Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr., National Geographic Travel

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Mangrove islands form a labyrinthine silhouette during sunset at Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr., National Geographic Travel

Florida's Pristine Parks: Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Make Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge your launching pad for expanded explorations into Florida’s wild spaces.

Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge protects a 35,000-acre labyrinth of mangrove islands, freshwater and saltwater marshes, brackish ponds, winding channels, sandy beaches, and shallow bays. Multiple endangered species, including the Florida manatee and Atlantic loggerhead turtle, find shelter in the refuge, which is also home to nearly 200 bird and fish species. While many of the birds are migratory, wildlife commonly spotted year-round includes bottlenose dolphins, egrets, manatees, river otters, green sea turtles, and an array of resident birds such as egrets, herons, cormorants, and ospreys. Located on Florida’s southwest coast east of Marco Island, the refuge primarily offers water-based activities requiring a boat. And since it’s easy to get lost among the mangroves, paddling or boating with a guide is recommended for first-time visitors. Inside Tip: There are limited land-based activities, such as hiking the 2.2-mile Marsh Trail and climbing the two-story observation tower overlooking the marsh. Both are accessible via the refuge parking area on U.S. 41 near mile marker 31. The parking lot is also the access point for four canoe trails.

When to Go: October to May is cooler and drier and has fewer mosquitoes and more boat and camping tours. If visiting from June to September, go boating or hiking in the morning to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and the hottest part of the day.

Must Dos: Make advance reservations for a guided canoe or kayak trip, a dolphin ecotour, or a birding and wildlife powerboat tour with an authorized Everglades National Park tour operator (permits include Ten Thousand Islands National Refuge), such as Everglades Area Tours. Camp for free on islands located within refuge boundaries, accessible by boat only. No reservations are required. Whitehorse and Panther Key provide some of the best beaches for setting up camp. Or book an overnight canoe or sea-kayaking tour, which include beach camping and meals.

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Fun Fact: Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is home to the elusive mangrove cuckoo. Listen for the bird’s distinctive call, a throaty gaw gaw gaw gaw gaw sound, when paddling among the mangroves. Sightings are rare, which is why they're sought out for the life lists of serious birders.

Nearby Nature

Collier-Seminole State Park

Collier-Seminole State Park in Naples offers a more leisurely canoeing and kayaking experience than Ten Thousands Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The tidal Blackwater River, which flows through the park and into the refuge, is well suited for less experienced paddlers. Rent a canoe and get a river map at the ranger station, rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP), or book a guided pole boat or SUP tour through the park concessionaire, Collier Seminole Nature Tours. Before or after paddling, make time to hike the Royal Palm Hammock Nature Trail. The 0.9-mile trail leads through a dense, tropical hardwood canopy (including royal palm trees and gumbo limbo) to a boardwalk and scenic salt marsh overlook. Inside Tip: The park campground closed in April 2015 for remodeling. Check the website for updates on a reopening date.

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Birds find refuge at Rookery Bay, one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America.

Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr., National Geographic Travel

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

The 110,000-acre Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve protects and manages one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. To get an overview of the reserve and its stewardship efforts, make your first stop the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples. The two-story center houses a 2,300-gallon aquarium, a nature store, and interactive exhibits, including a touch tank. From here, walk the nature trails, then take a naturalist-guided kayak tour (November to May; reservations required). On the two-hour tours, watch for wading birds, dolphins, ospreys, and fish as you paddle through backwater bays and mangrove forests. Inside Tip: For an intimate view of the reserve’s coastal wilderness without any paddling, take a guided boat tour led by a reserve staff member (November through April; reservations required). Each boat only carries six passengers, so it’s easy to ask questions and get up close to wilderness, wildlife, and water views.