In 2000, the Naples community banded together to save these precious 9.5 inner-city acres of land from development. They were successful, and after countless hours of cleanup by hundreds of dedicated volunteers, The Naples Preserve was born. Today, visitors can venture through the green space on a free self-guided tour along a 0.4-mile boardwalk to discover Florida ecosystems dating back nearly 10,000 years. Explore scrub oak, grassy meadow and pine-flatwoods communities. Gopher tortoises, deer, bobcats, marsh rabbits, butterflies and birds occupy the habitat. An eco-center houses interactive programs and a diorama plus rotating exhibits depicting the preserve's fauna and flora.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It provides a lovely, free-of-charge break from busy Tamiami Trail traffic.
Chelle's expert tip: Peak months for seeing butterflies and wildflowers at the preserve are August and September.
Shell mounds such as this once pimpled Southwest Florida landscape, particularly on Marco Island, which was a major headquarters for the ancient Calusa tribe. This Calusa hidden archaeological site and its short interpretative trail along a mulch pathway tell the story of the aboriginal Indians who once inhabited this area. The land's later owner, Ernest Otter, used the hundreds of whelk shells they left behind - evidence of their shellfish-rich diet - to line terraces around the property in the 1940s and beyond. An abundance of the ancient whelks still lie strewn alongside the path and shore up the ancient mound.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: A hidden secret, it preserves important eras of Marco history.
Chelle's expert tip: Free and far off the beaten flip-flop path in Marco Island, it's a good place to stop en route from the beaches to Goodland. Look for burrowing owls in the vicinity.
Located in the beautifully restored Seaboard Air Line Railway passenger station in downtown Naples, the Naples Depot Museum tells the story of the city's development and the crucial role railroads played in its transformation from a primitive village to a booming tourist destination. Visitors to the cherished site, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, peruse fascinating exhibits showcasing local history, from dugout canoes crafted by the Seminoles to swamp buggies and rail cars. Highlight of the exhibits, a movie plays every seven minutes in the museum's windows, giving visitors the virtual experience of watching the circa 1927 Orange Blossom Special train pulling into the station. Three authentic rail cars sit alongside the depot including a recently restored lounge car.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This museum is beautifully designed and executed with free admission.
Chelle's expert tip: Railroad buffs shouldn't miss the Lionel Museum next door with its eight operating model trains and a mini railroad outside for kiddie rides.
Until a few years ago, the only way visitors could step onto land in Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge was by taking a boat to the islands. Now there's a mile-long trail into the refuge's mainland-side component. The first quarter mile is paved and wheelchair accessible; it leads to a ramped observation tower overlooking the salt marshes and their hefty bird and alligator populations. From there a shell road continues through the habitat, where you can often spot anhingas, cormorants, egrets and other shorebirds. Signage interprets the environment and offers information about the refuge, which, true to its name, protects thousands of mangrove and sandy islands south of Everglades City.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Visitors can hike free on this only land access to Ten Thousand Islands NWR.
Chelle's expert tip: Bring mosquito repellent no matter what time of year.
Public beach access is limited on Marco Island. This one, at the southernmost end of the island, is easiest to get to and find, although there is a bit of a walk from the parking lot on the other side of Collier Boulevard. Parking is an $8 flat fee, but it's free admission to the beach for those on foot and bike. Marco Island boasts a soft sugar-sand brand of beach, wide and usually teaming with activity such as volleyball, jet-skiing, parasailing and paddle-boarding. Setback high-rises line most of the shoreline. Native vegetation grows between development and the sand. The only facilities are restrooms in the parking lot.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Wide and soft, this is also the easiest beach access on Marco Island.
Chelle's expert tip: Take a food and drink break at Sunset Grille, just north of the beach access.
The Naples City Pier has been an area landmark for more than a century, weathering hurricanes and storms over the years, not to mention foot traffic from millions of tourists, fisher folk and locals alike. Hurricane Irma took its toll in 2017, but renovations have restored it; the pier reopened in summer 2018. It stretches out from Naples' municipal beach so visitors can combine a day in the sun with some casting and reeling. The beloved pier measures 1,000 feet long and affords visitors gorgeous gulf views, the opportunity to fish without a license and a place to mingle with other beachgoers. A concession stand offers refreshments on sunny summer days, and a bait shop supplies fishing necessities.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The pier is one of Naples' oldest and most highly esteemed landmarks.
Chelle's expert tip: The pier draws an appreciative crowd each evening for sunset.
The importance of Marco Island to ancient Calusa Indian civilization, which spread throughout Southwest Florida and even into the Keys, was established in 1896 by archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing in what has been called one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in North America. The most famous of his excavation finds was a 6-inch wooden effigy that's come to be known as the Key Marco Cat. The original currently resides in the Smithsonian Institution, but museum planners hope to someday bring it and other Cushing discoveries back home. In the meantime, a super-sized bronze replica presides over the courtyard, which was constructed to simulate the tribes' shell mounds. Inside the still-developing museum, two exhibit rooms are devoted to Calusa culture. The Calusa and their Legacy exhibit revolves around a recreated Calusa village with a temple and other realistic vignettes.One room is also devoted to Marco Island's early development and pioneer days. The museum also hosts traveling exhibits.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: A work-in-progress, the free museum specializes in ancient Calusa culture.
Chelle's expert tip: Through April 2021, the museum hosts a special Smithsonian exhibition featuring the prehistoric Key Marco Cat and other archaeological Calusa artifacts.
If you are looking to get as closeup and intimate with nature in Naples backyard Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands region, grab a paddle. Paradise Coast Blueway is a work in progress: a system of paddling trails throughout the county that provides GPS-marked trail routes. Phase I, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge section, was completed in 2009. Seventy-three miles long, it includes one long trail from Everglades City to Goodland on Marco Island and six shorter day-trip trails. En route, see secluded beaches, mangrove-forested islands and shallow back waters teeming with birds, manatees, dolphin and fish. Phases II and III will extend to Rookery Bay and Naples.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Paddling is the quintessential way to see Naples area wilderness.
Chelle's expert tip: Everglades City and Naples have plenty of outfitters who can equip and guide you along the trail.
The flagship location of Collier County Museums' excellent five-campus empire, the Collier County Museum retraces nearly one million years of Southwest Florida history. The more than 10,000-square-foot space spans exhibits as diverse as prehistoric mastodons, ceremonial masks made by indigenous peoples and the first settlers' struggle for survival. The skeleton of an Ice Age giant ground sloth hanging from the ceiling greets visitors. You can also explore attractions outside, including the museum's native gardens, restored cottages, a vintage swamp buggy that kids can climb into, a working archaeological lab, a 1910 steam locomotive from the county's cypress-logging era and a recreated Seminole fort and Calusa Indian camp.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It is the best historical museum in the county hands down; admission is free, but donations are accepted.
Chelle's expert tip: Visit in mid-March during the two-day Old Florida Festival.
For nature lovers traveling on a budget, it doesn't get any better than the land and water trails of Big Cypress National Preserve. This behemoth freshwater neighbor to Everglades National Park covers more than 700,000 acres and is home to such rare creatures as the Florida panther, Florida manatee and all the alligators you'll ever care to see. Begin your explorations at the free Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center. Its boardwalk trail lets you spy on manatees in the waters and anhingas in the trees. Inside, listen to the sounds of pig frogs, limpkins, thunder and rain and other 'Glades music. Drive Loop Road for the best wildlife sightings and stop at the free Oasis Visitor Center to learn more about the environment and free ranger programs.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It has the best environmental facilities and wildlife sighting in this part of the Everglades - all for free.
Chelle's expert tip: Best spots to find alligators: The boardwalks at H.P. Williams Roadside Park and the Oasis Visitor Center.