You’ll find Florida’s best and most extensive boardwalk hike at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, meandering 2.3 miles through an old-growth cypress forest. Managed by the National Audubon Society since 1912, Corkscrew Swamp, encompassing 315 square miles, is one of the most important breeding grounds for wood storks and one of the few places you can see a ghost orchid bloom in the summer months. Corkscrew Swamp contains the largest stand of virgin bald cypress in the world, with trees up to 600 years old. Since the entire trail is wheelchair-accessible, and offers plenty of benches and rain shelters along the boardwalk route, it’s great for the entire family.
Length: 2.3 miles (0.7 mile loop possible as well)
Lat-Long: 26.375724, -81.603725
Fees / Permits: $12 adults
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: In the nature center and outside the complex
Dogs are not permitted
All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center, which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here; deep discounts for Audubon members. Visitors are encouraged to walk clockwise around the loop trail. Interpretive markers help you gauge how far you’ve walked along the way. Check the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary website for current hours.
From I-75 exit 111 in Naples, Immokalee Road / Naples Park, drive east on CR 846. After 15.6 miles, turn left at the “Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary” sign onto CR 849. Follow this road for 1.5 miles, which makes a sharp left, until you see the parking sign for the sanctuary. Turn right and park.
As you exit the Blair Audubon Center, take a glance at the “Recent Wildlife Sightings” board and keep to the left to follow the boardwalk into the pine flatwoods, where slash pines tower overhead. This is the edge of Corkscrew Island, a high spot surrounded by the sheet flow of the Big Cypress ecosystem. The boardwalk leads you across a broad, open wet prairie, where a touch of Southeastern sunflowers are still in bloom along the edges. The trail works its way to the shade of the cypress strand, where an observation deck offers your first opportunity for birding. A side trail for staff only is to your left at 0.3 mile as the trail rounds the corner and heads deeper into the strand, where alligator flag stands tall along the edge of a deep spot and pond apples crowd the boardwalk. There is a constant chatter of birds in the trees. This is a world-renowned birding site, with nearly 200 species identified within the swamp, so expect to meet many birders along your walk, field guides and binoculars in hand.
You pass a shortcut trail on the right that leads to the Lettuce Lakes–creating a 0.7 mile loop for people with limited mobility. The main trail continues straight ahead to emerge on the edge of a large prairie where tall grasses and dog fennel belie a dry season this year. Turn left on the side trail, which leads you along the prairie’s edge to the Plume Camp rain shelter, where you’ll encounter an excellent interpretive sign regarding the bird plume hunting that devastated South Florida’s wading bird population in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Return along the side trail and turn left to continue, walking in the shade of the cypress strand along the prairie. At 0.5 mile, a side trail leads to an observation platform on the prairie, another good birding spot. The cypresses here are old but stunted by poor soil, and dangle thick clusters of seeds that look like grapes.
The boardwalk continues into the depths of the cypress strand, where giant strap ferns cast a primordial feel as they reflect in the inky shallows below. Rotting logs host colonies of fungi and ferns, and you hear splashes in the shadows. Passing through a rain shelter at 0.7 mile, pause and watch for wildlife–small alligators, frogs, and turtles. The trees rise taller and taller, lifting the canopy to the heavens. All around you are the ancients of Corkscrew Swamp, bald cypresses rising up to 130 feet tall, with girths of up to 25 feet around. A side trail leads to an observation platform under the cypresses, where you can sit under these giants and stare straight up in the air to marvel at their height.
When you reach the T intersection, you’ve walked a mile. Turn left to climb up to the observation platform along the marsh, where red maples are showing their crimson colors in fall. It’s a sweeping view from the top, the marsh unexpectedly dry, choked with willows–perhaps a sign of changed patterns of hydrological flow across the region due to development, or simply the result of an unexpectedly dry summer. Returning back to the main trail, continue straight, passing through the next rain shelter. A platform just beyond the shelter looks over a flag pond where the birds are especially active. All around you are enormous cypresses, many of which have equally gigantic strangler fig trees grappling with their trunks. It’s a place to feel Lilliputian.
After 1.5 miles, the boardwalk starts to zigzag across the Lettuce Lakes. The shortcut trail joins in at 1.6 miles. I recall these flag ponds being rather open years ago, but now their edges are crowded with vegetation, and it’s tough to see much open water. Several observation points and benches offer a variety of perspectives and sometimes serve as perches for little blue herons and other wading birds. In the thickness of the vegetation, you can hear coots fussing. Soon after the last flag pond, you reach the Bypass Trail, on the right. It’s normally closed, except during wood stork nesting season each winter, when it’s used to avoid disturbing the breeding colony of the only stork that nests in the United States. The main trail continues through the cypress strand and meets up with the Bypass Trail, passing a trail on the left that is used only for student groups.
The boardwalk zigzags through a dense stand of cypresses on its way back out to the prairie that marks the gap between the strand and Corkscrew Island. As you cross back over to the pine-shaded island, look for terrestrial orchids rising out of the pine duff. Returning to the trail junction with the “Recent Wildlife Sightings” board, record your observations to share with other visitors. Exit through the Blair Audubon Center to complete your 2.3 mile walk.