Flowing out of Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, the Calooshatchee River has long suffered from government schemes to corral and channelize its waters. Much of the river east of Alva was converted into a ditch by the Army Corps of Engineers long ago, complete with a series of locks.
At Caloosahatchee Regional Park, however, you walk through natural habitats on the river’s north shore. While the south shore is heavily developed with homes, this patch of preserve was set aside long ago with thoughts of creating a 768-acre state park.
Still under the management of Lee County Parks & Recreation to this day, it protects some of the last wild uplands along the length of the river while offering an extensive trail system for exploring the subtropical habitats.
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Length: 3.4 mile loop
Trailhead: 26.7221, -81.6514
Address: 19130 North River Road, Alva FL 33920
Fees: parking fee of $1 per hour or $5 per day
Restroom: at the trailhead
Land manager: Lee County
Dogs are not permitted at this park. The park is open from 7 AM to 7 PM daily. Trails near the river may flood in times of high water.
There are separate trail systems for equestrians and mountain bikers. Park staff ask that hikers stay off those trails for their safety.
Be sure to obtain your parking permit from the automated machine ($1 an hour or $5 per day) and place it in your windshield before you start the hike.
Primitive tent camping sites are available: $15 for a family site, $30 group site, $50 equestrian site. There is also a lodge available for rent. Reserve online via the link at the bottom of this page.
From Interstate 75 exit 143, drive 3.3 miles east on SR 78 (Bayshore Rd). The road ends at T. Turn left onto SR 31, and continue 1.2 miles to CR 78. Turn right on CR 78.
After 6.6 miles, you pass the Northside Trails, which provides access to the off-road biking and equestrian trails. Keep alert for the main entrance on the right at 7.2 miles, which is marked on the map as Parking Lot #2. The hiking trails radiate from this parking area.
The hiking trail system at Caloosahatchee Regional Park consists of four stacked loops and two connector trails on the south side of the park. When hiking with small children, stick to the River Hammock and Overlook Trails. Only the Overlook Trail is accessible, providing a easy quarter-mile round trip to the river overlook.
While tallying all the trail mileage gives you 4.3 miles, we followed the loop perimeters and used the Shoreline Trail to make the most of the river frontage, which gave us a 3.4-mile hike. Here’s that route.
From the parking area, follow the sidewalk to the River Hammock Trail trailhead sign. The trail plunges into a dark palm hammock, where tall cabbage palms are draped with goldfoot ferns and the earth underfoot is wet and black.
Live oaks add to the dense canopy, each oak limb swaddled in a thick growth of wild pine and resurrection fern. Shiny-leaved tropical plants dominate the understory, including marlberry, myrsine, and wild coffee.
Passing a side trail to the campground at 0.2 mile, the trail continues past a bench to a fork, the start of its loop. Stay right, walking down a corridor of tall cabbage palms before curving left past a bench.
The open area beyond the forest is the Caloosahatchee River. After the trail crosses a bridge over a sluggish stream, it meets a trail junction at 0.6 mile. Turn right. A short connector leads to the Shoreline Trail, meeting it at a T.
Turn right to follow the Shoreline Trail downriver. The footpath here can be wet at times. Meandering along the river’s edge, it provides only occasional direct views of the water.
Climbing up and over spoil banks, it drops into a stretch of sawgrass. The outflow of a marsh pours across the footpath. Skirting a patch of elephant ears, the trail continues along the river beneath pond cypresses.
After almost a mile, the Shoreline Trail ends at the observation deck at the end of the Overlook Trail. It’s the best view along the river: velvet-blue waves against the unspoiled northern shoreline of the Calooshatchee.
Continue along this shoreline as you join the Oxbow Trail, which works its way along the water’s edge as it leads to a another observation point along the river within view of Oxbow Island.
The trail turns away from the river and into the wet pine flatwoods, where you may tangle with some shin-deep wading, depending on recent rains and river levels. At the next trail junction at 1.4 miles, keep left.
Now on the south side of the Pine Flatwoods Loop, follow the trail along a narrow track into a palm hammock. This stand of palms has a little elevation to it, so it doesn’t tend to get too wet underfoot.
Pass a bench before reaching the junction with the Saw Palmetto Loop at 1.6 miles. Turn left to follow the loop clockwise. This is the westernmost of the chain of loops, again drawing close to the river basin.
In this hydric hammock, glimpses of the river appear through the dense screen of cabbage palms. The forest floor under the palms is often damp and muddy.
If you find yourself wading, backtrack to the Pine Flatwoods Loop and continue around that loop, skipping the Saw Palmetto Loop entirely.
The loop meets the perimeter of the park and turns away from the river, using a short multi-use section of trail adjoining a swiftly-flowing ditch.
Stay on the loop by turning right at a sign that says “Horses and Bicycles Prohibited” at 2.2 miles. This is where you start the upland side of the Saw Palmetto Loop.
The slash pines overhead provide limited shade. Chapman oak and gallberry rise above a sea of saw palmetto fronds. When the trail reaches the junction with the Pine Flatwoods Loop at a bench, turn left to stay on the loop perimeter.
The footpath meanders up to the next bench, set along a sluggish tannic stream piped under the path. Turning right, the trail wiggles its way through a forest of cabbage palms and oaks.
Passing another bench before wandering beneath a large oak furry with bromeliads and ferns, you meet the junction with the Oxbow Trail Loop at 2.9 miles. Keep left at this T to stay on the perimeter.
This path can also be wet at times. It winds through pine and palm flatwoods with scattered sand live oaks. Look up into the limbs of the oaks for giant air plants in bloom.
After 3.2 miles, the trail reaches the main parking area again, sealing the loop. You can call it quits now, or take one last short walk.
Because the Overlook Trail is only a quarter mile round-trip and leads straight out to the river, it’s worth adding it on as the final piece of this hike.
It leads through a palm hammock out to the overlook on the river, but is a nice firm surface. Sour wild grapefruit drip from the citrus trees in the forest. Enjoy the river view one last time before walking back to the parking area, completing a 3.4 mile hike.
See our photos of Caloosahatchee Regional Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Walk along a blackwater stream that sluggishly seeps towards the Caloosahatchee River on the way to a panorama of pines and palmettos along Hickey Creek
Along a mile of interconnected footpaths at LaBelle Nature Park, walk a gentle half-mile loop with views of the Caloosahatchee River from a lush hammock
Winding 1.4 miles through the slough, the broad wheelchair-accessible boardwalk at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers leads you into a dark cypress strand