Sprucing up the swamp: Fakahatchee boardwalk getting $1.3 million upgrade

Lance Shearer

For years, the Fakahatchee has seemed to be a kind of redheaded stepchild among area nature preserves. Miles away from coastal population centers, hidden away in the woods, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park doesn’t have the name recognition, funding, or the bigtime organizations backing it, as do Everglades National Park or Rookery Bay.

Narrower, more rustic, and maintained entirely by volunteers from the Friends of Fakahatchee, the Fakahatchee boardwalk doesn’t have the cachet of the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Friends of Fakahatchee president Patrick Higgins shows where a new pedestrian bridge will lead to the boardwalk. The Fakahatchee Strand State Park boardwalk is getting a $1.3 million makeover, with improved parking and facilities, and a new aerial walkway to give visitors a look at the forest canopy.

But things are looking up. The Fakahatchee is the recipient of a $1.3 million appropriation from the Florida legislature, and the park’s boardwalk along US 41 will be receiving some major upgrades.

One thing they won’t be changing is the swamp itself – and that’s a good thing. Some of the cypress trees are 600 years old, and tower overhead, along or even through the planks under your feet, with the boardwalk built right around several of them. Many of the cypress are girdled with massive, sinuous strangler figs, which manage in this climate to coexist with their host.

What will change is access, accessibility, and viewability of the natural surroundings. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 7 to kick off the Boardwalk Expansion Project, making improvements to the facilities and entrance to the 2,300-foot wooden boardwalk. These will include safer vehicular access, sanitary public restrooms, and an expanded parking lot with deceleration lanes that will end the necessity for those using overflow parking to walk across the federal highway, with cars whizzing by at 60 to 70 mph.

A suspension pedestrian bridge will take visitors across the canal that parallels the road, to an interpretive center containing information and exhibits about the boardwalk and the swamp. Perhaps most exciting, an elevated “epiphyte walk,” 20 feet up in the tree canopy, will literally give visitors a bird’s eye view of the swamp.

An architect's rendering shows where a new interpretive pavilion will lead to the boardwalk. The Fakahatchee Strand State Park boardwalk is getting a $1.3 million makeover, with improved parking and facilities, and a new aerial walkway to give visitors a look at the forest canopy.

Just north of US 41, the famed Tamiami Trail, the boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend represents the easiest way to catch a glimpse of the Fakahatchee, maybe including an alligator or two, plus a host of other wild fauna and flora. Despite being “miles from nowhere” this slice of wild Florida hosts approximately 100,000 visitors each year, said Friends of Fakahatchee executive director Francine Stevens.

“The boardwalk really is the front door into the Fakahatchee,” she said.

The new setup will also include regulating entry to the boardwalk, said Friends president Patrick Higgins. Just as other state parks do, but the Fakahatchee never could, they will now charge an entry fee to help fund maintenance and additional improvements to the facility. Tour operators bringing busloads of tourists will help preserve the boardwalk, which after Hurricane Irma was in such an advanced state of deterioration that the state said it should just be allowed to fall completely apart, forcing the Friends group to step in with volunteer labor and materials.

“After Hurricane Wilma, the State of Florida decided to ‘let it rot,’ saying the boardwalk was too far gone to repair,” said naturalist and volunteer guide Linda Koreny.

The Friends of Fakahatchee is also becoming the master concessionaire in the park, regulating ecotour operators who run boat trips or other activities in the park, which will be an additional source of revenue.

Friends of Fakahatchee board member and past president Tom Maish credited the $1.3 million in funding appropriated by the state legislature largely to the good offices of State Senator Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, who spearheaded the effort, with assistance from State Representative Bob Rommel.

“The Fakahatchee is a gem – there’s nothing like it,” said Passidomo. “In the heart of the Everglades, this shows you what our natural beauty really is. I fell in love with it.”

Fortunately, the funds were requested two years ago, she said. “This year, there was very little funding available. The timing was perfect.

“Everybody who saw the plans was really impressed,” said Passidomo. The plans were the work of Naples architect David Corban, AIA, who incorporated green principles throughout.

“As an architect, sustainability is very important to us, particularly in a pristine area” such as the Fakahatchee. “Any time you do buildings in a place like this, you have to be very careful, leave a small footprint,” said Corban.

His design sets up pilings at angles, so they resemble trees, and uses low-impact helical piles that don’t require a conventional pile driver to be set in the ground. The walkway he designed will give visitors the chance to go 20 feet up into the tree canopy and view the swamp from above. The bar grate decking allows sunlight through.

Whether you see if from above, or at boardwalk level, the Fakahatchee boardwalk is one of just a handful of opportunities to easily take a tour of how Florida looked before man altered the landscape.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is on the north side of US-41 (Tamiami Trail), 25 miles east of downtown Naples, and about 7 miles west of SR-29. To learn more about guided tours or to support the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, go to www.orchidswamp.org.