Southwest Florida is not typically considered the go-to location for outdoor enthusiasts. Designated as a beach and retiree destination, many visitors make their way down to Florida’s bottom and never leave the sandy beaches.
If you’re like me, after the third day of laying on the sand like a beached whale, you’re ready to explore something new. Fort Myers sits on the edge of many nature preserves with other great destinations easily reached by car. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite outdoor adventures within 6 hours of Fort Myers. Some could be a day trip from your beachfront condo while others are a fun overnight to break up a long week of surf and sand vacation time.
So pack your sturdy footwear, some bug spray, and your sense of adventure, and follow me on a tour through Florida’s wild places!
Located just over an hour from Fort Myers, Big Cypress is a great day trip for travelers looking to get a taste of the Everglades. I recommend taking Highway 41 (Known as the Tamiami Trail) at least on the way down from Fort Myers. This two-lane highway is a great place to see alligators and some beautiful vistas. Just mind the speed limit as Florida panthers, gators, birds, bears, and many more cross this road (especially at night). Below are some of my top picks for a day near Big Cypress!
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park– (While not technically Big Cypress, this is close and I will count it). Located off highway 29 just north of Everglades City, Fakahatchee offers a great destination for those wanting to explore the swamps and get their feet wet (literally). While you can hike alone, guided hikes are available to book through the park. Click on the link above to contact the park office about times and dates. Bears, panthers, mink, and many more call this park home. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a rare ghost orchid in bloom. (Check out this hike to a private cabin. One of the few hikes where you keep you shoes dry in this park).
Gator Hook Trail– This 5-mile, out-and-back trail offers a trip to one of the most beautiful cypress domes in Florida. Be warned, this trail will get your feet wet during most of the year and can be hard to navigate. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, long pants, and bring plenty of water and a compass (or a GPS). Click here for a more detailed run-down of this great trail!
Kirby Storter Roadside Park– This park offers a hike for the whole family. The one-mile boardwalk is stroller-friendly, and provides some of the prettiest swamp views you can get without going fully into the swamp. (And if there are too many mosquitos? You are just a short run away from the car.)
Turner River Paddling Trail– This kayak/canoe trail is a perfect option for water-lovers. About 10 miles long, you can do a portion of it before turning around. You can also continue all the way to the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and arrange a pick-up to take you back to your car. The trail takes you through narrow mangrove tunnels and out into a sawgrass prairie. Plan to spend a full-day exploring this water trail and plan to bring water and snacks. Check here for a detailed account of this river trail. Don’t have a kayak? No problem, outfitters are in abundance here and offer guided tours. Check out this outfitter for rental and tour rates.
Everglades National Park is a massive nature area encompassing the bottom part of Florida. It is a great place to go camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or grab a boat tour. The nearest visitor center to Fort Myers is Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Here you can rent kayaks or hop on a boat tour to explore Ten Thousand Islands.
Two hours from Fort Myers is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. You can bring bikes (or rent them there) to explore the 16-mile loop from the visitor center to a 45-foot observation tower offering 360 views of the everglade landscape. The trail is open 24/7, but the parking lot and center close in the evening (center closes at 5PM and the entrance closes at 6PM). I recommend picking a cooler day for this trip, as there is little shade along the way. (Or do it at night for a bike ride under the stars!)
Another option is do the full 4-hour drive to Flamingo, the heart of ENP. Check out my article on spending a weekend in Flamingo for great tips and tricks for exploring this area!
Overnight Trip to the Florida Springs
About 4 hours north of Fort Myers is an area full of crystal rivers, cool springs, and sweeping cypress trees. Springs are prevalent throughout most of northern Florida, but some of the closest rivers to Fort Myers are Rainbow River, Weeki-Wachee, and Crystal River. Each offers it’s own unique experience, so I’ve given you a brief outline below. You could easily spend a day exploring each one, so definitely plan on spending the night in the area (camping and airbnbs are available throughout the whole area). Remember to also bring a snorkel mask and fins, as the clarity of these beautiful springs will have you drooling to jump in and explore the world below!
Rainbow River: Spring-fed rivers are always a cool, 72-degrees. This means they are a great option for those sweltering, summer days. Rainbow River is a beautiful, clear river that flows from the spring-head towards Dunnellon. The river is full of otters, turtles, birds, and fish. You can rent tubes from the state park and spend the day floating in the current before boarding the shuttle back up to your launch spot. From the KP Hole launch, it takes 4 hours to float. (Hint: No plastic or alcohol is allowed on this river and is subject to a fine. Drinks and food must be in reusable containers. On the weekends, the park will close if it reaches capacity. If going on a Saturday or Sunday, plan to arrive a little bit before 8am to secure a spot.)
Weeki-Wachee: This state park also has a clear, spring-fed river. While tubing is not an easy option, you can rent paddle-boards or kayaks from the state park to enjoy this river. The state park also arranges a shuttle (book rentals and shuttle here). Families with kids can also enjoy daily mermaid shows (yes, that is a real thing), wildlife shows, and boat tours (see here for more info). The best part? In the winter, manatees make their way up this river in search of warmer water and food. Kayaking with one of the world’s gentlest mammals? Priceless.
Crystal River: Crystal River is famous as the place to go to see manatees in the winter time. This is the place where all the influencers go to post those much-sought after selfies with the cow of the sea. While you can kayak or boat the river, you will have to swim into the spring areas where the manatees hang out the most. Three Sisters Springs is the most popular and well-known spot to swim with manatees, but it is closed to boats for most of the winter season (manatees head into the bay once warmer weather hits). Be sure to check the Three Sisters Facebook page for daily closures of the springs (if the weather is too cold, the park will close the springs to swimmers because there are too many manatees in the area). There is also a boardwalk there if you don’t feel like getting wet. While this is a great winter activity, the river is also a beautiful kayak trip in the summer, and manatees can still be seen in the bay.
Local Parks and Nature Preserves
For those looking to get their nature fix but wanting to stay close to home, Fort Myers has a great selection of outdoor areas for all skill-levels. All of these trails are within an hour of Fort Myers, so they make for a very easy day trip or evening excursion. Here are some of my favorites:
- CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: A great location for walkers or bikers (this trail is packed-dirt with a small section of boardwalk), the Bird Rookery Swamp is a go-to for bird-watching, gator-sighting, and possible otter encounters. Every now and then a panther will be sighted in the area, so keep your eyes out for one of Florida’s rarest residents. The trail is an oddly-shaped 12-mile loop, but I only recommend doing the full loop if you’re on a bike (Remember, Florida is hot and humid for most of the year). The first 3 miles are some of the prettiest if you want a shorter option. Gators love to hang out on the side of the trail, so be sure to pick up any small dogs or small kids (joking). Dogs aren’t advised on this trail, but if you do bring Mr. Fancy Paws, just stay aware of your surroundings.
- J.N. Ding Darling Kayak Trail: Located on Sanibel, this federal preserve is a great place to launch a kayak and explore mangrove tunnels and shallow bays. Stingrays, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, tropical birds, and fish love this area (It is one of the top birding locations in the United States!). It costs $10 per a vehicle to enter (free with a National Park pass), and the park is closed on Fridays. If you don’t have a kayak, you can take a guided kayak tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers.
- Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Located in the heart of Fort Myers, this is one of the easiest to access “hikes” on the list. This elevated boardwalk is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and twists through one of the last sloughs remaining in the area (thanks, overdevelopment). The boardwalk is about 1.2 miles long, and parking is $1 an hour (but entrance to the boardwalk is free). This is a great early morning or late evening option, as the park is open dawn to dusk. Gators are almost always a guarantee at the large lake about 1/3 mile from the parking lot!
This is just a few of my favorite outdoor activities within an easy drive of Fort Myers. Florida is on a constant quest to develop every open area, so it is always important to appreciate these natural places before they are gone. If you love nature, consider also donating to a local conservation group to help beat back the developers (we really don’t need another Wal-Mart). Through our combined efforts, we can continue to enjoy these places long into the future. (Here’s a link to the local Sierra Club).
Have a nature spot that you enjoy in southern Florida? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!