CREW Bird Rookery Swamp provides a place for hikers to immerse themselves in the Big Cypress Swamp without getting their feet wet.
It is part of the vast Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), more than 50,000 acres of hydrologic protection for Corkscrew Strand and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Just at the trailhead expect abundant wildlife in the surrounding waterways, from ibis and wood storks to green herons and the ubiquitous alligators.
Most visitors will be satisfied exploring the access trail to the loop, a 4.5-mile round-trip, which we describe here.
With 12 miles of trail to explore, the tramway system into the swamp is open to both hikers and cyclists, and is a favorite for trail runners.
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Length: 4.5 miles
Address: 1295 Shady Hollow Boulevard, Naples
Fees: $3 suggested donation
Restroom: Portable toilet at trailhead
Land manager: CREW Land & Water Trust
Do not bring dogs to this trail. Young children should be closely watched. You are only inches above the swamp on the tramway.
Alligators sun themselves on the footpath. Keep at least 20 feet from any you see.
The trail may close whenever it is flooded. It will be posted at the trailhead if you can’t go any farther than the end of the boardwalk.
Vultures have caused damage to cars at the trailhead by pecking at rubber goods.
CREW says “hanging plastic shopping bags from the top of your door frames or covering your car with a tarp secured with bungee straps may deter them.”
While the underlying swamp is protected as public land by Southwest Florida Water Management District, volunteers from CREW Land & Water Trust maintain the trails.
They are always looking for new members and volunteer support from people who live in the region. Learn more here.
From Interstate 75 exit 111, Immokalee Rd (CR 846), drive east for 11.4 miles. After the curve, you pass the stoplight for Oil Well Rd (CR 858).
When you reach Shady Hollow Blvd, turn left. Follow the road for 1.5 miles to the trailhead parking on the right.
Follow the causeway east from the parking area towards a boardwalk that leads to the tramway system. This first portion of the trail (half mile round-trip) is accessible.
Winding through young cypresses and floodplain forest, the boardwalk provides an up-close view of summer blooms where butterflies rest. In fall, red maples sport crimson leaves.
As the boardwalk ends, pass two benches. The wooden walkway makes a hard right and deposits you onto a grassy tramway.
Established more than a century ago for timber companies to remove ancient cypresses for lumber, this tramway and the others connected to it supported a narrow gauge railway system.
In the 1960s, surveyors used the tramways to go deep into the swamps to plot out what would become the first subdivisions in the Big Cypress. Now there are many.
All of those houses occupy places that were once seasonally under water. That’s why this trail sometimes closes in the wetter months as the rainfall has few other places to go.
Beyond the boardwalk is an alligator slide, where alligators regularly cross from one deep pool of water to another. A bench is nearby.
On the tramway, the trail is a long corridor of green grass through the middle of the swamp, where dense ferns make up the understory under the cypress trees.
Passing a bench under a large cypress tree, note how the habitat shifts to floodplain forest, heavy with red maple.
Alligator flag dominates the deeper water. Giant sword fern and royal ferns create their own little islands in the swamp.
About a mile in is an interpretive display with railroad ties from the logging days, between 1915 and 1957.
The trail continues as a broad straightaway through the floodplain forest before it emerges to where the landscape opens up on the right.
The sparkling waters are Saddlebrook Lake, edged by homes on the far shore. On this shore, the marsh presses in more closely to the trail.
There are a lot of damp spots underfoot as you come up to the property boundary as the tramway is not far above water level.
At the fence, there is a bench and a sign with GPS coordinates on a map to let you know where you are.
The sign explains each leg of the trail system, providing mileages, so you can decide how far to go – up to 12 miles for the entire route.
The trail makes a sharp left and follows the fence east. Pass a “Service Road” sign to the left at 1.5 miles.
“Road Closed” and “Service Road” signs appear with greater frequency, mainly to discourage you from following unmarked, unmaintained logging spurs off the main trail. All are dead ends.
Past one spur is a pond covered in water lettuce. Soon after, the tramway broadens and is flanked by a pop-ash swamp and a floodplain forest.
Pause for a break at a picnic table. A few minutes later you come to the junction for the big loop through the heart of the preserve.
At 2.3 miles, this junction is a Y where trains would have taken one side or the other. Marker 3 is at this junction.
This is your decision point. It is 7.5 miles around the loop, with no shortcuts. Once you are on the loop you are committed to it.
You can opt to walk it all, walk out and back on a portion of it, or turn around here, as we did, to return the way you came to the trailhead.
On the way back from Marker 3 to the trailhead, notice how canals parallel the tramways most of the time. This is a swamp, so the dirt you’re walking on had to come out of it.
Listen closely. Despite the human intrusion of tramways, wildlife is plopping, swimming, skittering, and flapping everywhere.
On the return there are numerous signs with a parking symbol and arrow to encourage people to walk the correct way back to the trailhead.
The opposite direction takes you deeper into the swamp, not a place where you want to spend the night. It’s home to the Florida panther, the Florida black bear, and thousands of alligators.
It may not feel like it on this grassy ribbon of trail, but Bird Rookery Swamp is a truly wild place, slowly healing itself from the scars of logging that ended less than 60 years ago.
Returning to the corner of the fence line, pass more signs and the open waters of Saddleback Lake before the final long stretch of straightaway.
Reaching the boardwalk after 4 miles. After crossing the boardwalk, walk the short 0.2-mile loop to the right.
It provides a different perspective on the swamp. It’s here we spotted baby alligators and colorful green and tricolor herons.
The loop ends by depositing you on the causeway that leads straight back to the parking area to complete a 4.5-mile hike.
See our photos along the Crew Bird Rookery Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.