Though best known for beaches and boating, Southwest Florida offers great diversity in hiking opportunities for those preferring to encounter the beauty of nature on land. Proximity to the water does compliment many of these trails, where a casual hike can provide an adventurer with a wondrous view of the sea. However, other memorable trails highlighting the region’s copious natural resources are not found along the coast. Instead, the interior swamplands of Southwest Florida often offer a unique hiking experience for both local residents and vacationers alike.
Here are three top trails in Southwest Florida, which collectively reflect favorably on the local diversity of hiking experiences.
Florida National Scenic Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve: (No entrance fee; campground fees vary) As the initial segment of the Florida Trail, starting a hike here could lead to a 1,400 mile journey ending in Pensacola Beach. However, the trail in Big Cypress National Preserve runs a mere 32 miles of that distance and takes the hiker on a point-to-point journey from Tamiami Trail to Interstate 75. Hiking through the 700,000 acre swamp will inevitably get an adventurer in knee deep water at times, as the hiker is constantly surrounded by the serenity of sawgrass waters, scenic cypress sloughs, and dense slash pines. Campsites and water supplies are scattered throughout the preserve, so that a backpacker making this rugged trip can sojourn over the course of multiple days. As one of the last homes of the endangered Florida panther, this hike is unlike any other found in the USA. Elevation may vary up to ten feet and the hike must be made during the dry season of the winter and spring months. Be advised to check in advance as forest fires during those dry periods often close sections of the Florida Trail. The trail is rated as “difficult” and should only be attempted by experienced hikers in search of a unique challenge.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: (No entrance fee, $1 per hour parking fee) A slough (pronounced sloo, rhymes with cow) is a drainage way where runoff water is naturally collected during rainy season and delivered over land to the coast. In this case, water gathers from the watershed in the central part of the state and passes over Six Mile Cypress Slough to reach Estero Bay. Offering balance to the region’s more rugged trails, this boardwalk path constructed through the slough has been built right on the edge of the bustling city of Fort Myers. Part of a 2,200 acre wetland preserve set aside from development near Interstate 75, there is no other way to access these dense woods than through the planked trail. The 1.2 mile loop trail offers periodic elevated platforms, providing hope of spotting nearby wildlife. Animals commonly seen in the preserve include deer, bobcats, turkey, alligators, and bald eagles. The trail is readily accessible and open to walkers year-round. It is rated as “easy” and can be completed at a medium pace in less than an hour. Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is open daily during daylight hours.
Indigo Trail at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: (Entrance fee $5 per vehicle, $1 per walker) Offering a taste of “old Florida” by the Gulf of Mexico, this 4-mile scenic trail loops through a well-known wildlife refuge on beautiful Sanibel Island. The J.D. “Ding” Darling NWR is a 2,800 preserve of mangrove forest, coastal marsh, and submerged seagrass beds. An estimated 220 species of birds call this preserve home and it also provides a safe refuge for aquatic animals such as sea turtles, manatees, alligators, and the American crocodile. The marked Indigo Trail has a combination of terrain on which to walk, including a boardwalk, shell path, and a forest floor mix of sand and soil. Sitting close to sea level, elevation is minimal, and the trail is rated as “easy.” Estimated time of completion is 2.5 hours for average hikers. The trail offers a view of the impressively dense coastal mangrove forest, as well as the numerous birds who call its tree limbs home, including the ibis and snowy egret. Eventually the trail leads a hiker to a stunning view of the nearby sea. Sanibel Island can be notorious for mosquitoes, so bug spray is recommended.
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