Warm Gulf waters and white-sand beaches that come tailor-made for shelling (aka searching for seashells) draw people to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, but what else makes fans of flora and fauna love the area? While visitors will absolutely want to spend some time beachcombing on those sandy stretches, we asked three locals about the many natural experiences that clear the mind—or excite it—in this area of Southwest Florida. Boat tours, hikes, wildlife viewing, and other al fresco fun can all be part of a getaway here. Read on for top outdoorsy picks from those who know the insider spots intimately.
Four Spots to Feel at Peace and Explore Nature
For vast expanses of beach, head to Cayo Costa State Park—an area beloved by Kristie Anders, who has worked with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation for many years. For her, it’s a place that feels truly wild. After all, the only way to get here is by boat, and the few homes that do exist are off the grid. “Cayo Costa always stimulates my sense of discovery,” says Anders. “It’s a chance to be your own Robinson Crusoe.” She loves the miles of shell-strewn white sand, as well the varied natural areas, like the magnificent oak trees in the middle of the island. To get there, hop on a Captiva Cruises boat for daily trips departing from Captiva Island; you can also rent your own boat or charter one with a captain.
Anders also loves the chill, family-friendly feel of Bowman’s Beach, on Sanibel Island. The lack of a boardwalk or concessions makes it an ideal spot for kicking back. Bring your own picnic, she suggests, and you can stroll miles of white sand, take frequent dips in the water, and bask in the sunshine. It’s even less crowded about 0.75-mile up the beach, she says, where “it’s easy to find your own little pocket of sand.” If you want something a little more active, Anders enjoys the walking trail that parallels the beach and is lined with prickly pear, sea grape, and other native vegetation. Look for rabbits and birds along the way. Or, bring a kayak and take advantage of the kayak launch. “I love the many options for recreating in nature here,” she says. To get a parking spot, arrive before 10 a.m. (that’s also when you’re mostly likely to see birds and other wildlife) or come for sunset.
“This is a beautiful and unique place,” says Anders of Six Mile Cypress Slough (hint: be like a local and pronounce it “sloo”). The 3,400 acres of wild, dense wetland “takes you out of the busy urban area of Fort Myers and lets you have a quiet, tucked-away experience in nature,” the environmentalist says. Cypress swamps are usually inaccessible, but these deep old wetlands with bromeliad-filled trees offers a tranquil and fascinating glimpse of how this area of Florida used to look. It’s also the kind of place, says Anders, where “you see different things every time you visit.” You may spot an alligator or otter, for example, and you can enjoy very different experiences in the wet season versus the dry season.
Lose yourself among the 60,000 acres of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed Trust (CREW), suggests Cindy Bear, Co-Director of the Randell Research Center, Calusa Heritage Trail. This unique space helps maintain the area’s drinking water, provides a home for wildlife, and offers a beautiful setting for exploration and relaxation. “It’s so remote and quiet,” says Bear, “You’ll truly feel like you’re removed from the world.” Visiting is also an opportunity to experience several kinds of Florida habitats, even on a short walk. “Just a one-mile hike can take you from forested flatwoods to oak hammocks to open sawgrass prairie,” she says. You’ll also find a great diversity of species. “Between the wildflowers, the plants, and all the various critters, like butterflies and birds,” says Bear, “it’s a different experience every time you visit.”
Four Places to Spot Wildlife and Immerse Yourself in Nature
“Seeing a manatee in the wild at Manatee Park is a real treat,” says Anders. “It’s like going to Africa and seeing an elephant.” This area is a source of warm water, she explains, which is why these curious creatures—which can weigh in at 2,000 pounds—congregate here. You can stand above the warm water area and look down on them, or rent a kayak and paddle along the Orange River. You may only spy a tiny portion of these unique animals as they come up to breathe, she says, but it’s exciting to witness and to hear the “pfff” of their breathing. Come in the morning or in winter if possible, she suggests, when it gets cold you’ll see more of them. (“And remember that ‘cold’ here means below 65 degrees!” she explains.) “There may be 40–50 manatees there on a cold morning,” she says, “but it’s thrilling to see just one.”
Part quiet stroll, part learning opportunity—that’s what makes a visit to Shipley Trail special, says Anders. This easy walk on a wide, multiuse trail is “more than a walking trail,” she says. Since the late 19th century, the land had been farmed and passed down through three generations before being conserved. Today, “it really gives you a sense for how the land used to look,” she says. There’s a pond area where birds feed, and you might see alligators as well. Also, it’s adjacent to a native plant area, with gardens planted with different habitats, like tropical woods, wetland, and beach. “We’re subtropical here,” she says, “and I love how unique that makes this area feel.”
Cindy Bear loves looking for wildlife in the waters surrounding Matlacha. After checking out the galleries of this quirky, Old Florida fishing village, take a kayak out on the water for even more of a true Florida experience. “The water around here is shallow and very clear,” says Bear, “so you’ll see everything from fish to mollusks to horseshoe crabs darting around.” Paddle over sea grasses, drift up into the mangroves, and pass through winding creeks—and don’t forget to look up and try to find bald eagles as well. Choose your own path, but go in the early morning or late afternoon for the best chance of spotting wildlife. Sunsets are especially gorgeous here, says Bear, as they reflect off the water. “Trail your fingers through the water as you paddle,” she suggests, “and you’ll truly feel like you’re connecting with Southwest Florida’s nature and wildlife.”
For Brian Houston, founder of Adventure Sea Kayak & SUP, the magic of Florida’s creatures really comes to life around Buck Key Preserve. “You leave the shoreline and your back is to civilization—you don’t see power lines or tall buildings,” says Houston, making you feel more remote than you are. Paddle into nearby mangrove tunnels and “you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time,” he says. Keep an eye out for oysters and crabs, which feed on the barnacles of the mangroves. And look for majestic birds like ospreys, spoonbills, herons, and egrets, which feed along the flats at low tide. As you travel into deeper water, the creatures get bigger. Look for dolphins as well as manatees. “You start seeing the noses of manatees popping up, or their tails breaking the surface,” he says. “It’s such an exciting sight.”
Whether, like Houston, you’re after the thrill of seeing animals in their natural habitats, or the peace that comes from exploring pristine natural environments, take a tip from these locals and discover the outdoors around the Fort Myers area.
We all have different feelings about traveling right now. When you’re ready, we hope you feel safe, inspired, and excited to join us on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.