Since it’s impossible to see from any major highway, both residents and visitors tend to be blind to Florida’s vast sweep of mangrove forest fringing the tip of the peninsula.
It is largely protected by a string of public lands stretching east to the Florida Keys, with Rookery Bay NERR anchoring the area between Naples and Marco Island.
Only those who explore by water are marveled by the sheer size of this incredible, largely shallow estuary, made up of tens of thousands of mangrove-topped islands.
Some of the larger islands, such as beautiful Keewaydin, boast extensive sandy strands cradling an incredible array of seashells.
Wildlife abounds, for the estuary provides everything they need: a nursery for fish, a hunting ground for dolphin pods, a nesting ground for massive flocks of birds.
Hiding in plain sight not far from busy US 41 south of Naples, this extraordinary aquatic preserve provides both paddling routes and nature trails to explore.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2.5 miles in six trails
Trailhead: 26.050804, -81.700656
Address: 300 Tower Rd, Naples
Fees: Free except at ELC
Restroom: At the ELC
Land manager: Jointly managed by NOAA, Florida DEP, and FIU. Visitor support provided by the nonprofit Friends of Rookery Bay.
The reserve is open dawn to dusk. Pets are not permitted.
An entry fee is charged at the Environmental Learning Center, which has more limited operating hours. Friends of Rookery Bay operates the center.
Arrange camping at designated sites in advance. Expect mosquitoes.
From downtown Naples, follow US 41 (Tamiami Trail) south to Collier Blvd (SR 951). Turn right and follow this major road south 0.8 mile. Turn right on Tower Rd and left into the entrance for the Environmental Learning Center.
To continue to the Shell Island trails, turn from Tower Rd right (south) on Collier Blvd and drive 2 miles. Turn right onto Shell Island Rd at Old Marco Junction. After a mile, Briggs Boardwalk is on the right. In another 1.6 miles, you reach the Rookery Bay Field Station. Parking for Monument Point is another quarter mile, where the road ends.
About the Reserve
Given its size and watery nature, much of the reserve can only be explored by boat, either on a tour or on your own. Kayak rentals are available.
Island campsites tempt those who want to disappear into the mangrove maze. See the reserve map for campsite locations.
Everything must be packed in and packed out, including all potable water for your needs, as none exists on the islands.
If you’re arriving to hike, make the Environmental Learning Center your first stop for learning about South Florida’s mangrove coast.
A mile and a half of trails are at located at the the ELC. Three additional trails are on Shell Island, reached via a drive down Shell Island Rd to its very tip.
Environmental Learning Center
Family-friendly and accessible, the ELC provides both hands-on learning and boat tours into the mangrove forests.
A movie provides the backdrop to the Ten Thousand Islands and why this puzzle of mangrove forest at the tip of the Florida peninsula is so important.
Surrounding the cinema is an art galley showcasing rotating exhibits with a natural theme. The Palmetto Patch Nature Store offers fun gifts and books.
Move on to the active part of the center, the Aquaria Showcase, to see underwater habitats and their inhabitants, such as oyster beds and seagrass. A touch tank is offered on occasion.
Kids will enjoy playing inside a model boat, learning about tools that the researchers use out in the estuary.
After a visit to the working labs, head upstairs for exhibits on local history and an observation deck looking out over the mangroves.
A broad bridge with more views of mangroves leads to the Snail Trail, one of several nature trails making up 1.5 miles of hiking inside the complex.
There is also a picnic chickee on the ELC grounds. Check ahead for scheduled tour times and costs, as well as the days and hours the ELC is open.
Follow the road south from the ELC to visit the trails of Shell Island. There are three stops along Shell Island Rd where you can hike.
The first is the Briggs Boardwalk. This hike starts behind a former nature center (now an FWC field station) and makes a half mile loop.
It interprets a gradient of coastal habitats, with an observation deck across a mangrove-lined pond.
Continue to the end of Shell Island Rd for two more natural surface hikes.
Starting at the Rookery Bay Field Station, the Shell Mound Trail leads along the mangrove shoreline in the vicinity of ancient Calusa middens.
It can be rough and tidally inundated. It may close when not maintained.
Following a causeway at the end of the road, the Monument Point Trail is a half-mile round trip between lagoons to a stone monument at Henderson Creek.
See our photos from Rookery Bay NERR
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
At Naples Botanical Garden, buildings, landscaping, and nature live in harmony, with a delicate balance of natural spaces and lush gardens accented with art achieved.
Slosh for up to 3.5 miles on a very wet walk in the Big Cypress Swamp along the Sabal Palm Trail at Picayune Strand State Forest near Naples.
First established in 1919 by botanist Henry Nehrling as a caladium farm, Caribbean Gardens grew into a major tourist attraction for tropical trees and plants, and is now the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens.