Running Local Trails in the Land of Alligators

My return to Naples, Florida in early July coincided with the beginning of a new training plan to regain my endurance for running a half marathon. This trip gave us the opportunity to visit Derek’s parents while on vacation for a few days over the Independence holiday. I also learned to rediscover my will to run while in the heat of paradise. It’s been several months since I was tracking weekly mileage in race preparation and the Florida trip was my chance to explore nearby trails, one stride at a time.

These are some of the routes that I have enjoyed running over my visits to the Naples area over the past year.

#1- I retraced my steps to a familiar route at Bonita Springs Nature Place in Bonita Springs, FL that I visited with my husband on a previous trip. The route is a little short so I ran laps on the hiking trail along the Imperial River to clock in 3 miles. The canopy of shade provided a cooler alternative to hitting the pavement in direct sunlight. I appreciated the feeling of exploring what seemed like a jungle with soft ground, boardwalk bridges, and the occasional stone steps. A crane relaxing just off the trail and a gopher tortoise sighting at the park entrance fueled my curiosity at just how commonplace these creatures coexist with humans by allowing us to share their home. Bonita Nature Place also has several interesting exhibits including butterflies, gardens, and a honeybee hive.  Bonita Nature Place: Website Brochure

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#2- A visit to the Koreshan State Historic Park in Estero, FL was like running back in time through the 19th-century settlement of the religious sect known as the Koreshans.  Self-guided booklet tours are available on site describing the hardships and triumphs the early pioneers experienced while developing their utopian community in the harsh Florida landscape. In 1961, the surviving members of the settlement presented their property to the State of Florida which became a state park.

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After running past the settlement structures, I ventured over the bridge on the River Trail that connects to the Boundary Trail and was immediately struck with surprise by the following sign paired with my close proximity to the water. 20180709_102629_Film3~2

I’ve known all along that alligators are present in fresh and brackish water and that they may come after small dogs as prey. However, the sign spooked me as I darted through the tight turns on the sandy trail just steps away from the river with heavy ferns obstructing my view. My first mile was a quick one as I rushed with an elevated anxiety to get past the river section where I might run into an alligator sunning his back on the sandy shore. There was a moment of calm for me on this trail where I was completely surrounded by tall bamboo shoots and took a break to catch my breath. 20180709_103143_Film4

As I approached the Boundary Trail, I built my momentum to jump over a flooded path and continue toward the forested section.  I finally found my rhythm at an even pace in the straight, grassy plains looping the property. There was less shade available but it was much wider and more even to run on for longer distances. Since I do not run with music I was surprised to hear a low hoot crescendo nearby. I looked up to see a Great Horned Owl directly above swivel its head, glaring down at me. I fumbled to get my phone out of my running belt for a picture before it whisked away to another tree to hoot from a more secluded vantage point. The Koreshan State Park was a unique place to run for its natural environment and historic settlement. There are also modern restrooms open and a playground present at the Scrub Oak Campground if needed midway on the route.

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#3- J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge- Sanibel Island, Fort Myers, FL

Sanibel Island is a beautiful place to run and explore. The drive to get onto the island is a tiny headache of traffic, but it was all forgotten once we were out of our vehicle and on our feet. We ran the 2-mile Indigo Trail where we saw numerous flocks of birds. The park is a one-way scenic drive for those driving through but there were also many people bicycling the refuge.

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#4- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary- Naples, FL

The Corkscrew Swamp is over 13,000 acres of watershed that connect to the Everglades. The boardwalk is raised over wetlands that loop through the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in the world. It is also home to countless wildlife species, including the largest nesting colony of Federally Endangered Wood Storks in the nation.  I met several volunteer rangers who were eager to point out the rare hanging Ghost Orchid in the trees and a hawk’s nest, insisting that I borrow their binoculars for a better view.

The history of the swamp dates back to the early 1900’s when thousands of egrets and herons were being poached for their feathers to feed the growing demand for ladies’ fashionable plume hats. The Audubon Society was created to protect the birds by keeping a 24-hour watch for poachers with a lone guard. The 1930’s also threatened the logging of cypress trees until concerned citizens and the Audubon Society raised funds from donors nationwide to establish the Corkscrew Swamp as a sanctuary.

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The boardwalk is a great loop to jog around the property depending on the time of day’s popularity. There isn’t a lot of room to run around fellow visitors so I had to be respectful and walk where people were enjoying their surroundings. This gave me many opportunities to see beautiful birds, flowers, and even a group of baby alligators. I loved reading all of the wildlife sightings on the chalkboard at the end of my visit.

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#5- Gordon River Greenway – Boardwalk route in Naples, FL

The Greenway runs right through the Naples Zoo. We ran in the evening when the zoo was closed so we parked our car at the mall across the street to run into the park. There are many off-shoots on this trail that we could take so we were able to rack up some mileage for a longer run just over 6 miles. This is a beautiful place to run and escape the Florida sun.  Derek was my tour guide since he had run this route several times before on business trips.

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#6- Gulf Shore Blvd from Lowdermilk Park in Naples, FL

We needed some distance for an 8 mile run so we parked at the beach lot for Lowdermilk Park and ran Gulf Shore Boulevard. This is a very affluent neighborhood with beach-front mansions and palm trees. A runner’s translation to this environment is a mostly shaded route with wide sidewalks and bike lanes. It was fun to run past the gigantic homes and delicate landscaping on a flat, out-and-back route. We enjoyed a cool-down mile barefoot on the sand after the run with a quick dip in the ocean.

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#7- Northbrooke Drive along the Cypress Woods Golf and Country Club in Naples, FL 

Cypress Woods is a residential community and country club with a bike path about 2 miles distance one-way. This is one of our regular routes because of its convenient location and flat route. We parked at the Hampton Inn and did speed work on the path that is heavily shaded by the large hedges and palm trees from the golf course. There may be a golf cart passing me from time to time but it’s mostly my own two feet hitting the pavement.

 

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#8- Lovers Key State Park- Fort Myers Beach, FL 

Originally only accessible by boat, Lovers Key was said to be a secluded place for lovers to get away on the island. Three are four barrier islands offering trails and beaches in the state park. Black Island Trail is 2.5 miles and the Eagle Trail is just over 1 mile, with both trails mostly grass or soil. There is also a paved path from the main drive leading to a 2.5 mile stretch of beach shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

I was surprised to see an alligator swimming along, just minding his own business, right underneath the boardwalk connecting Lovers Key to Inner Key. This is a great place to explore the trails and cool off at the beach.

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#9- Naples Preserve- Naples, FL

My last recommendation for local trails is the self-guided nature boardwalk at the Naples Preserve. We walked this 0.4 mile loop as quietly as we could in hopes of spotting a gopher tortoise known to dwell in the preserve. There are signs along the trail warning visitors to stay on the boardwalk to protect the endangered Oak-Rosemary Srub community and Pine Flatwoods. There are also beautiful wildflowers as well as the prickly-pear cactus in the dry meadow. The preserve is a unique urban oasis in downtown Naples, just off the big US 41 Tamiami Road.

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These are some of my favorite places to explore on a run in the Naples area of Southwest Florida. While I enjoy road running for speed and flat routes, there is a wonder of creative discovery in navigating trails and learning their history in local parks. We owe our gratitude to those who worked hard to preserve these natural environments and protect the wildlife who live there. In the words of the National Audubon Society, John H. Baker, who laid out the value and purpose of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, “We have to save the swamp a hundred times, but we only get to lose it once.” I stand by this wisdom to treasure our local, state, and national parks so that we don’t lose the beauty that was saved for us to see. 

 

 

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