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RSW Living Magazine

A Crown Jewel: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Palm Warbler. Photo courtesy of Rod “R.J.” Wiley.

The magnificent Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is composed of pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marshland and a bald cypress forest. Photo courtesy of Rod “R.J.” Wiley.

When you’ve tired of the beaches and heat, head to the cooling shade of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s cathedral-like bald cypress forest. Thanks to summer rains, the water levels of the cypress swamp and prairies are brimming and full of life, so visitors to the National Audubon preserve in eastern Collier County can expect a little action along with a deeper connection with nature. 

Alligators have nested and the females are on watchful patrol. July and August are a good time to see swallowtail kites and year-round avian species, such as the wren, green heron, great blue heron, warbler, moorhen and barred owl. (Wood storks and spoonbills are away on their own summer vacations.) “Every day throughout the swamp, amazing scenes unfold,” says Jason Lauritsen, the sanctuary’s director. 

Corkscrew’s diversity and vitality rely on its hydroperiods—sustained periods during which storm water is being stored and the soil is otherwise waterlogged. Wetlands store and filter pollutants from water as it makes its way into underground aquifers or toward local tributaries and estuaries. They help prevent flooding and provide habitat for an array of wildlife. In the summer, the wet prairies are full of reproducing fish that live in the dense grasses and vegetation, foraging for algae and insects. These fish are part of the ecosystem’s intricate food web.

American Alligator. Photo courtesy of Rod “R.J.” Wiley.


Keep an eye out for blooming beauties, such as the scarlet hibiscus. “Corkscrew is a gallery forest with 500- and 600-year-old bald cypresses loaded with epiphytes and orchids, including our famous super ghost orchid. People travel from all over the world to see that,” says Lauritsen. It is perched high in a tree, with a spotting scoop trained on it for visitors to see. They are rare and endangered and have been the target of poachers but “given this location, it is something we can show off,” he says.

Most ghost orchids have one bloom; the super ghost orchid has had up to 19 at once. The orchids may bloom two or three times a year; their schedules depend on the vagaries of climate conditions.

Volunteer boardwalk naturalist Sandy Hollenhorst of Bonita Springs enjoys seeing visitors’ faces light up when she points out a camouflaged barred owl or young birds fledgling from their nests. They react with “a sense of awe and appreciation for the beauty of nature. Every time you go out, you see something different,” she says.

Saving an Unparalleled Natural Resource

The anhinga is called the “snakebird” for its ability to swim with just its neck and head above water. After stabbing the fish in the side, it then flips it up to swallow headfirst. Photo courtesy of Rod “R.J.” Wiley.

This Collier County gem was saved from the clutches of Lee-Tidewater Cypress Company, a logging operation intent on converting the world’s last expanse of virgin bald cypress into post-war lumber. Threats to the swamp were not new. A warden patrolled in the early 1900s to protect the world’s largest wood stork rookery and showy wading birds slaughtered for fancy hats.

The logging of centuries-old goliath trees caused the National Audubon Society and a stream of others to raise the support necessary to purchase the invaluable stand. By 1954, some 2,880 acres were secured. The “Corkscrew rookery” became Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, with Audubon warden Henry (Hank) P. Bennett guiding visitors on canoe excursions through its lettuce lakes. A boardwalk was completed and a chickee hut welcomed intrepid visitors by 1957.

Today, the sanctuary encompasses more than 13,000 acres, with the 2.25-mile boardwalk and the Blair Audubon Center—dubbed “the crown jewel” of Audubon environmental centers.

The Corkscrew Watershed is part of the Western Everglades and still home to the nation’s largest nesting colony of federally endangered wood storks. The watershed also is connected to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve and Delnor-Wiggins State Park, and the Estero, Imperial and Cocohatchee rivers along the way.

If You Go

What: A 2.25-mile boardwalk and the Blair Audubon Center, which has a theater, library, photography gallery, restrooms, nature store and the Gallery Cafe.  

Hours: The boardwalk is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., 365 days of the year.

Admission: $14 for adults, $6 for college students with photo ID, students 6-18 are $4, and children under 6 are free. (Entrance fees cover two consecutive days of admission.)

Directions: 375 Sanctuary Road W., northeast of Naples, 15 miles from I-75 on Immokalee Road (Exit 111); 239-348-9151;

Gallery Stop

Stunning nature photographs by Rod “R.J.” Wiley are on display July and August in the sanctuary’s Gallery Cafe and Blair Audubon Center. A professional photographer, Wiley has captured the splendor of Florida’s wading birds, the intricate details of the state’s alligators and the surprising beauty of other wildlife in his works. His photos have appeared in national publications as far away as Russia. Wiley has earned Audubon Florida’s Photographer of the Year Award.

Written by Cathy Chestnut, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media who explores the people and places that make Southwest Florida, her hometown stomping grounds, unique.