For Fort Myers Magazine
Isn’t living in Florida especially great this time of year? While friends up north are getting out their snow shovels, I’m loading the bike, the kayak and the camping gear and heading out for fun in the sun.
Summer in southwest Florida is meant for the beach and water. But winter is a time to explore some of the spectacular wilderness the area still has to offer. Here are some of the best of the best for hiking, biking and paddling.
The Big Cypress National Preserve
If you are a backcountry hiker, this is the mother lode! The Florida National Trail starts here, and you don’t have to stop until you get to Pensacola. But for us mere mortals here are some great day-trips.
The Loop Road Trail- It covers about 8 miles, and crosses a variety of habitats and eco-systems, from swamp to hardwood hammocks. The trailhead is on the south side of U.S. 41 at Monroe Station, near the junction with State Road 94.
The Fire Prairie Trail- runs 5 miles into some of the most remote wilderness in south Florida. Terrain varies from tree shrouded hammock to open swamp grass prairie. You can only access it from Turner Road, State Road 839. The trailhead is on the left, about 18 miles north of U.S. 41. If you go under Alligator Alley, you missed it.
Bear Island- This part of the Preserve is networked with hiking and mountain bike trails, and primitive camping areas. Located at the northern end of Turner Road.
Free backcountry permits are available at all trailheads. You should call ahead to the ranger station or look at the Preserve web site to see if any hunting seasons are in effect in various areas. Nothing ruins a great day in the bush like someone with a gun mistaking you for a deer.
Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
This is a less intense hiking experience, but not less spectacular. The trail is a 2.5-mile boardwalk through swamp, hardwoods, and the largest remaining virgin cypress stand in the world. There is a shorter boardwalk that runs less than a mile. Remember the binoculars. This is a great bird watching spot this time of year. The boardwalk makes this a perfect day trip for seniors, or families with kids in strollers. Located west of Bonita Springs.
Collier-Seminole State Park
Hiking- This is a unique experience, the only place in Florida you can hike through a stand of Royal Palm trees. The palms are in a clearing after you cross over a foot bridge along the 7-mile trail. The trailhead is on the north side of U.S. 41, near the main park entrance.
Mountain biking- A 5-mile trail begins on the south side of U.S. 41, just west of the park entrance.
Paddling- The Blackwater River run begins at the park marina and flows 13 miles south into the Ten Thousand Islands Preserve. About midway on the west side is a channel leading into Mud Bay, a terrific birding spot. Be careful not to enter the Bay on a falling tide because the passage is shallow and portaging out can be hazardous in the deep mud bottom. And you were wondering why they call it “Mud Bay”?
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
You can hike, bike or drive the 5-mile loop road through this popular Sanibel nature preserve. Another excellent bird watching spot.
There are also canoe trails and shorter hiking trails off the main beaten path.
This recreation trail runs the length of Gasparilla Island, about 6.5 miles. It is paved and good for biking, skating, jogging or just walking. It’s a fairly straight shot and wide open in the blazing sun most of the way. The best thing it has to offer is a great destination…Boca Grande, a fun little town with small boutiques, unique restaurants, and art shops. The trail ends at the Boca Grande Lighthouse Park.
The paved Cape Haze Pioneer Trail runs about 5.5 miles from McCall to Placida in Charlotte County. Eventually it will connect with the Gasparilla Trail at the Boca Grande Causeway.
The Estero River Trail
This paddle trip runs about six miles from Koreshan State Historic Site on U.S. 41, to Estero Bay. From there you can paddle southwest about two miles to Lover’s Key State Park. The bay is shallow and not tricky to navigate, but watch the weather closely. Wind and waves could turn this into a real adventure, particularly for canoes. Kayaks are recommended on any open water trip.
This 1.5-mile paddle trail is located in the Collier County park on the last undeveloped coastal island in the county. You can go on your own, or Rangers lead free paddle tours several days a week during the winter months. Call 239-591-8586 for a schedule.
Make sure to take along sun screen, bug spray and water on any of these excursions. A compass or GPS, and a trail map are recommended for the wilderness trips. But you won’t need that snow shovel.
Links and contact information for sidebar
Big Cypress National Preserve
Ding Darling National Refuge
Collier-Seminole State Park
Florida Office of Greenways & Trails
Downloadable maps for Gasparilla Trail, Blackwater River, Estero River and more.
Lee County Parks & Recreation
Collier County Parks & Recreation
Charlotte County Parks & Recreation