Thrilling wildlife of all shapes and sizes awaits visitors who explore the abundant parks and preserves of Florida’s Paradise Coast.
Alligators, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and hundreds of bird species can be spotted in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and other wild expanses, all just minutes from the plush amenities and white-sand beaches of Naples and Marco Island.
Everglades National Park
Less than an hour south of Naples, Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast entrance is the western gateway to this famous maze of shallow waterways and mangrove islands. Explore by kayak or canoe, and watch for dolphins, manatees, alligators, herons, egrets and osprey. Visitors might even see rare American crocodiles – this is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist.
Spotting alligators in Everglades National Park
Big Cypress National Preserve
Florida black bears, white-tailed deer and Florida panthers roam the vast expanses of Big Cypress National Preserve, about 45 minutes southeast of Naples. Take a ranger-led hike or swamp walk to learn more about the wildlife that lives in the preserve’s habitats, including bald cypress stands and oak hammocks. The preserve also offers great alligator-spotting at H.P. Williams Roadside Park and the Oasis Visitor Center. You might spy manatees in the viewing area behind the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center.
Cypress trees dotting the swampy landscape of the appropriately named Big Cypress National Preserve
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
It’s possible to catch a glimpse of the rare Florida panther in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour east of Naples. But since only around 120 of the critically endangered big cats survive in the state, hikers on the refuge’s two public trails are more likely to see Osceola turkeys, white-tailed deer, red-shouldered hawks and various woodpeckers.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Although the rare Everglades mink has been spotted in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, this amazing location is most famous for supporting the area’s largest population of rare, endangered ghost orchid plants, as well as many other native orchid and bromeliad species. Keep an eye to the sky for sandhill cranes, bald eagles and roseate spoonbills in this largest and least developed of Florida’s state parks, 90 minutes east of Naples.
On a guided swamp walk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
About 30 minutes north of Naples, the accessible Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary brings nature close to visitors who might not be eager to brave Florida’s wilder expanses. Stroll along a 3.6-kilometer boardwalk (or opt for the 1.6-kilometer loop) through a bald cypress forest to see gator holes and bird-filled lakes. Bobcats, black bears, otters and barred owls are among the park’s inhabitants; migratory painted buntings can be seen at the feeders near the visitor center (they’re the small birds with rainbow-hued feathers).
A boardwalk winding through the trees at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Tigertail Beach, Marco Island
Marco Island, with its luxury resorts and manicured neighborhoods, is also home to Tigertail Beach Park. Wade or paddleboard across the narrow lagoon to reach a long, pristine beach with manatees and dolphins swimming offshore, brown pelicans diving for lunch and a wildlife observation tower offering views of a nearby osprey nest. Adjacent to the park is Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area, which protects three species of birds that nest there: black skinners, snowy plovers and least terns.
Fly into Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), and rent a car for the 40-minute drive into downtown Naples. Ride-hailing services are also available. Naples is also about two hours by car from the international airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.