If the word swamp conjures up mental images of cool, creepy, crawly creatures and dark, damp places, then you probably won’t be at all let down by your visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It has that and then some. The Audubon sanctuary, northeast of Naples, has made being a “swamp rat” – as swamp devotees call themselves – as safe, comfortable and way-cool as possible.
To start with, there’s the Swamp Theater. And to end with, there’s the nature store. In between? More than two miles of winding boardwalk keep your feet dry, your ears tuned up and your eyes bulging and blinkless.
A heron at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary — Photo courtesy of Wilson Bilkovich
For best results, do Corkscrew in that order. Do not start with the nature store, especially if you have kids in tow. You may never get them out of there. And truthfully, you can wait until after your hike to experience the Swamp Theater, but it’s a great way to sensitize yourself to what you will see on the boardwalk, and what happens when you are not around.
The 20-minute 3D experience at Swamp Theater takes you realistically through a day and the different seasons in the swamp. It shows in the Blair Audubon Center, where you can also learn about Corkscrew’s history, how the local population saved its old-growth cypress trees from the very teeth of loggers’ saws as they made their way across the land to harvest the valued timber.
Cypress trees 500 years and older have survived, thanks to the grassroots movement, and you can today wonder at the skyscraper height and amazing girth of the grand, flute-bottomed trees that love the swamp. The boardwalk takes you through the earth’s largest ancient virgin bald cypress forest, in all its dark, mysterious, primeval glory. Signs mark 12 of the swamp’s most remarkable landmark cypress trees and tell their stories.
Corkscrew's tangle forest and swamp water vista — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Besides the bald cypress forest, the boardwalk surveys a number of different habitats in quick succession: wet prairie, pond cypress, sawgrass pond, pine flatwood, water-lettuce lakes and central marsh. The swamp feels magical and fairytale-like, with its riotous, out-of-control vegetation, which provides shade along most of the boardwalk.
Wildflowers, ferns, wild orchids, swamp lily and alligator flag grow madly in the shade of cypress, red maple, pine trees and palms.
The water and plants provide nourishment and shelter for squirrels, river otters, white-tailed deer and even an occasional black bear. But Corkscrew Swamp’s second claim to fame – after its cypress forest – flies on the wings of its rich bird population. The site, in fact, marks the gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail’s southern quarter.
Egrets, herons, anhingas, vultures, ibises, pileated woodpeckers and hawks are common sights. Limpkins are often heard but not seen. Swallow-tailed kites make cameo appearances. In the spring, warblers visit and sing. Winters bring Corkscrew’s iconic American wood storks, which often nest in the swamp when conditions are just right. Nesting areas are cordoned off during that time for the birds' protection.
And about those creepy, crawly swamp creatures? As you may guess, alligators love the deep swamp waters, and you can often spot one or more from the boardwalk, especially in the winter when the water is low. Lizards, snakes, frogs and turtles also call the swamp home, along with lovely butterflies and mosquito fish, which keep the swamp blessedly free of biting insects.
Back in the visitors' center, a cafeteria sells snacks and beverages, art exhibits decorate the walls and the store sells everything from wildlife jewelry and books to art and binoculars.
October through April, Corkscrew schedules special events such as guided walks, after-hour tours and photography programs. Check out the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary website for information.