Eco-Touring in Collier County
by Kris Thoemke
Enjoying nature has been a popular activity for residents and visitors to the area for years.
Looking for birds, manatees, dolphins or simply marveling at the unique southwest Florida
landscape was a treasured past time long before the term eco-tourism became popular.
Exploring Collier County can be quite an adventure. Slightly larger than the state of Rhode
Island, you could spend days wandering the back roads or cruising miles of backwaters and bays.
But if your time is limited and you want to discover the region's natural beauty and observe its
wildlife, here are eight suggestions that will give you the best chance to see the most in the least
amount of time.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park, from its well known and vast, freshwater wetland "river of grass" to
the ruggedly wild and little known coastal mangrove forests, is one of the crown jewels of the
National Park Service. And, there is no better place to discover life in the mangroves than from
the park's visitor's center in Everglades City, less than an hour's drive from Naples.
Your journey begins at the Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City. There is a small
visitor's center where you can familiarize yourself with the region. After this, you have the choice
of taking a guided boat cruise among the mangrove islands or renting canoes and venturing out
on their own. There are several tours to choose from and each has an experienced and
knowledgeable captain on board to interpret the area and answer your questions.
As you cruise the tea colored waters that encompass a labyrinth of mangrove islands there's a
good chance you'll see bald eagles, ospreys, pelicans and an assortment of herons and egrets. The
captain will also be on the watch for manatees and dolphins. Often he'll stop the boat when he
sees a manatee so passengers can get a closer look at this endangered marine mammal.
Sometimes, the curious manatee will surface within a few feet of the boat and generate oohs and
ahhhs from everyone onboard.
Those who opt to rent a canoe can paddle among the mangroves for a few hours or, take the
ultimate trip, a five to seven day paddle on the Wilderness Waterway. This 99 mile one way trip
begins at the Everglades Ranger Station and follows a series of interior natural waterways to the
southeast ending at the Flamingo Visitors Center. This is a spectacular trip but it is for
experienced canoeists and must be carefully planned in advance.
To find out more about the boat tours and canoe rentals, call Everglades National Park Boat
Tours, the authorized concessionaire for the park at 1 800 445-7724. They also operates a small
gift shop where you can purchase T-shirts, books about the Everglades, film, soft drinks and
packaged snacks. There are several restaurants nearby for those who want a complete meal.
If you want specific information about the park, call the park headquarters in Homestead at 305
Collier Seminole State Park
History and nature blend together at his state park south of Naples. The park has the only walking
dredge left in the country. This unique piece of construction equipment was used to build the
Tamiami Trail, the section of US 41 running from Miami to Tampa. The odd looking wheel-less
dredge moved by lifting its legs and crawling forward a few feet at a time.
For those who want to experience the tropics, try a leisurely walk on the Hammock Trail. Almost
a mile long, the path winds its way through a tropical hardwood hammock, a feature seen only in
the southern most part of the state. The hammock is a patch of slightly higher land than that of
the surrounding wetlands. Growing on this "island" are gumbo limbo, white stoppers and other
tropical trees common in the West Indies but rare in the United States. During the tourist season,
park rangers lead guided walks on the Hammock Trail.
Hikers can explore the park's six and a half mile wilderness trail through a south Florida slash
pine community. There is a primitive campground if you want to take your backpack and make it
an overnight trip.
The park also provides access to the upper part of the Ten Thousand Islands, a collection of at
least that many mangrove islands beginning south of Marco Island and extending well into
Everglades National Park to the south. A concessionaire operates a nature cruise from the park's
boat basin. The one hour tour takes visitors down the Blackwater River and into the islands in
search of herons, egrets, alligators and manatees. To explore the mangroves at your own pace, the
park rents canoes by the hour or day. During the winter tourist season there are ranger led canoe
trips down the Blackwater River.
The park has a developed campground for those who want to stay overnight. Make sure you have
all your supplies before entering the park. There is no camp store on site. The park is best visited
from late fall to early spring. At other times there may be dense concentrations of mosquitoes.
To find out more about the park programs and special events call the park office at 941 394-3397. For information on the boat tour call 1 800 842-8898
Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
The Big Cypress Swamp is the formal name of the freshwater wetlands that occupy much of the
interior eastern part of the county. The Fakahatchee Strand is one of better known segments of
this enormous, wetland wilderness. Strands, like Fakahatchee, run in a north -south direction.
They are, in a practical sense, slow moving rivers inundated with cypress trees and lacking a
clearly defined shoreline. You can visit the Fakahatchee and drive through the heart of the strand.
Janes Memorial Scenic Drive, a hard packed limestone road (that's south Florida's version of a
dirt road) cuts diagonally through the strand giving motorists a chance to see the inside of a
swamp from the comfort of their vehicle. The road is open from sunrise to sunset but a drive
early in the morning or close to sunset offers visitors the best opportunities to see the wildlife.
The swamp is home to deer, black bears, bobcats, otters, raccoons, snakes, alligators, wild
turkeys, and the rare Florida panther, one of the most endangered species in the country.
From November to February you can join a Preserve ranger for a swamp tromp, a hike into the
heart of the Fakahatchee. This rugged off-trail hike (actually, there isn't even a trail to be off of)
takes you deep into a remote part of the strand. On the walk, which can be through waist deep
water at times, you will see a variety of bromeliads and orchids, some so rare they're only known
to exist in the Fakahatchee. This is an exciting trip for those who don't mind getting wet or
muddy and have no fear of snakes. Walks are scheduled only on the third Saturday of each month
and groups are limited to 15 people.
For those who want to walk into a cypress swamp but want to keep their feet clean and mud free,
there is an elevated boardwalk into a part of the Fakahatchee where 600 year old cypress trees
still stand. Look for the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk sign on US 41 about nine miles east of
Collier Seminole State Park.
For more information or to make a reservation for a swamp walk, call the park office at 941 695-4593. This is a remote park. There are no facilities along Janes Scenic Drive or at the park
headquarters. Come self contained and with plenty of film.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Many people call all of south Florida the Everglades. In reality, the Everglades only refers to the
open grassy areas found in the eastern half of region. The western side is the Big Cypress Swamp
and the Preserve is the largest part of this cypress dominated community. The Big Cypress is a
unit of the National Park Service but differs from national parks in that traditional consumptive
uses, not allowed in the parks, are permitted in the Preserve.
The visitor's center is in the middle of the Preserve, approximately 22 miles east of the US 41
State Road 29 intersection on US 41. If you are driving between Naples and Miami stop in for a
visit. There are displays about the Big Cypress Swamp and an interesting video about the Big
Cypress Swamp. A segment of the Florida Trail passes by just to the west of the visitor's center.
Two or three day backpacking and day hikes are possible during the dry season (usually
December to April). The trial is flooded at other times of the year. Call in advance to check on
the trail's condition.
For more information call 941 695-4111. The facility has a small gift shop, vending machines
and public rest rooms.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
If you like birds, then Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is where you want to go. The
facility is internationally famous among bird watchers. Close to 200 species of birds are known
to visit the site located northeast of Naples or a regular basis. One species that draws lots of
attention when they are around are the wood storks. An endangered species these large wading
birds build large stick nests in the tops of the tallest cypress trees.
Wildlife photographers will love Corkscrew. Each year over 100,000 people visit the sanctuary
so the wildlife is accustomed to being watched. Consequently, many go about their business
within a few feet of an excited photographer. This is true not only for the birds but the numerous
alligators, turtles and snakes that inhabit the swamp. Photographers who are patient will be
rewarded with some spectacular pictures to show the folks at home.
There is a well stocked nature store where you can rent binoculars if you don't have one with you.
And while you're there take time to go to the bathroom. Corkscrew has the only living machine in
Florida. It is a series of swamp plant and animal laden tanks that convert human wastes into
nutrients for the plants in an artificial mash and returns purified water back to the swamp.
For more information call the Sanctuary visitor's center at 941 657-3771
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center
If you only have a few hours to spare, a visit to The Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature
Center in Naples is the place to go. The beautiful facility features a hands on discovery center,
and a short nature trail around the center's grounds. Along the trail you will pass by their state-of-the-art animal rehabilitation center. Injured eagles, owls, pelicans and on at least one occasion a
Florida Black Bear are treated at the center and kept there until they are well enough to be
released. The Conservancy offers a wide variety of programs including electric boat tours,
speaker series, and special events. They also have canoes and kayaks for rent. There is a large
nature store and facilities are available for private parties and meetings.
For more information call 941 262-0304.
Briggs Nature Center
This facility, located within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is part of The
Conservancy. The center an exhibit area and a half mile elevated boardwalk through a scrub oak
community. This arid habitat is home to a variety of upland birds like the rufous-sided towhee
and mourning dove. It is also prime habitat for the gopher tortoises and the rare Florida Scrub
Jay. This bird was introduced into the area several years ago in an attempt to expand its
distribution in the state. The center also offers boat tours in Rookery Bay and rent canoes and
kayaks for those who want to explore on their own.
For more information call the Briggs Nature Center at 941 775-8569 or the Naples facility at
Koreshan State Historic Site
New Jerusalem was what Cyrus Reed Teed, known to his followers as Koresh, called the giant
utopian community he tried to establish on the shores of the Estero River north of Naples.
Among his odd beliefs was the idea that we lived on the inside of a hollow sphere with the sun
being the center of the universe. As you might guess, Teed's ideas, which flourished briefly from
1904 to 1907, never gained wide acceptance.
Today the Florida Park Service manages the historic site and offers visitors an interesting look
into the sects history. Located along the shores of the Estero River, the park has a campground
and is a popular place for canoeists to access the brackish water river. Many choose to paddle a
few miles down stream to Mound Key in Estero Bay. The island is managed by the park and is
the site of a significant Calusa Indian settlement that dates back over 1,000 years.
For more information about historical tour, canoeing and camping call the park office at 941 992-0311.
Flora and Fauna Short Features
The West Indian Manatee is an endangered species. Naples and vicinity is one of the better
places in the state to see these large harmless aquatic mammals in their native habitat. Averaging
about 10 feet long and weighing almost 1,000 pounds, the gray-brown vegetarians may show up
in just about any of the bays tidal creeks and man-made canals of the region. Enjoy watching
them but don't try to harass or even disturb one. Manatees are strictly protected by state and
The tree that walks on water is how some of the early naturalists described this uniquely tropical
tree. Mangroves live along the coast surrounded by saltwater, a harsh environment for most
plants but one in which the mangrove thrives. Although there are three species in this area, most
people only notice the red mangrove. The distinctive curved, reddish "prop" root arising from the
base of the trees and the gangly aerial roots that sprout from the branches and grow down to the
water give this tree the appearance that it is walking across the surface of the water.
If you had to pick the most important species in coastal southwest Florida, it would be the
mangrove tree. The branches provide roosting and nesting sites for herons, egrets and pelicans
attracted to the region because of abundance of small fish, the birds favorite food. Small fish
hoping to grow into larger ones find the tangle of mangrove roots below the water's surface a
perfect place to escape from larger predators. They also find an abundance of tiny marine
invertebrates to eat. And, these creatures abound because of the continuous supply of their
favorite food, the microscopic bits of bacteria and fungus coated decaying mangrove leaves.
Do you know how to tell the difference between a male and female pelican? Many people will
tell you the ones with the white heads accented in yellow are the males and the drab gray or
brown ones are the females. Actually, only other pelicans can tell just by looking. What we see
are age differences. The more colorful white headed ones are the adults, the brown and gray ones
are the youngsters. Now a common site along the coast, pelicans are fun birds to watch as they
dive, headfirst and without abandon into the water trying to catch their next meal. And as far as
we know they don't get headaches from all those dives.
The eastern part of Collier County is a vast freshwater wetland. The flat land would be nearly
featureless if it weren't for snake-like expanses of cypress trees called strands and smaller
rounded areas called domes. The trees show an amazing diversity of sizes and shapes. The largest
trees, in the centers of the strands and domes, signify the wettest and lowest land in the area.
Other cypress trees growing on higher and dryer land may be just as old or older than the giant
trees old but stand only 10-15 feet tall.
Where can I see an alligator? That has to be one of the most asked questions by visitors.
Fortunately, finding an alligator to watch is easy. These naturally shy creatures are abundant in
the freshwater swamps of southwest Florida. A good place to look for them is in the canal along
US 41 heading east from Collier Seminole State Park. The are most visible on sunny day when
the gators will be catching a few rays along the banks of the canal. If you can find a place to
safely pull off the two lane road and get out of your vehicle, you can get a closer look. But,
remember that it is illegal to feed alligators so enjoy the site and keep your snacks for yourself.
If you spend time outdoors in southwest Florida, you will undoubtedly encounter mosquitoes.
Swamps are the perfect breeding grounds for these winged blood suckers. and they can be
overwhelmingly abundant in some of the outlying areas. Avoiding them when they are around is
impossible. Your only options are to stay inside or use a good insect repellent.