Naples wasn’t always so refined, and at its fringes lurks the wilderness of its youth, refusing to be tamed.
Not far from the luxury shops and restaurants, panthers prowl the forest, mangroves tangle their roots into the swamp, and a river of grass stretches on as far as the eye can see.
Read on to discover the wild side of the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades area.
You can explore more than a million years of Southwest Florida’s history and heritage at the Collier County Museum. Learn about prehistoric mastodons and fierce saber cats, Calusa and Seminole Indians, and the rugged pioneers and trailblazers who settled one of America’s last frontiers. The museum’s five-acre historical park features native Florida gardens and wildlife exhibits, two historic Naples cottages, vintage swamp buggies, an archaeology lab and a restored 1910 steam logging locomotive.
To experience part of this history yourself, take in one of the Swamp Buggy Races, held three times each year on the Mile O’ Mud in Florida Sports Park. This old-time tradition of good ol’ boy fun celebrates how settlers used to get around the Everglades.
To sink deeper into history, head to Marco Island, northernmost and largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, a maze-like domain of mangroves, which is home to an uncountable number of birds.
Marco once served as an important Calusa Indian headquarters, and diggings in the 1890’s revealed crucial cultural artifacts, including the famous Marco Cat statue, held by the Smithsonian Institution. In Everglades City, the Museum of the Everglades chronicles the building of Highway 41 and the history of the area.
Nature Trek At the junction of Route 92 and Highway 41, discover the 7,271-acre Collier-Seminole State Park . The park is home to a vast array of wildlife and nature, including the endangered Florida Panther. Park programs, offered from December to March, cover a variety of topics about the park’s plants, animals and history – and there’s no better introduction to the Everglades.
You can explore this vast wilderness on several trails, as well as on the Blackwater River, which originates in the park. The river meanders through several miles of mangroves to Blackwater Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands, and the park offers canoe rentals along with a boat ramp.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, on Jane’s Memorial Scenic Drive, just west of Copeland off State Road 29, is the setting for the stranger-than-fiction book “Orchid Thief” and its spin-off movie “Adaptation,” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. It provides a boardwalk and bike trail into its wild setting that includes rare, wild orchids.
Everglades National Park, sometimes described as the river of grass, is an area must-see. Here you can join a narrated boat tour and view the natural history exhibits in the Visitor Center. Private outfitters can set you up for a one-day to two-week-long paddling excursion along the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway. It’s best to attempt this in winter months. Head north on Route 29 to Immokalee, where Haitian culture prevails and Lake Trafford lures fishermen and nature lovers. Airboats & Alligators at Lake Trafford Marina, 6001 Lake Trafford Road, can provide the ride. Call 239-657-2401.
To the west along Immokalee Road, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 375 Sanctuary Road West, is one of the most important wood stork nesting sites in the nation. It also boasts one of the largest stands of pure old-growth bald cypress in the U.S.