Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Explore the natural side of the Sunshine State at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a biologically diverse Audubon property with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees on Earth

The facility’s signage says it’s special because the endangered wood stork nested here and because it is the largest piece of ancient bald cypress forest preserved in the world.

But I think it’s special because walking its 2.25 mile boardwalk takes you into a green and liquid world where at every turn you see scenes so beautiful they could have been arranged by the world’s best floral designer. And, of course, they were.

On a warm, sun-splashed winter day, I stood on the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida and listened as the volunteer naturalist explained how the Gulf Coast is home to protected wetlands and untouched landscapes.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects approximately 13,450 acres prized as a fine stand of subtropical, ancient bald cypress forest where many of the soaring trees date back at least 600 years predating the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Corkscrew Swamp is a freshwater wetland fed solely by rainwater covering thousands of acres of pristine cypress swamp. In this vast area known as the Corkscrew Watershed, a broad sheet of water flows over the land ranging from just a few inches to a yard deep.

This wetland is what south Florida looked like at one time: The fresh water is the lifeblood of the Corkscrew Swamp and of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Over the past century, people have altered the natural flow of the water to control flooding and to create land for development but now we need to restore the natural system.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often misunderstood, swamps full of plants and insects were marked as areas rife with disease and decay and were quickly drained, stripped by clear-cut logging practices, paved over, and built upon eventually squeezing out wildlife and their natural habitats. But in a state known for rampant development and construction, the swamp and trees at Corkscrew were saved when the National Audubon Society realized the forest needed protection, stepped in, and stopped the logging.

The sanctuary is a popular destination for birders and hikers who walk along a 2.25-mile trail and raised boardwalk that twists and turns through marsh, pine flatwoods, stretches of wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and ferns. 

The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year while the fabulous Painted Bunting is one of many winter visitors. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree branches are draped with resurrection ferns; the roots of the strangler fig wrap around host trees and swamp plants like the waxy aquatic alligator flag tumble over the railings.

Volunteer interpreters stroll the trail explaining to visitors how the wetlands act as filters for pollutants, reduce flood damage by soaking up water during heavy rains, stabilize the soils against erosion, and recharge groundwater during the dry months.

National Audubon began protecting the wading birds nesting within Corkscrew Swamp in 1905. During the 1940s and ’50s, cypress forests in Florida were being leveled for their timber. At the time, Corkscrew was isolated and almost impossible to access. Today it is an oasis in a made-over landscape. In other areas, many of the wild swamps and much of the teeming wildlife that was characteristic of this region less than a generation ago are gone. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s value thus becomes more significant with every passing year. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Florida, two extremes dominate the subtropical climate—wet summers and dry winters. The seasonal high and low water levels are a necessary part of the natural cycle and each is vital for life in Corkscrew.

Visitors load daypacks with sunscreen, water bottles, and binoculars. But according to the staff, they can leave the bug repellent at home because Corkscrew defies all swamp logic: mosquitoes are rarely a problem. A guppy-like fish called Gambusia holbrooki (mosquito fish) feeds almost exclusively on mosquito larvae.

The tiny mosquito-slurping fish get some help from the actual Corkscrew Watershed, a meandering river that flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Although moving at a snail’s pace, the water in the swamp doesn’t become stagnant and combined with the fish this makes for a tranquil bug-free zone. The constantly moving water also is the reason Corkscrew does not have the dank smells usually associated with swamps.

According to one estimate, 98 percent of all ancient forests in the United States have been logged, so Corkscrew is a rare habitat—a combination of large trees, fallen logs, and standing dead trees that provide wildlife with a variety of places to find food and shelter. In the soupy, subtropical climate, the trees are draped with moss, lichens, orchids, air plants, and dozens of types of feathery ferns. This protected landscape is home to the United States’ largest collection of gangly looking wood storks whose nesting ground is the biggest tract of old-growth bald cypress forest in the world.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2000, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary including Panther Island received a Ramsar Designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Corkscrew is also a designated Important Bird Area and a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Corkscrew has also been recognized as a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists. 

Corkscrew Swamp draws birds and birders by the thousands. In addition to the endangered wood stork, the wetlands are home to more than 200 avian species including barred owls, painted buntings, red-shouldered hawks, white ibises, egrets, herons, and woodpeckers.

Other wildlife abounds as well. The dangling leaves and roots of the watermelon-scented lettuce plants create a safe place for small fish and crayfish to hide or nest. Alligators often sun themselves on the riverbank but they prefer the plankton-laden lettuce lakes— wide, shallow watering holes that are a favorite feeding site for wading birds, otters, and reptiles. The gators are efficient predators. They are one of the world’s largest reptiles but have a brain the size of a walnut—just enough to associate people with food if they’ve been fed by humans but not smart enough to know the difference.

The raised boardwalk makes the perfect way to observe nature from a safe and respectful distance. And it’s the ideal way to appreciate what southwest Florida must have looked like before civilization took hold and transformed the landscape.

Located northeast of Naples, Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is open daily. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Overview

Location: 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida

Length: 2.3 mile loop

Phone: (239) 348-9151

Open 7 am. Last admission 4:30 pm. Gates close 5:30 pm. Dogs are not permitted.

All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission: $14 adult, Audubon member $10, student with ID $6, ages 6-18 $4, under 6 free.

Your admission is good for two back-to-back days so you can show up one afternoon and come back the next morning.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir, 1867