Naples and surrounding Collier County are so beautiful that many call it paradise. Ever wonder why? Just up the coast or across the state, it’s still pretty, but not with the same quality and ubiquity. The reason might just be that 80 percent of the county’s wetlands, coastline and general scenery are part of protected local, state and national preserves. Here is a sampling of a few of the many parks that will put avid birdwatchers and gardeners, especially, in touch with our unique natural resources.
The elephant in the living room is Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, which boasts rare and endangered species. It has been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance, significant to all people of the world. To see it, head south on U.S. 41 to SR 29, which goes to Everglades City. Driving through town, you can’t miss it. Info: 305-242-7700
When settlers arrived here, much of Southwest Florida was covered with 100-foot bald cypress trees. Today, they have all been made into matchsticks, except in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where a virgin stand remains, thanks to the National Audubon Society. Today, the Sanctuary's 13,000 acres creates a home for more than 200 bird species.
Award-winning photographer Maxis Gamez will conduct a one-hour bird photography seminar at 1 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Sanctuary. Cost is $35. Info: 375 Sanctuary Road West 348-9151
Collier-Seminole State Park, also on U.S. 41 south of town, offers a taste of nature beyond the beaches and a feel for what this land was like before development transformed it, with guided canoe trips down the Blackwater River. For the landlubber, there are nature hikes.
The park is also known as the home of the historic Walking Dredge, a self-propelled excavator that made possible construction of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami in the 1920s. Info: 20200 U.S. 41. E. 394-3397
A boardwalk off the highway further south along U.S.41 will give access to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, a linear swamp with a tropical climate that supports an abundance of wildlife. Fakahatchee has been called the orchid and bromeliad capital of North America, with 44 native orchid species and 14 native bromeliad species.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service maintains the 35,000-acre Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Reserve, which protects a large portion of the largest mangrove estuary in North America. This area is best accessed by boat, from Marco Island or Everglades City.
The 110,000-acre Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve provides habitat for American crocodile, sea turtles and over 150 bird species. It’s part of a federal network of 27 protected areas around the nation's coasts, established for long-term research, monitoring and coastal stewardship, and boats many Interactive displays at the Environmental Learning Center inside. Info: 300 Tower Road 417-6310
Collier County has also established ecologically important county parks including Barefoot Beach Preserve, home of the endangered gopher tortoise, at the northern end, and Tigertail Beach, one of the best birding sites in Southwest Florida, on Marco Island.
These aren’t all the parks and preserves, but they are some of the best. The reality is that it’s hard to find a corner of the county that is not blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. Be sure not to miss it on your trip.