by Karuna Eberl
From vast expanses of sawgrass marshes, through mysterious old-growth cypress hammocks and into the tangles of mangrove passages that spill into the open waters beyond, the wilds of southern Florida feel like the very edge of the world. Not long ago, it was the most inaccessible and untamed region of Florida — the last frontier. Today, nature lovers come from around the world to explore these wetlands, photograph rare birds, and fish for colossal tarpon.
Chokoloskee Bay is surrounded by nature preserves: Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Rookery Bay National Estuary. There are many ways to explore each. Here are six of our favorite adventures:
Paddling: silently float through the mangroves to see wading birds, river otters, alligators, manatees, and even baby bull sharks. Most tours are short and suitable for any skill and fitness level. There are also a few behemoths for seasoned paddlers, like the 99-mile trail from Chokoloskee to Flamingo. Whatever your speed, a good place to start is Everglades Area Tours, just over the bridge from the campground. They are a respected outfitter, who combines safe adventure with natural and cultural education. Their guides are Florida Master Naturalists and they are certified by the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. They also offer other eco-trips, including walking, birding, kayak fishing and photography safaris. Most tours are limited to six guests. Reservations recommended. www.evergladesareatours.com, 238 Mamie Street, Chokoloskee, 800-860-1472, 239-695-3633.
Hiking: for an easy stroll, try the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, about a 20-minute drive from the campground. The half-mile boardwalk winds through rare old-growth cypress adorned with wild orchids. The Kirby Storter Boardwalk, about 30-minutes away, is an accessible trail, which winds through open wet prairie and cypress sloughs. Another quick but less-traveled jaunt, the Tree Snail Hammock Trail is the place to see endangered, tiny, colorful liguus tree snails. It’s also in Big Cypress, and is about a 50-minute drive. For something a little longer, try the 2.4-mile Marsh Trail. It is rather hot with no shade, and comes with plenty of mosquitos, but it also has a nice lookout tower and gives a rare chance for hikers and bicyclists to enter the world of shallow estuaries and mangrove clusters usually only accessible by water. For more hikes or directions to these ones, see floridahikes.com.
Motorboat tours: these are great for a lazy day. Just walk to the Smallwood Store, a funky museum outpost, and hop on a boat to see wildlife galore with almost no effort. Some of the usual suspects include dolphins and ospreys. The guide is a sixth-generation Chokoloskee local. The one and two-hour tours explore the mangroves and islands of the gentle bay, and are limited to six passengers. www.smalwoodstoreboattour.com, 239-695-0016, 360 Mamie Street, Chokoloskee.
Airboat tours: because of their elevated decibel level, airboats are not the optimal way to get up close and personal with wildlife, but kids of all ages do love zooming around on them, and alligator sightings are nearly a guarantee. One of the more personal operators, Everglades City Airboat Tours’ captain is a third-generation guide who offers two-way headphone systems so you can talk to one another and to him. They, too, have a maximum of six passengers, www.evergladescity-airboattours.com, 907 Dupont Street, 877-222-6400, 239-695-2400.
Camping: of course sometimes the best moments in nature happen right outside the back door. There are usually great blue and small green herons to be seen right off of the campground pier, tarpon in the water, and quintessential Florida sunsets to watch while socializing at the fire pit and grill.