In addition to the very gentle 0.4-mile Leslie Duncan Memorial Trail that starts at this trailhead, a longer 1.3 mile loop appeals to hikers willing to get their feet wet while they feel a real part of this predator’s habitat. Depending on the time of year, the trail may be mostly inundated with tannic water up to a foot deep in places. It’s a watery wilderness of cabbage palm hammocks, cypress sloughs, and vast wet prairies where the Florida panther roams. Come here in late summer to experience an array of colorful blooms across the open prairies.
Length: 1.1 miles
Lat-Long: 26.161522, -81.349219
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate to irritating
Once you’re inside the parking lot, there is a gate that looks closed but should be pushed open to access the trails; the gate is to keep wildlife OUT of the parking lot and off the highway. Please be sure to shut the gates behind you (when starting your hike AND exiting to the parking area) to keep wildlife where it belongs.
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is off SR 29 just north of I-75, one exit east of Naples. Drive north from the off-ramp and you’ll find the entrance immediately on the left.
From the parking area, walk up towards the radio tower. Turn left at the first trailhead to follow the accessible route. Pass through a tall gate, spring-loaded to shut behind you to keep the panthers in. Wet flatwoods surround you, with towering slash pines shading the understory. Limestone outcroppings tell the story beneath your feet: the Everglades sit on vast slabs of porous limestone, etched by acid-laden tannic water to form a flat karst landscape punctured by solution holes.
Watch for a turnoff at 0.1 mile. Turn left and start down the leafy corridor, where your shoes will likely be inundated with water. You won’t stay dry on this hike unless the entire swamp is dry. After a sharp turn to the right, you drop down through a lush oak hammock before the trail opens up onto a wet prairie, where you catch a glimpse of I-75 and power lines off to the left. Be cautious of the sticky marl underfoot. You’ll pass scattered limestone boulders before looping around a solution pond. Watch for solution holes – natural deep holes in the footpath – throughout the prairie.
After a sharp right, the trail winds left and skirts a solution hole. At the 0.5 mile mark, you reach the zone where flatwoods and prairie meet, always a good place to look for wildflowers, especially terrestrial orchids. You enjoy a brief dry spot in the pine and palm uplands before slogging across a slough and crossing an oak hammock that forms an island in the swamp. Look for bromeliads in the trees. At 1 mile, the trail makes a hard left along a line of cabbage palms. Dropping down into the wet prairie, you emerge onto the radio tower road and turn left to get back to the parking lot.