Southwest Florida and the Florida Everglades are known for great outdoor experiences, and though hiking in south Florida can be wet and swampy there are some interesting places to explore. Many trails stretch out along flat boardwalks and raised "hammocks" that meander through the Everglades and make for excellent day hikes and fun for the whole family.
There are several good day hikes here from a casual walk on a beachside trail, a boardwalk through mangroves, or trails through cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks. There are unique eco-niches throughout the area once you leave the coastal cities, and some amazing tracts of public land to explore. I could literally write a book on the subject, but here are just five of my favorites.
No Entrance fee. Parking is $1/hour (max $5/day)
If you plan to visit the Ft. Myers area, put Six Mile Cypress Slough (pronounced “slew”) on your list of day hikes. 11 miles long and a third of a mile wide, the Slough is comprised of around 3,500 acres. It is a natural drainage system which collects rain runoff during the wet season from the surrounding watershed and filters it as it heads for Estero Bay. This may seem like a small area but there’s a lot going on here, some of which is dependent on whether it’s the wet or dry season.
Many of the critters you associate with this part of Florida can be found here - alligators, turtles, hawks, river otters, and wading birds like egrets and herons. With a little luck, you might see an otter or two during the wet season and flora that is equally unique and interesting. This is an easy hike on the elevated 1.5 mile boardwalk that’s open from dawn to dusk. Or sign-up for a guided tour with a volunteer naturalist that takes about 90 minutes. It’s free with your parking fee.
Don’t pass-up the Interpretive Center, a certified Green Building and the first of its kind in Lee County. It’s one of the best reasons to visit this preserve. Built from select materials using specific construction methods, green buildings are energy efficient and have minimal impact on the environment. Inside the Center there is a wealth of displays and information. There are even hands-on touch and feel displays for kids, and okay, adults too. I love that. Admission is also included in the parking fee. Other amenities include public restrooms, a picnic area, and water fountains at the Interpretive Center to refill your water bottles. No pets are allowed on the boardwalk.
Entrance fee - $6 per car
Along the coast of Naples is Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, a barrier island and dense mangrove forest interspersed with palm trees. It also has one of Naples' best beaches. At the gate. a park ranger will collect an entrancer fee and give you a detailed map of the park. There are clearly defined areas for swimming, fishing, and picnicing. And did someone say shelling? The tides here churn deep beds of sea shells that are all along the beach and especially at the Pass itself. But remember, if the owner is home (in the shell), please throw it back in. It's against the law to take live shells!
One way to hike here is on the non-designated trail that runs parallel to the beach. It’s shadier than just walking the beach if you’re in the heat of the day, and is an easy hike that runs for over a mile from the first access point after entering the park to the Observation Tower at the park’s north end. Along the way you can move onto the beach or grab a quick snack from one of the vendors in the parking lots. Walk over to the road and plant yourself at one of several gopher tortoise crossings. You just might get lucky and have one come along.
At the north end of the park adjacent to the last parking lot is a picnic pavilion with restrooms and outdoor showers. Here you’ll easily find the Observation Tower Trail complete with boardwalk. The boardwalk winds its way through this dense coastal hammock for about 0.3 of a mile. Climb the sturdy tower. The views of the surrounding area are excellent. There's also good birding here - ospreys, sea gulls, terns, skimmers, and pelicans can be seen at just about any time of day. Binoculars and a camera will definitely enhance your experience.
All in all, hiking here is easy and rewarding for the patient. But be warned - this is a very popular park during the “season” and the gates are closed when the park reaches capacity. If you plan to do some short hikes in a coastal eco-niche, get here early and take your time discovering all that this park has to offer, then head for the beach. Dogs are allowed in the park, just not on the beach.
NOTE: Due to damage caused by Hurricane Irma, Bird Rookery Swamp trail remains closed past the boardwalk. Check their website for updates.
No Parking or Entrance fee
Go inland from Naples about 13 miles and you’ll find the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp, one of the fun, free things to do in Naples, Florida. This reserve is part of the 50,000 acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed and an incredible place to hike or bike. Turn off Immokkolee Road and the road leading back to the preserve eventually turns to hard-pack dirt, where you’ll begin seeing wading birds, ibis, and alligators in the canals along the road. Parking is free, and there are portable toilets in the parking lot.
Once you start on the trail to the boardwalk you immediately feel you’re in the thick of things. Black vultures, wading birds, and alligators can be seen sunning or feeding. There is an information board at the trailhead showing the trail with distances and species identification. Don’t start this hike without water.
Hike the flat, 1/4 mile causeway from the trailhead to the boardwalk, where a 1,500 foot elevated section keeps you out of the wet and mud. The vegetation is lush with interesting flora. After the boardwalk ends, the tramway trail begins - a mostly grass covered section with cypress trees gently arching above and water on either side. The tramway is the remains of a small gauge railway that was used for logging many years ago. A few remnants still remain along the trail to give you a sense of its size and scale. This is a birders paradise - egrets flashing white through the trees, cormorants swimming and drying their wings, herons of all shapes and sizes fishing in the shallows, a pileated woodpecker busy boring holes in a tree. I saw my first American Bittern here.
The Trail is a 12-mile loop and is open to bicycling the entire way. This could be a full day’s hike or broken up into smaller parts. Some hikers do the “Y”, about 1.25 miles, walking back the same way. Whichever you choose, take water, your camera, binoculars, and bug spray. Even though the trail here is raised, low spots can turn into pretty big puddles. The water in this ecosystem provides excellent habitat for alligators. Over the years, we’ve seen a few adults right on the trail and lots of babies and juveniles.
TIP: Give alligators a wide berth. Remember, they are ambush hunters so DO NOT allow little kids or dogs to run along the trail. Hiking here is safe as long as common sense is used.
Fakahatchee Strand State Park (and Jane’s Scenic Drive)
No Entrance or Parking Fee
The Fakahatchee Strand State Park is the only Everglades hiking trail we're listing, though there are many more rigorous hikes the deeper you go into the Glades and Big Cypress Preserve. The Everglades trails can be wet and muddy, but the Fakahatchee Strand is great for an easy boardwalk hike. Named for the Native American tribe that once lived here, this protected ecosystem of 85,000 acres is the largest state preserve, and no doubt its wildest. There is a small parking area off Rt. 41 to the east of Everglades City. Here you can access the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. There are no fees but there is a donation box at the trailhead.
There is a short, easy walk along a well-constructed boardwalk and a large observation platform overlooking a pond at the end. During certain times of the year, guided tours are offered.
Our first encounters were immediate. Alligators in small ponds to either side of the trail and wading birds fishing in the same ponds. The Strand is like walking into a botanical garden. You’ll see bald cypress trees, royal palms, ferns, bromeliads, orchids and more orchids. If you take your time and look extra carefully you may get lucky and find the rare Ghost Orchid.
Jane’s Scenic Drive - If you have time, turn at the entrance and drive “Jane’s Scenic Drive”, an 11 mile gravel road with designated pull-offs where you can get out and explore.
What are your favorite hikes in Florida?