One of the tougher places to hike in Southwest Florida, Estero Scrub Preserve State Park, established in 1966 as Florida’s first aquatic preserve, has several loops through wet flatwoods and tidal marshes along the rim of Estero Bay. Much of the hike is in full sun, and portions can be very deep in water, no matter the season, thanks to development around the rim of the park – it’s a hike for the adventuresome only. Expect soft mud, soggy footpaths, and swamp wading along this wild trek on the edge of the suburbs.
Length: 4.8 miles
Lat-Lon: 26.442232, -81.834292
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Shorter hikes are possible, including a 2.5-mile loop on the Fiddler Crab Loop or a 2-mile round trip on the Blue Trail, which floods frequently. The hike described here is the outer loop. The preserve is open from 8 AM to sunset. Carry a map and GPS or compass, as it is possible to get lost in here.
From US 41 south of Fort Myers, drive 4.2 miles south of Allico Rd to Broadway. Turn right and follow the road west for 1.4 miles to the “No Outlet” sign. Turn right (in front of the Florida Power & Light substation) and park in front of the trail entrance.
There are three stacked loop trails making up the trail system in the preserve, allowing you several options for hiking. This hike follows the outer Pine Flatwoods Loop, blazed with red markers. Turn left from the kiosk and follow the footpath along the fence line as it curves to the right, entering the pine flatwoods. Saw palmetto and gallberry blanket the forest floor under the tall slash pines. Keep left at the fork, where a jeep road comes in from the left. As the flatwoods become wetter, you will encounter stretches where the trail is fully under water.
You reach the upper end of the Pine Flatwoods Loop at 0.4 mile. Continue straight to walk the loop counter-clockwise, rising up along the edge of an oak scrub. Tarflower stands tall with its sweetly-scented showy pinkish-white blooms. Lichens emerge from the bright white sand. As the land rises up a little, you reach a bench at the junction with the Fiddler Crab Loop. To keep hiking along the outer Pine Flatwoods Loop, continue straight
After 1 mile, you pass a closed area with a road leading off to the right. As the trail curves to the right, a trail marker indicates it follows the right fork. Subtle blooms peep out of the scrubby flatwoods understory: white sabatia, yellow bachelor’s-button, and yellow star grass. The trail rises into an area with many gnarled slash pines. Passing a cut going off to the left, continue straight. A thick understory of saw palmetto spreads out beneath the pines. The trail curves to the right, away from a firebreak and down a corridor leading to the northern edge of the preserve.
You see power lines on the right as the trail turns to the left to follow the fence line at the edge of the preserve. Unfortunately, storm water runoff affects this section of the trail. No matter the time of year, be prepared to wade up to knee-deep through the next quarter-mile until the trail is relocated away from the development. Turning left to follow the fence line, the trail makes a sharp left at 2 miles to return to the forest, and then turns to the right. Thanks to the disrupted drainage patterns, this next segment of trail is the wettest in the preserve. If you’re wading, take your time and step cautiously to avoid slipping. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when you rise up on the salt flats on the far side.
Buttonwood and white mangrove grow along the fringe of the estuary, where the waters rise and fall with the tides in Estero Bay. The trail turns left at 2.3 miles to follow the fringe of the tidal marsh. There is no defined footpath; it washes away with the tide. Watch for fiddler crabs and their mud balls, the debris left at the entrance to their home as they feed. Keep alert for each upcoming trail marker, and walk line-of-sight from marker to marker to make your way along the salt flats. Glasswort and sea purslane thrive along the slightly higher ground.
The trail curves to the right to follow a jeep track between the mangroves, emerging onto another salt flat, where a permanent drainage flows between the two flats. You pass a cut from the left that feeds water from the flatwoods down into the estuary, forming a small waterfall in times of high flow.
Rising back out of the slippery mud flats, the trail works its way through the trees. At a fork with a jeep road, keep right. Cabbage palms line the trail as it rises up to a grassy green corridor. The trail curves to the right. Emerging into another broad salt marsh, the trail makes a sharp left to follow the edge. After 3.4 miles, you reach the other end of the cross-trail portion of the Fiddler Crab Trail. Continue straight. As you follow the curve of the salt marsh, most fiddler crabs scuttle out of your way.
When you reach a cul-de-sac within the mangroves, keep alert for an exit trail to the right, a long corridor along the edge of the salt marsh. Bright dragonflies, golden-winged skimmers, flit above the mud as you walk across another broad open expanse, coming out to a bench on the left. At this junction, 4.1 miles into the hike, turn left to follow the yellow and red markers along the power line. A patch of oak scrub sits high above the trail on the left.
At 4.4 miles, you reach the junction with the Blue Trail, which heads down to the Estero River. Of all of the trails in this trail system, the Blue Trail is most prone to flooding. If you’ve waded up to this point, you’ll want to skip it; it loops out to the river and returns back to the junction at the last bench you passed. To stay on the main route, continue straight. As the trail approaches a residential area, it makes a sharp turn to the left, away from the power line. Turning sharply right, it traverses the pine flatwoods. Emerging at a view of the substation, you’ve reached the end of the loop after 4.7 miles. Turn right to continue out to the parking lot, completing your hike of 4.8 miles.