Take a walk on the wild side at special places with unique habitats and ecosystems where you can explore Florida’s unique flora and fauna while hiking, paddling, cycling, swimming, camping, horseback riding, or simply relaxing in nature’s beauty. Do yourself a favor: Research each location to plan a visit tailored to your interests and needs.
Caloosahatchee Regional Park | 19130 N. River Road, Alva, 33920; 239-694-0398
This 765-acre park with more than 12 miles of trails along the banks of the Caloosahatchee in the northeast region of Lee County is popular for mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, primitive camping, kayaking, hiking, picnicking, and large gatherings with rentable lodges and pavilions. Teens under the age of 16 are required by state law to wear a bicycle helmet. Check out loaner helmets at the camp office, and only properly maintained bikes are recommended for these trails. The entrance for the equestrian and bike trails is at: Parking Lot #3, 18251 North River Road.
Cayo Costa State Park | Captiva 33924 941-964-0375; floridastateparks.org
Located directly south of Boca Grande, 12 miles west of Cape Coral and just north of North Captiva Island, Cayo Costa is accessible only by private or charter boat, helicopter, or one of the many mainland ferry services. This former fishing ground of the Calusa Indians features nine miles of undeveloped shoreline for swimming, snorkeling, shelling, fishing, birdwatching and exploration along with several walking and bicycling trails through the island’s interior. Shorebirds are numerous and one might spot manatees, porpoises and sea turtles offshore. Designated campsites and cabins are available for overnight stays.
Conservation 20/20 is a taxpayer-supported program that purchases large tracts of environmentally sensitive, unique, and threatened habitats and ecosystems. Explore the lay of the land at 48 preserves totaling nearly 30,000 acres spread throughout Lee County at sites including Spanish, Billy, Oak, Mullock, and Yellow Fever creeks, Wild Turkey Strand, Yucca Pens, and Smokehouse Bay. All preserves are open to the public for hiking, nature observation, and photography. Several preserves offer additional opportunities for fishing, kayaking and canoeing, and horseback riding. Preserves are open daily during daylight hours. Access may be limited at certain locations due to temporary flooding, special restoration projects, or remoteness. Information about each Conservation 20/20 property can be found at: leegov.com/conservation2020
Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve | East end of S.E. 23 Terrace, Cape Coral, 33990 239-549-4606;
The second largest preserved green space in Cape Coral, the 365-acre Four Mile Cove is conveniently located north of Veteran’s Parkway. This brackish water wetland area features a boardwalk and 6,600-foot nature trail, visitor center, Veterans Memorial, and seasonal kayak rentals for those willing to undertake an 800-foot portage. Possible wildlife sightings include eagles, wading and migratory birds, raccoons, and snakes.
Hickey Creek Mitigation Park | 17980 Palm Beach Blvd., Alva, 33920 239-694-0398
This park—designated as a Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail site—has three looped hiking trails totaling five miles. It consists of a variety of habitats including palmetto-oak scrub, pine flatwoods, and seasonal wetlands. Views of scenic Hickey Creek can be enjoyed from the trail and overlook areas. The. A kayak landing is located a half-mile from parking lot so plan on toting your paddlecraft by foot. Home to an ecosystem that supports the threatened Florida scrub-jay and gopher tortoise, this park is co-managed by the Lee County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge | 1 Wildlife Dr, Sanibel, 33957
The refuge consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the refuge are designated by Congress as a Federal Wilderness Area. It is named for Jay Norwood Darling, a syndicated editorial cartoonist and avid outdoorsman who served as the first XXXX. He helped to conserve the environmentally valuable land and convinced President Harry S. Truman to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. It was later renamed for the Darling, a pioneer conservationist. Today, it is a world-class migratory bird habitat that draws more than 245 species of birds. Plan on spending the day hiking or paddling; rent kayaks and canoes at Tarpon Bay Explorers. Visitors can walk, bike, or take a tram along Wildlife Drive to see a stunning array of wading birds, alligators, and other wildlife. A great place to start is the visitor’s center to learn about the refuge’s history, natural resources, and regular programs.
Koreshan State Historic Site | 3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero, 33928 239-992-0311;
This designated National Register of Historic Place offers a window into the spiritualist colony of the Koreshan Unity Settlement founded on the banks of the Estero River in 1893. In addition to walking back through time at 11 restored original buildings and cottages, it also provides wide-open opportunities for hiking, camping at 60 campsites, geocaching, fishing, picnicking, and paddling among its 250 shady flatwoods acres. Wildlife who call it home include bobcats, grey foxes, otters, alligators, and bald eagles among more than 100 bird species. The boat ramp accommodates boats up to 24′ in length, and paddlecraft rentals are available onsite.
Lakes Regional Park | 7330 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers, 33908 239-533-7575;
Lakes Regional Park is a 279-acre destination that lures the whole family. It is named for its 158 acres of manmade freshwater lakes created from former quarry pits that draw year-round birds and wildlife. Rent boats and bicycles and pavilions, wander the boardwalk, romp on the playground or at the tots’ splash pad, or hop aboard a miniature train. There are several gardens, as well as restrooms and concessions.
Lovers Key State Park | 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 33931 239-463-4588
Lover’s Key State Park is a group of four mangrove islands (Inner Key, Long Key, Lovers Key, and Black Island) located between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach. Hop in a kayak or lounge under an umbrella on the shore. Explore serene canals and lagoons that are favorite grazing spots for manatee and shorebirds. Beachcomb along a two-mile stretch of shoreline. Bike and paddlecraft rentals, food, and beverages are available onsite.
Manatee Park | 10901 State Road 80 (Palm Beach Boulevard), Fort Myers, 33905 239-690-5030
Manatee Park is a laid-back, non-captive warm water refuge along the Orange River for the Florida manatee, Florida’s state marine mammal. Optimum viewing months are late December, January, and February when the gulf temperature is below 68-degrees F. Manatees are generally not present during the warm summer months. The park hosts educational programs, fishing, gardens, playgrounds, restrooms, a walking path, wildlife viewing, and paddlecraft rentals. The park has an extensive butterfly garden and is a demonstration for native landscaping.
Rotary Park Environmental Center | 5505 Rose Garden Road, Cape Coral, 33914 239-549-4606;
The 97-acre city park features an environmental center with live exhibits, butterfly house, dog park, playground, picnic shelters, boardwalk and observation tower, and trails with exercise stations. The 4,200-square-foot environmental center is used for a variety of programs, classes, and activities.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve | 7751 Penzance Blvd., Fort Myers, 33966 239-533-7550
The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is more than 3,500 acres of wetland ecosystem with a fully accessible boardwalk trail, amphitheater, observation decks, and interpretive center. The cypress slough slowly filters rainwater on its way towards Estero Bay. A myriad of animals, such as otters, alligators, turtles, wading birds, and more live at the slough year-round while others use the slough as a feeding area or a winter home. Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is managed by the Lee County Department of Parks and Recreation. Regular guided, 90-minute walks and other programs are regularly offered.