If you plan to visit the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida, bring your camera and your sense of wonder. This is a back-to-nature experience that rivals any in the Sunshine State.
Corkscrew is the jewel of the National Audubon Society. It was founded by the society in 1954 on about 5,000 acres of pristine swamp northeast of Naples, Florida, on the edge of Big Cypress National Preserve. Over the years it has acquired and saved more native habitat to reach its current size of 13,000 acres.
The land is preserved much as it has existed for millennia. It is home to grasslands, cypress trees, hardwood hammocks, alligators, migratory birds, and native birds. In a typical year, 100,000 people visit the sanctuary to soak it all up.
Admission is by reservation only, and reservations must be made online. There are discounts for college students, active-duty military, and Audubon members. Children under six enter for free.
Here are 11 reasons to visit Florida’s fascinating Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
1. The Boardwalk
There is only one way to see Corkscrew. That’s to walk the 2.25-mile boardwalk that circles the heart of the sanctuary. There is a shortcut that cuts that distance approximately in half. Don’t take the shortcut. The longer loop takes about 2 hours to complete, but it is well worth the time and effort.
Wear comfortable shoes, and bring along sunscreen and bug repellent. I was there in March, and bugs were not an issue.
2. The Great Viewing Guides And Rest Areas
There are information stations at strategic locations along the boardwalk with signs that tell visitors about points of interest. You’ll also find rest stops with benches along the way, some with shelters from the sun and rain. There are no restrooms on the boardwalk.
3. The Natural Wonders
Audubon works hard to preserve the wilderness in the sanctuary. The best time to go is in the winter, generally between November and March. That’s when you’ll have the best chance of spotting the migratory birds. There is also the “dry down” season during April and May, when there is little rainfall and the wading birds tend to be drawn to pools of water, where they can feast on the fish.
As you walk the boardwalk, you will travel through the largest remaining stand of old-growth virgin bald cypress trees in the world. The trees are found throughout the sanctuary and cover about 700 acres.
4. The Photo Opportunities
Corkscrew is a magnet for photographers. Some of the best nature photographers in the world have brought their cameras to the sanctuary. A reasonably current cell-phone camera will get you good pictures. But if you have a good digital or film camera, this is the place to use it. Over two days, I spent about 5 hours walking the boardwalk with my Nikon, and I took over 300 pictures. I shot in RAW format and processed the good ones in Photoshop. A friend was with me, using her cell phone, and she got some excellent shots, too. Just make sure you have a camera — any camera — with you.
5. The Wildlife
Depending on the time of year, you will see migratory birds, alligators, white-tailed deer, and maybe even a bear or Florida panther. A couple of years ago, a panther jumped out onto the boardwalk in front of a woman who just happened to have her cell phone handy. It’s hard to say who was more frightened. The panther quickly darted past her and jumped back into the underbrush. She got it all on video.
Non-Floridians are usually astonished to learn that the sanctuary sits in an arid environment for about eight months of the year. There is little rainfall outside of the summer months. Summer brings almost daily thunderstorms rolling off of the Gulf of Mexico and building up over the Everglades region. Don’t visit in the summer if you want to see wildlife. Even critters don’t move about much in the stifling Florida heat.
6. The Bird-Watching
Corkscrew is a prime stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Bird-watchers with their binoculars and telephoto lenses can have a field day. There is a small resident eagle population, along with owls, hawks, and wood storks. The wood storks used to nest here in huge numbers in the winter, but land use changes around the sanctuary have disrupted their nesting habits, and the birds have gone elsewhere. Today, a wood stork nest in the sanctuary is rare.
What has happened to the habitat? Development in southwest Florida has boomed over the last 30 to 40 years. Land for subdivisions, shopping centers, and highways was created by a network of canals that drained the swamps. This has resulted in a loss of habitat for the area’s wildlife.
7. The Flowers
The sanctuary is home to the super ghost orchid, which was discovered here in 2007. The largest-known concentration of ghost orchids in the world is here at Corkscrew. But they are hard to find. They are attached to the trees, usually high above the ground. They tend to bloom mostly in the summer, in June and July. But sightings have been reported as early as January. A bloom usually lasts a week or two, and the plants have been known to bloom multiple times a year.
The swamp is also home to iris plants, usually visible along the boardwalk. Many other plants flower at different times of the year.
8. The Accessibility
The boardwalk is all on one level, making it accessible to those with wheelchairs or walkers. The main building and gift shop are ADA compliant.
9. The Living Machine
Before you enter Corkscrew, visit the Living Machine, right by the parking lot. This is where the sanctuary’s unique restrooms are located. The discharge from the restrooms is treated underground and then pumped into a hothouse of sorts full of native plants. The fertilized water irrigates the plants and is filtered and cleansed in the process. The water is then pumped back into the restroom system. Corkscrew is not hooked up to any municipal sewer lines. Everything is recycled.
10. The Threat Of Climate Change
The ecology of southwest Florida is changing noticeably from year to year. Summers are hotter and wetter. Winters are drier, longer, and — by Florida standards — colder. Much of the flora and fauna of the region cannot tolerate freezing temperatures for very long. Corkscrew is not immune to the impact of climate change. The sanctuary is drier than in the past, and this has resulted in changes to the ecosystem, both in wildlife and in vegetation.
Brad Cornell of Audubon works closely with the local and state governments to protect Corkscrew from the explosive growth. To the north and east is agriculture, and to the south and west is sprawling urban development.
“Starting in 2000, water levels began dropping precipitously,” said Cornell.
A hydrology study identified the drainage canals as the main culprit, even though the canals are not on sanctuary property. Audubon is looking at options to keep the wetlands in Corkscrew wet.
11. The Staff
There are about 20 staff members at Corkscrew, along with many volunteers. I was happy to run into a couple of volunteers who were replacing handrails and decking on the boardwalk. Some of the professional staff members divide their time, working on both Corkscrew and other Florida Audubon projects and issues.
Where To Stay
Corkscrew is off of County Road 846, between northeast Naples and Immokalee, Florida. The closest hotels are along Interstate 75. I stayed at the Hampton Inn, which was about 20 minutes from the sanctuary entrance. There are other options, but not as close to Corkscrew.
Pro Tip: You can walk the Corkscrew boardwalk in about 2 hours, but take your time. Stop often. Observe nature. The ecosystem here is very fragile. I recommend going first thing in the morning when the gates open. The sunlight is best for photographers at that hour, and the wildlife is more active.