Florida’s southern tip harbors two spectacular natural areas that stun and surprise visitors year after year: the sprawling Everglades National Park and the glimmering Paradise Coast, two sides of an enchanting natural coin.
Outdoor adventure takes many forms here – read on for our guide to exploring this special corner of the United States.
Everglades National Park
This massive protected area encompasses more than 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness – the marshes, lakes and swamps of the Everglades are not only a national park, but also a World Heritage Site, a Wetland of International Importance, and an International Biosphere Reserve. The Everglades may seem understated at first glance, but this intricate web of waterways fosters an exceptional variety of wildlife including manatees, sea turtles, panthers, and hundreds of bird species.
Take a day paddle
Unsurprisingly, the Everglades are one of the top paddling destinations in Florida, if not the entire country. Meander along mangrove-lined creeks, spot alligators and endangered birds, and glide along the bays and inlets of the Gulf Coast. Perfect paddling trails are accessible from the The Gulf Coast Visitor Center, the park access point just south of Naples and Marco Island. Kayak and canoe rentals are available via the park’s recommended outfitters: Everglades Florida Adventures or Flamingo Adventures.
Camp along the Wilderness Waterway
Experienced boaters and paddlers will revel in the chance to camp along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which connects Everglades City with the town of Flamingo to the southeast. Exceptional portions of the trail wind through the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the world’s largest mangrove systems. Choose from a variety of ground, beach and chickee sites (covered wooden platforms for camping where there is no dry land), and immerse yourself in the stillness and majesty of the Everglades. Important notes: wilderness camping requires a permit and paddlers should be able to navigate using nautical charts.
Go on a wetland wildlife safari
The northern reaches of the Everglades is a national biological treasure, home to countless endangered animals and birds, plus rare plant life, that thrive in its sawgrass prairies and cypress swamps. A boat tour from a local ecological expert will help you get to know this unique ecosystem and collect an album’s worth of photos of sea turtles, dolphin, manatees and more. And if you really want to sink your teeth in, take your pick: croc or ’gator? The Everglades are one of the only places where they coexist.
Florida’s Paradise Coast encompasses southwestern Florida’s beaches, coastlines and marshes from Everglades City up to Immokalee. Here, outdoor enthusiasts will find pristine sandbars, thriving marine reserves, old-growth cypress forests and rare orchids, with many of these experiences easily accessible from the region’s most buzzing town, Naples.
Shell and Paddle at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island
Marco Island is technically the largest of the 10,000 Islands, and the geographical connection is evident in its natural beauty. Tigertail Beach’s developed end offers a relaxing place to take in the gulf views – snag a spot on the white sand or rent a stand-up paddleboard and hit the tranquil turquoise waters lapping at the coastline. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, wade across the saltwater lagoon to the wilder section of beach, where you’ll find a treasure trove of shells and an explosion of bird life.
Wildlife watching and orchid spotting at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Run by the National Audobon Society, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects an ancient piece of Florida history – 13,000 acres of bald cypress forest estimated to be 600 years old. Here, otters, alligators, red-bellied turtles and anhinga live among arboreal giants covered in native mosses and ferns. But not all of the swamp’s unique creatures are animals – Corkscrew is also home to the rare ghost orchid, a waif-like bloom that only emerges briefly in the summer. The orchid plant in the reserve towers at 50ft and, with a little bit of timing, you can spot the rare flower in its prime.
Angle in Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
This spectacular reserve protects 110,000 acres of mangrove forests and marine environments – almost half of the north eastern Everglades coastline. Anglers will delight in the bounty that lives in these protected waters: spotted sea trout, snook, tarpon and more. Rookery Bay emphasizes sustainable fishing practices, including approved handling and catch-and-release practices, so fish populations remain stable and healthy. Boat charters, rentals and guided tours can all be booked with the reserve’s recommended providers on its website.
Wander the Naples Botanical Garden
If you’re looking to punctuate your city break with a bit of nature (or would like a family friendly outdoor activity), head to Naples Botanical Gardens, a curated wonderland of plant life from Florida and around the world. This botanical garden features lily pad ponds, flower arches, orchid displays, a butterfly house, and a visitors center partially built with reclaimed “sinker cypress,” felled trees from the bottom of the Suwannee River.
Enjoy the laid-back vibes
As long as you’re in Naples, make time for some outdoor experiences of a different kind. One of the best reasons to visit southwest Florida is how easily accessible the Everglades are from this relaxed and luxurious town – and vice-versa. Shop in style among the beautiful boutiques, then cozy up to an outdoor beach bar for a fruity libation. Cap it all with a blazing sunset from the Naples Pier and you have the perfect outdoor vacation.