3 Family-Friendly Places to View Wildlife in Southwest Florida

I’ll admit it, we booked our flight to Fort Myers only because we wanted a inexpensive way to try flying with three kids  (before our long long flight over the Pacific)!  We also wanted someplace we could get to non-stop.  While I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with Southwest Florida, I did fall…and fell hard.  You don’t need to head to the theme park capital of Orlando– Southwest Florida is so family-friendly!

Kids love seeing animals.  The zoo is “meh” in my book.  You’ve been once, you can cross it off of the list!  I want to experience nature “like the natives.”  So… when researching things to do in the Fort Myers area, I found so many nature walks and drives and sightseeing opportunities.  The list was actually too long.  Here are 3 places we actually visited, plus two we didn’t get to (but may still fit your fancy).

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One of our friends at the JN Ding Darling refuge. I believe he is an Anhinga.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Within the sleepy island of Sanibel lies a gem of a Wildlife Refuge.  You’ll hear about J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge just about everywhere you look.  Within the refuge are trails, a lookout tower, and a driving tour.  We tasted all three- and while we didn’t spot an alligator, we did see enough birds, fish, and crabs to reconcile that loss.

The refuge is 6,400 acres, which explains how it took us roughly two hours to explore, even though we traveled by car.  If you’re staying on Sanibel Island, this would be a great area to ride bikes with your family!  We walked the shellmound trail (more like a boardwalk than a trail- great for kids AND a stroller), and hoped to spot a bobcat but I’m fairly certain our three rowdy kids scared them all away.

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These mangrove tree crabs were fun for the boy to spot! I was a little apprehensive to walk under the trees after realizing we were outnumbered! Yikes!

Go here if:  You are a bird lover or enjoy fishing.  Consult the visitor center for fishing/boating rules.

Everglades Airboat Tour

Truth:  The airboat tours you take in the Everglades aren’t really IN the Everglades- they are not allowed within the parameters of the National Park.  Nonetheless, getting out on the water will allow you to see things you may not see from an observation deck- i.e. GATORS!  I gave a full recap of our airboat tour HERE but we also saw lots of fish and plenty of water birds like this egret.  There are numerous tour operators  throughout southwest Florida- from just south of Naples all the way to Everglades City.

Go here if:  You need a little more adventure.

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Lovers Key State Park

Located between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key feels miles away from civilization.  We took the tram from the main parking lot just to access the south beach.   The shelling is fantastic, too.  While we didn’t SEE any wildlife on our trip (not even a dolphin), the State Park is known for it’s fantastic bird watching (catching a theme here?) and can even host a few manatees.  The best time for viewing manatees is December to February so that’s probably why we missed ’em.

Go here if: You’d like to combine a trip to the beach with some wildlife viewing.

Other places we desired to go (but ran out of time):

Manatee Park– A great place to view manatees in a non-captive enviroment.  The water stays a little warmer thanks to a nearby power plant, so when the gulf cools below 68 degrees, the manatees head here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary– A 2.25 mile boardwalk through protected swamp which includes the largest old growth Bald Cypress Swamp in America.

Any places you would add to the list?  What’s your families’ favorite part of southwest Florida?

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