Humidity crept into the still morning air, coloring the swamp with a mild haze. Standing behind his medium-format camera, the photographer watched and waited, waited and watched. A green heron appeared, fluttering down to the edge of the flag pond. Quick! The photographer took several frames, and moved on. There are plenty of subjects to draw his eye along the boardwalk at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.
Winding 1.4 miles through the slough, the broad wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leads you into a dark cypress strand. Loggers cleared the cypress swamps of Lee County in the 1930s, so most of the trees you see along this hike are young specimens; a few exceptions to the rule are the grand giants overshadowing the edges of the flag ponds, where alligators lurk. No worries … you’re several feet above their reach.
Location: Fort Myers
Length: Up to 1.4 miles
Lat-Lon: 26.571167, -81.826117
Type: Loop and spur
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
The park is open 8 to sunset daily. The gate automatically closes at closing time. Free guided walks are offered; see their website for the schedule. A beautiful nature center opened in 2008, the first LEED-certified public building in Florida. As with all Lee County Parks, there is a parking fee of $1 per hour or $5 per day, paid via a machine that dispenses parking permits.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is located in western Fort Myers off Six Mile Cypress Parkway, 3.2 miles south of Colonial Boulevard at the I-75 exit 136 interchange.
Start your hike at the entry kiosk, following the boardwalk. White blooms of duck potato wave from the tops of tall stalks; red maple and wax myrtle crowd the forest. A boardwalk to the restrooms leads to the left. Continue straight into a young cypress swamp. On the fringe of wet flatwoods, slash pines tower overhead. Rounding a corner, you see open water beyond the trees—Alligator Lake. Created by dredging to build Six Mile Cypress Parkway, this deep stretch of water provides a haven for little blue herons, white ibises, and alligators. As the trail rises up towards an interpretive kiosk, woods ferns cluster beneath the boardwalk. Turn left at the kiosk to walk out past an outdoor amphitheater to Alligator Lake. Several benches provide a place for you to sit and watch for wildlife.
Follow the boardwalk back along the left side of the amphitheater to return to the main trail, and turn left at the T intersection, where purple morning glories cascade over the underbrush. After 0.2 mile you reach the beginning of the loop. Continue straight. The boardwalk jogs to the left to follow the shore of Alligator Lake, where star rush grows along the shore. Pause at the fishing deck to look down. Although the water seems black from a distance, it’s translucent when you peer into it. Tiny mosquitofish, gambusia, dart through the shallows. Thanks to their diet of mosquito larvae, this swampy hike is surprisingly bug-free.
As the trail continues on into the depths of the cypress swamp, the forest closes in around you. It’s a dark and magical place. Look up, and you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of giant bromeliads and giant wild pine as well as several varieties of orchids. At 0.3 mile, you reach the cross-trail between the two boardwalk loops. Continue straight. As the trail curves to the right, you see the tall forms of alligator flag outlining the edge of a pond.
At the “Wood Duck Pond” sign, turn left. A dozen bromeliads and more sprout near the base of an older bald cypress. The side trail ends at an observation platform with benches along the placid pond. This is the first of several flag ponds in the slough, named for the tall vegetation crowding around them during the wet season. Deeper than the rest of the flooded forest, these ponds provide a habitat for bluegill, gar, largemouth bass, and other species. Returning to the main trail, turn left. At the next stretch of open water, take a moment to enjoy the oldest cypress in the slough, a gnarled pond cypress broader than it is tall. Its massive form reflects in the dark water of the swamp.
Turning away from its farthest point, the trail makes a sharp right and heads south. All around you, the forest pulses with life, cypresses and oaks covered in air plants and orchids. Jogging to the right, the trail continues past a dahoon holly laden in bright red berries. A bench provides an overlook over a dark pool ringed with massive strap ferns, where water flows slowly towards a flag pond in the distance. You reach the other end of the cross trail at 0.8 mile. Continue straight.
As the boardwalk curves around to the left, you pass an American elm swaddled in a thick growth of resurrection fern. Turn left at the sign “Otter Pond” to see the next flag pond.This spur trail ends at an observation platform with benches. A leopard frog clings to the base of an alligator flag, waving with the breeze. Walk back to the main trail and turn left.
The boardwalk continues to zigzag through the swamp. After 1 mile, you reach another shaded observation deck with a view out into the swamp. Watch for the turnoff to Pop Ash Pond, the prettiest of the flag ponds. Turn right and follow the spur trail past more giant clumps of strap fern. The covered observation deck is built like a large blind—fabulous for watching and photographing the water birds that visit the pond. Watch for snowy egrets and white ibises, anhinga and Louisiana herons, and the occasional roseate spoonbill. Interpretive signs assist you in bird identification.
Continue back along the spur trail to the main trail and turn right. As you continue through the cypress forest, you see another boardwalk drawing near. After 1.2 miles, you complete the loop. Turn left to follow the boardwalk back to the parking lot.