Nature grows wild in Southwest Florida. From the ghost orchids of Fakahatchee Strand, to the pillowy sands of beachfront state parks, Southwest Florida is the peninsula’s own Amazon.
By Katherine O'Neal
It’s 9 a.m., and we’re chasing ghosts. Not the kind that flit around after dark, but the sort that hide high in the pop ash trees of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. We’re hot on the trail of the ghost orchid. It’s a slow, deliberate treasure hunt, where we inspect each trunk for the telltale roots that signal this rare orchid’s presence. Then our guide, park biologist Mike Owen, spots one, dangling like a leaping ivory frog well above our heads.
It’s not just a walk in the park. An excursion into southwest Florida can take you places you never dreamed were so close to home. A watery wilderness of 126 square miles, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Southwest Florida near the Everglades town of Copeland is our very own Amazon, with more species of native bromeliads and orchids than anywhere else in the United States.
Here are some other wild spots in Southwest Florida...
At Naples’ Collier-Seminole State Park, visitors can camp beneath the fronds of the largest stand of native Florida royal palms in the state as they prepare for a night adventure, with narration courtesy of swamp creatures. On this guided moonlight adventure, you can hike or take a spooky canoe paddle through mangrove tunnels.
Key to the Past
Mangroves define the natural shoreline of Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast in Estero, surrounding mysterious places including Mound Key Archaeological State Park. Dip your paddle into Estero Bay and make the journey to this massive shell mound, which marks the remains of the capital of the ancient Calusa culture, established in 100 A.D. Surrounded by Florida’s first aquatic preserve, Estero Bay Preserve State Park, it’s a getaway you won’t forget, meandering through a maze of mangrove islands protected by the barrier island of Lovers Key.
Fall in Love
If you’re kayaking the preserve, one launch point is Lovers Key State Park, known for its popular beaches. Take an off-road bicycle to this popular park in Fort Myers Beach and you can beat the crowds with a trip down the Black Island Trail, a five-mile-long course that zigzags through tropical vegetation.
On the other side of Estero Bay, the most popular launch point for Mound Key is Koreshan State Historic Site. Dr. Cyrus Teed founded a utopian commune on this site in 1894, drawing together followers who believed that the universe was inside a giant, hollow sphere. Balance that with the group’s progressive views on women’s rights as you tour the village, and then learn to make your own Koreshan bread with a course on Dutch oven cooking. Or wait until the moonlight is right, and join a tour guide on a very special nighttime walk. Chasing ghosts, of course.
Savor sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico during a walk along a wild beach. At the south end of Manasota Key, Stump Pass Beach State Park in Southwest Florida is popular with sunbathers, but you can find your own secluded spot. Duck the crowds by following the nature trail down the narrow peninsula, or walk the beach to your own quiet cove and watch dolphins play in the bay.
Gotta Get Away
Find true solitude at Don Pedro Island State Park, a park nestled offshore of the curves of Charlotte County’s coastline. Launch your kayak or watercraft from the land base at Cape Haze – a little-known treasure in itself, with two nature trail loops and a picnic area – and paddle to the dock of this open and breezy 230-acre park. Colorful grasslands and dunes topped with sea oats form the backdrop to an unspoiled beach. Ferryboats bring visitors Friday through Sunday; the rest of the week, it’s yours.
Light up your Beach
At Gasparilla Island State Park on Boca Grande, sunning near aquamarine waters is one way to spend the day, but a visit isn’t complete without a step back in time. At the south tip of the island, the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum illuminates the past, covering topics including the “rancho” fish farms tended by early Spanish settlers, phosphate barges and railway service to Boca Grande. It is on these shores that the legend of the pirate José Gaspar unfolds, complete with a kidnapped princess and buried treasure. Will it be yours to find?
Walk in pirates’ footsteps along the windswept shores of Cayo Costa island, where Cayo Costa State Park in Southwest Florida offers an affordable oceanfront stay at its rustic cabins and campsites. Play Robinson Crusoe as you walk the curve of the beach and see a treasure trove of rare sea shells – true tulips, lion’s paws and more. Reached by ferryboat from Pineland or by a very strenuous paddling trip from Pine Island, Cayo Costa is perfect for a family getaway-from-it-all, your own paradise with a view.
Take in a two-mile view across an unbelievably broad prairie of grasses and wildflowers waving in the breeze at Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park. Climb 74 feet up to the top of the Canopy Walk tower, and cross the swinging bridge 25 feet off the ground in the forest canopy among the live oaks. It’s just off Park Drive, down a short nature trail. Or get farther off the beaten path, don a backpack and hike up to 39 miles along the Myakka Hiking Trail in the backcountry.
Get into the Swing of Things
At Paynes Creek Historic State Park, a 1930s swinging bridge connects the sites of Fort Chokonikla and the Kennedy-Darling Trading Post, which sat on the northern border of the Seminole Reservation in 1849. An attack on the post prompted construction of the fort and set events in motion that led to the Third Seminole War. Miles of hiking trails wind through these shady forests along the creek and the Peace River in Bowling Green.
Pull up your Bootstraps
Put on your hiking boots and explore the wild scrub of Oscar Scherer State Park. In 1872, Oscar Scherer invented a process to dye shoe leather; in 1955, his daughter bequeathed this park to the people of Florida in his name. Nearly 12 miles of trails meander by shady creeks and through pine flatwoods and scrub – Florida’s desert. The desert is the perfect home for the Florida scrub-jay. Bring your binoculars to spot these nearly foot-long (including tail) blue birds, which travel in family groups. On a mountain bike, you can explore the sandy trails. Or bring (or rent) a canoe and slip through the wilds on a paddle trip down South Creek.
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I send as many people there as I can. That’s because I figure any beach bunny who visits Sanibel and Captiva Islands is going to be twirling...