park is 1.5 million acres and you can canoe, kayak, power boat, walk, bicycle or camp there.
But if you just want to spend an hour and 45 minutes on the water and learn about mangrove ecosystems and see dolphins, manatees and a wide assortment of birds, then one of the boat tours will be perfect.
Planning your boat tour of Everglades National Park
To do a boat tour you will not go into the National Park or need to pay a Park fee. The concession that has been given the right to conduct the boat tours is 38 miles from the main entrance to the actual park. Sometimes if the Park itself is crowded a boat trip can be a good way to see nature and avoid the crowds who don’t know about these tours.
The tours aren’t exactly inexpensive. Here are the fees:
Children 5-12 years of Age: $19.35
Children under 5 years old: Free
You get a high-quality narration that’s from a person – not a recording – and they go out of their way to make sure you see the wildlife. The people doing the boat tours are so into the area and its treasures that they’re entertaining and informative,
In high season (mid-December to mid-April) the tours run at least 4 times every day. You would be well advised to make a reservation in high season but the website isn’t always very cooperative with that. Right now it says you have to fax a reservation request. Good grief! But if you want to try, here’s the link.
From mid-April to mid-December they run 4 tours a day but only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Don’t worry about a reservation at that time of year.
Before embarking on a tour use the restrooms on shore as there aren’t any on the boat. You will need sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat that won’t blow off your head. We wished we’d taken binoculars and we just used our phones as cameras.
If you do a morning tour and are looking for a nice little place for a casual lunch Havana Cafe is just a short drive away. We have a friend who liked the Rod and Gun Club because it has seating along the water. Its food gets mixed reviews but it’s sort of the traditional place to go in the area. (We like food more than tradition.)
This area of Florida is a good choice if you aren’t into Disney or the Miami scene. Naples, Marco Island and other places in SWFL have a lot of low-impact nature attractions and fewer crowds. Just don’t spread the word too much as we want to keep our area quiet!