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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 305 247-6211.

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 262-0304.

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 federal law.


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.

Cypress Swamp

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.

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