Top Stops Along the Blueway
"There are more than 80 highlights and access points along the 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway."
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail is a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County. Find great parks and attractions along all three phases of the trail by reading the tips below, or go directly to www.calusablueway.com for trail information, maps, photos and more.
PHASE 1 / Estero Bay
Mound Key: When you get a little sweat in your eyes, mangrove islands can all start to look alike. Not this one. Mound Key in Estero is not flat – the native Calusas constructed multiple shell mounds, including one that rises as high as 31 feet. You can see the canopy of its cabbage palms and gumbo limbo trees outlining the mounds from a distance. After you're on the island, which has two paddlecraft landings, be sure to walk the self-guided trail that describes the subtropical vegetation. Plus, you get to stretch your legs.
Bunche Beach and Hurricane Bay: Bunche may look like a typical beach launch site, but it’s teeming with history and wildlife. More than 3,000 people gathered there in 1949 when it was officially dedicated and named for Dr. Ralph Bunche, a notable African American who was a mediator for the United Nations. Paddle along the shore toward Hurricane Bay, where manatees frequently frolic and low-tide offers a happy hour of tidbits for blush-colored roseate spoonbills and other wading birds. This route also showcases the shrimping and charter boat fleet of San Carlos Island.
PHASE 2 / Pine Island Sound
Tarpon Bay: This protected body of water within the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has a long-established outfitter and a gentle canoe/kayak launch site. It’s a great place to paddle on a windy day. Try the Commodore Creek Trail, which snakes into the refuge’s mangroves. Tiny crabs scurry along mangrove roots while wading birds stalk them. Branches create tunnels overhead. The 21st century seems miles away.
Matlacha: Launching from this place of eclectic art galleries and vibrant fish markets offers great access to three different routes. Head northwest and explore tidal creeks with corkscrew turns that open up into lagoons loaded with birds and even river otters. Head northeast toward Buzzard Bay for some of the most productive yak fishing on the trail and a building-less horizon. Head south along Little Pine Island, and you’re practically guaranteed a bald eagle sighting.
Picnic Island: This San Carlos Bay island started as a place to dump dredged-up material when they dug the Intracoastal Waterway. Today, it’s a place to tent camp, picnic, swim and boat-watch. It’s accessible from both Tropical Point, a quiet Pine Island park, and Punta Rassa, a bustling south Fort Myers boat ramp. It’s a location well worth the open-water paddle. Watch for dancing reddish egrets in the moon-shaped lagoon.
PHASE 3 / Caloosahatchee River
Hickey's Creek: More than 1,200 acres of preserve surround this slender creek’s canoe and kayak landing. The creek is loaded with intricate details from Mother Nature – brightly striped turtles, six-foot-tall lush leather ferns and tiny fish. If you paddle here from the Caloosahatchee, watch for the camel – yes, a camel – in the large yard at the entrance to the creek.
Orange River: Welcome to Old Florida. Moss-draped oaks lean over the river, and people sit on porches and docks overlooking the calm water. In the wintertime, don’t be surprised to see a lumbering sea cow playing near the power plant and Lee County’s Manatee Park.
A first-of-its-kind navigational aid, the Calusa Blueway smart-phone application provides real-time GPS coordinates and navigation, interactive trail map with places of interest identified, boating tips and regulations, a brief history of Mound Key inhabitants and a key to the island's flora, fauna and wildlife.