Get wild this winter: 7 great Southwest Florida spots to explore outdoors

Chad Gillis Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

Even in Southwest Florida traditional wintertime activities can be food-focused, indoorsy or tense (think family current events discussions) so why not head outside this season? Not only will a hike help you work off those holiday meals, outdoor exercise may help dispel any lingering stress, the American Heart Association says.  

Now that the weather has cooled and there's less chance of being swamped by thunderstorms, getting outside in Southwest Florida's wild places becomes an attractive recreational option.

Here are some great Southwest Florida destinations with a variety of difficulty levels where you can revel in the wilderness.

A trio of deer feed at Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed.

Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed

Early evening sunlight creates an ethereal look on a blooming pine lily at Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. In Southwest Florida, the large native flowers usually bloom in late summer to fall and are seen in wet pine woods.

The Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, or CREW, consist of 60,000 acres of relatively untouched land on the border of eastern Lee and Collier counties.

The preserve was opened to the public in 1989 and has expanded to include a network of trails, two campsites and a walk-through hike that allows hikers to do a 12-mile plus wilderness stroll between Bonita Springs and the main CREW trail northwest of the Immokalee area.

CREW trails are great for first timers and people who don’t like to rub up against plants and trees while they’re walking. If you like to get deep in the swamp waters and into more remote wilderness, CREW may not be for you.

For the birds: Wintering species making their way to Southwest Florida for the season

And: $2M gift helps Florida's 'hidden gem' science center soar

A pine lily blooms at Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed.

Still, a plethora of wildlife can be found here, though, from docile wintering songbirds to deer, caracara, black bears and even panthers.

CREW is also known for its spectacular array of wildflowers.

The main entrance to CREW is located at 4600 Corkscrew Road, Immokalee. There are other access points on Corkscrew Road, Bonita Beach Road in Bonita Springs and Immokalee Road in Naples.

Maps are available online at: www.crewtrust.org. CREW suggests a donation of $3 per person.

The Crew Land and Water Trust can be reached at (239) 657-2253.

Everglades National Park

The premiere wilderness destination in Florida, Everglades National Park stretches from just south of Marco Island to the Florida Key and is 1.5 million acres in size.

The park is where the famed River of Grass meets the Gulf of Mexico, and there are thousands of creeks, rivers, and bays to explore.

Everglades National Park was established in 1947, much to the dismay of alligator poachers and many locals – who didn’t want federal government oversight in an area that at that point had experienced very little law enforcement.

The Everglades was so remote during those days that poachers and others conducting illegal activities were almost impossible to find and apprehend.

Alligators are the main attraction here as an untold number live in the park.

Panthers live here, so do black bears, bald eagles, wood storks and, unfortunately, the invasive and destructive Burmese python.

Everglades National Park is some of the most difficult terrain in the world to traverse, especially in the mangrove forests.

There are parking spots and some paths, boardwalks and even an overlook, but the real heart of Everglades National Park is only accessible by canoe, kayak or powerboat.

Everglades National Park is a watery wilderness at the southernmost point of the mainland United States.

Access point are in Everglades City and Chokoloskee at the south end of Highway 29, Shark River Valley along U.S. 41 and Flamingo on Florida Bay.

If you’re unsure about what type of adventure to chose for the park, check online for guides that lead canoe and kayak trips, hiking excursions and tour buses.

The park can be reached at 305-242-7700, and more information can be found at www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm.

Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve Park  

Florida’s largest state park at 85,000 acres, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve Park is famous for its rare and beautiful orchids, especially the ghost orchid.

Books have been written about the plant and illegal poaching rings. 

They're very difficult to find, and people who know where they are rarely give up their secret. 

Fakahatchee is also a great place for a swamp walk during the high-water summer months or even into the winter and spring.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk has reopened to the public. The 2,300 foot wooden boardwalk takes visitors into the heart of Fakahatchee Strand, the largest bald cypress/royal palm swamp in the world. The bald cypress trees surrounding the boardwalk are hundreds of years old.

During the dry season, water that flows through the strand slowly comes to a halt, and it’s much easier for hikers to move around in the thick wilderness.

It’s not uncommon to see deer in groups moving through a grass prairie or great horned owls hunting massive crawfish here.  

Fakahatchee is also a good place to see panthers because the big cats tend to use the roads there to travel.

Panthers, like other animals, will use well-worn paths and roadways to travel as it is easier than navigating the swamps, and visitors who travel the road at dusk or dawn have the best chance of seeing the state animal.

Most of Fakahatchee is accessible by Janes Scenic Drive, which connects to Highway 29 north of U.S. 41 and south of Interstate 75.

There is also a paddling trail along U.S. 41 and a series of fishing and paddling lakes at the southwest corner of Interstate 75 and Highway 29.

Picnicking, running, off-road cycling and birding are also popular here.

The park is located at 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland and is open from 8 a.m. until sunset.

Cost is $3 per vehicle. For more information, call 239-695-4593, or visit www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/fakahatchee-strand-preserve-state-park.

Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve

Carolyn Mighton, of Cape Coral, hikes along the boardwalk at Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve. "I come out here almost every day," she said.

Tucked against bustling Cape Coral's flank, are 365 wet, green acres along the brackish mangrove-fringe of the Caloosahatchee River. Whether by paddle craft or on foot, the park, part of the Great Calusa Blueway, offers a visitor’s center observation piers, nature trails and a Veteran’s Memorial Area.

Hikers will find several shady trails and boardwalk trails lined by sabal palm, gumbo limbo and strangler figs. Herons stalk the shallows and osprey are a frequent sight soaring overhead.

The visitor’s center trailhead leads to Four Mile Cove, Alligator Creek and to the pier. Another goes from the east end of the parking lot and is a short walk also to the pier which offers stunning views of the river, the bridge and Fort Myers.

For those who didn’t bring a boat, a seasonal kayak rental shop offers single and tandem craft. Paddling north from the shop leads to an 800-foot-long portage that necessitates dragging the boats along the boardwalk to re-launch at Alligator Creek, which will eventually reach the river. Boaters can either return the same way or head south along the coast, possibly venture into Four Mile Creek or Deerfly Creek.

You can stop at shelters and floating docks within Four Mile Cove or at a pier to rest and savor nature. There’s also a picnic area at the beginning of the straight path bordering the bridge returning to the rental shop. Be aware, the watery paths can get quite narrow and shallow, especially at low tide. Some turnaround points are marked, plus signs help guide return trips to the shop.

Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, at the east end of 23rd Terrace in Cape Coral, is open 8 a.m. to dusk all year. Call 239-549-4606 for general park info; the Kayak Shack is at 239-574-7395. Admission and parking are free. Online: https://www.capecoral.gov/department/parks_and_recreationhome/four_mile_cove_eco_preserve.php

Harns Marsh

Sure, this place may have the utilitarian purpose of stormwater detention and filtration, but for wildlife lovers, it’s a sampler platter of prized sightings.

Roseate spoonbills, river otters, bobcats, wild turkeys and the endangered snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), all frequent the preserve. The latter, a dark-winged raptor, is often seen swooping over the manmade wetland as it hunts the native and exotic apple snails that live there. Not too long ago, with fewer than 400 left on the planet, spotting a snail kite was a rare and prized event, but in recent years, as their populations have increased to several thousand, this Lehigh Acres site has become a dependable place to get a look at one.

More:Rare birds evolving before our eyes: Are invasive pest snails helping an endangered species recover?

And:Plethora of avian wonders can be found in Florida's historic Everglades system, even in town

A cooperative project between Lehigh Acres Municipal Services Improvement District, Lee County, the South Florida Water Management District and other partners, the sprawling wetland system on the Lehigh/Buckingham border includes the shallow headwaters of the Orange River, In addition to miles of wide, easy-to-hike trails, there are cypress domes, a riverside path and a couple of observation docks, but there are no restrooms.  

Harns Marsh is off Sunshine Boulevard in Lehigh Acres. From Lee Boulevard, head north on Sunshine Boulevard, turn left on Olive Avenue North and then turn left on 38th Street West and continue to the marsh. No admission or parking fee. Call 239-368-0044; online: https://myecwcd.net/harns-marsh

J.N. `Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge

It’s not hard to understand why Sanibel’s J.N. `Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge tops most what-to-see-in-Southwest Florida lists.

Few other places so neatly — and beautifully — encapsulate the inner workings, the beauty and the challenges faced by the region's natural systems.

Within the refuge's 6,400 acres, the interplay of land and water, fresh and salt, man and nature is front and center.

White pelicans.

The refuge can be traversed on foot, by bike, by paddlecraft, on a tram tour, or in a car.

It's hard to visit and not come away with a more sophisticated understanding of the way things work around here. It's also hard not to have your breath taken away at least once.

Maybe it’ll be when you round a bend on Wildlife Drive on a rented bike to discover a flock of roseate spoonbills, dibbling and nibbling their way through the shallows. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of an indigo snake slicing across the trail path, all obsidian muscle and predatory stealth.

Or maybe you’ll just be breathing in the Shell Mound Trail’s incomparable fragrance: a woody mingling of sun-warmed mangrove muck, salt breeze and the musky tang of white stopper, a scent sometimes uncharitably called skunky, but one some find wild and stirring.

As the name implies, the four-mile long Wildlife Drive is popular with motorists (speed limit 15 mph), but can also be hiked or pedaled

There are also canoe and kayak trails and a Calusa Indian mound to explore. Traces of farmers who settled on the island in the 1800s remain as well: pieces of walls and cisterns, plus the trees they planted (or the trees' offspring): Key limes, sour oranges and spiky sansevieria plants that settlers used to make rope.

(About that name: Jay Norwood Darling, for whom the refuge is named, got the nickname "Ding" by mistake. As a young cartoonist, he signed his work "J.N. D'ing" then shortened it to "D'ing." When a printer accidentally dropped the apostrophe from one of his credit lines, he decided he liked it and adopted "Ding" as his pseudonym.)

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is off Sanibel-Captiva Road at Mile Marker 2 on Sanibel. Prices and hours vary; information is online here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling/plan_your_visit/hours.html or call 239-472-1100.

Six Mile Cypress Slough

Panthers, rare orchids and bald eagles in the City of Fort Myers?  These wild things aren’t rarities at the 3,000-plus-acre Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.

Just five minutes from I-75, this beloved urban oasis is home to rare and endangered critters as well as ancient specimens of the preserve’s namesake tree.

Bald cypress trees in a wetland at Six Mile Cypress Slough in Fort Myers provide an area where birds can forage and nest and rest.

A state-of-the-art, restroom-equipped nature center helps orient visitors to its natural systems, and 1.2 miles of well-maintained boardwalks make it comfortable for those with diverse abilities. There’s an amphitheater and a comfortable wooden “blind” overlooking one of the wetland’s ponds so photographers and observers don’t spook the residents.

("Slough," by the way, means a long, narrow wetland with slowly flowing fresh water and rhymes with "blue.") Some 11 miles long and 1/3 of a mile wide, this slice of wildland sits at the headwaters of Estero Bay, cleaning the water flowing into the county’s saltwater reaches.

It might almost have been swallowed by development, if not for a group of far-sighted Fort Myers High School students, their enterprising teacher Bill Hammond and a handful of dedicated advocates.

In the 1970s, this group of volunteers successfully rallied for its preservation, laying the groundwork for Lee County’s popular Conservation 2020 program in the process.

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is at 7751 Penzance Blvd., Fort Myers. Parking is $1 per hour per vehicle, $5 for the day. Hours vary seasonally. Call 239-533-7556; online: sloughpreserve.org/

— The News-Press archive contributed to this report.