Walk Right Up to Nature: Best Bets for Hiking in the AreaNov 21, 2021 07:47PM ● By JEFF LYTLE
When it comes to hikes, the environmental gem of Southwest Florida walks the walk. The area has so much greenspace set aside that testing all of its trails would be a fulltime job for even the most ardent trekker.
For every well-known outdoor attraction such as Lovers Key in Bonita Springs or Koreshan State Park in Estero, there are spectacular yet lesser-known destinations such as Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach or Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve in Cape Coral.
Granted, the region lacks Grand Canyon-style terrain, and most trails do not fit the mold for camping—especially amid rainy summers—but hikers can make the most of every opportunity. Many neighborhoods are so pretty and wooded that they tempt you into 10,000 steps a day.
Starting in southern Lee County, Bonita Nature Place and nearby Cullum's Trail offer a mile of wooded trails—plus education about bats, bees, gopher tortoises, and butterflies, and even fishing in the Imperial River—next to the YMCA on Kent Road in Bonita Springs.
On a larger scale, Lovers Key State Park off the south end of Estero Island has a bounty of hiking, including long, scenic walks to and on the beach. Nesting and dining osprey abound.
“I can definitely recommend the Black Island Trail,” says park manager Katie Moses. The 2.5-mile path winds through woods and canals with wading birds, manatees, and dolphins.
Moving northward, hikers will find nice trails at Estero Bay’s scrub and aquatic preserves off Broadway West and along the Estero River at Koreshan State Park, where visitors get a bonus history lesson about the religious cult that settled there in the late 19th century. The buildings they used are open for inspection.
From Lovers Key and Koreshan, canoes and kayaks can launch for Mound Key Archaeological State Park, a base of the Calusa Indians 3,000 years ago. John Paeno, a nature guide and outfitter for CGT Kayaks Inc in Bonita Springs, leads hiking tours at Mound Key, which he notes is one of the local spots for kayaking on the Great Calusa Blueway Trail.
He offers a few words to the wise: “On any hike you could encounter alligators, crocodiles, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, coral snakes, black widow spiders, black bears, panthers, bobcats, eagles, osprey, assorted birds, and small mammals. There is even a poisonous caterpillar.”
Paeno shares some of his favorite venues, including Matanzas Pass Preserve on Fort Myers Beach, Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center on Pine Island, and the state park trails at Cayo Costa and North Captiva.
Meanwhile, the Estero Community Park yields an interesting hike up and down its hills through woods, lakes, ballfields, a disc golf course, playgrounds, and dog parks. There is an amphitheater, too.
Nearby to the east, the Florida Gulf Coast University campus has a 3.3-mile nature trail through wildlife—a living laboratory.
Hikers hit the jackpot in Fort Myers at Lakes Park, with more than two miles of paved path smooth enough for joggers and baby strollers meandering through water and woods, with a butterfly garden and miniature train ride along the way. A medieval reenactment festival can be an eye-opening surprise.
Also in Fort Myers, check Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, with a boardwalk and butterfly garden amid a 3,500-acre urban oasis; Shores Nature Trail Park, a small neighborhood park with a boardwalk into a cypress dome east of downtown Fort Myers; and The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, with enticing trails through its 105-acre property.
Bowditch Point Park on the north end of Fort Myers Beach is a designated Great Florida Birding Trail site.
On Sanibel Island, hikers strike it rich. J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge has loads of trails handling cars, hikers, and bikers soaking up the world-class scenery. The Calusa Shell Mound Trail has a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk off Wildlife Drive, a four-mile, one-way road through the refuge. Other trail draws on Sanibel include the Bailey Tract, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), and the Shipley Trail at SCCF’s Bailey Homestead Preserve. A standout is the Shared Use Path for bikers and hikers, linking 24 miles of pathways from the Sanibel Lighthouse to Blind Pass.
Cape Coral bulges with hiking venues—perhaps surprising for a community steeped in development and growth. Check Yellow Fever Creek Preserve with a 2.5-mile loop through 340 wooded acres with access from Del Prado Boulevard; Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve with more than a mile of walking trails through areas of flowers, trees, and birds; and the North Cape Flats Trail in northwestern Cape Coral, part of the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. Also in Cape Coral, there is a mix of jogging, hiking, and dog walking at Joe Stonis Park, Bernice Braden Park, and Rotary Park, which is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and also offers the wheelchair-accessible Glover Bight Trail.
Now, have a seat and loosen those boots. Time for a rest. Until the next hike.
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News. He resides in Bonita Springs.