The joy of discovering someplace new doesn’t always have to involve a long car, train, ship, or plane ride. In the past, I’ve written a few columns on some of the wondrous places right in our own backyard including Shark Valley, Loop Road, and Bird Swamp Rookery.
Following all of the rain we had earlier this year, a friend and I set out to hike through Picayune Strand State Forest. As we feared, the ground was too saturated to walk on and another option we explored was also too wet. We then decided to head for Freedom Park, at the northeast corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and Golden Gate Parkway in Naples. Visiting a park barely a stone’s throw from Coastland Mall seemed strange, but what we discovered was a little gem.
This 50-acre park was developed from wetlands in 2009 by Collier County Parks and Recreation with some funding from Conservation Collier to not only provide a peaceful nature preserve, but also as part of a natural water filtration system to help protect the Gulf of Mexico fromharmful runoff and reduce area flooding. And, yes, this is the same park where Collier County hopes to build the Freedom Memorial.
There are four ponds, some home to yellow flowered lily pads, and lots of marsh grasses. On one side of the park, there are meandering trails, some natural, others covered with crushed shell. Biking is permitted on the paths. To the other side of the park is a just over half-mile boardwalk. In building the boardwalk, exotic plants were replaced by indigenous.
There are two bathrooms and water fountains, one at the parking lot, another along one of the trails. Pavilions look out over various parts of the park and provide areas to just relax and contemplate nature. There are some benches and picnic tables. Catch and release fishing is allowed. We encountered one man who was doing just that, although he seemed to be experiencing more fishing than catching. Informative signs along the way explain the water filtration process; others identify some of the trees and plants.
The flora is diverse and lush and includes palms, cypresses, pines,pond apples, cannas, ferns, the aforementioned water lilies, and red and white mangroves. My favorite was the coral beans, shrub/small trees that have bright green leaves dotted with spindly red flowers. It is a plant known to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. I also liked the firebush, with its orange red flowers, also popular with butterflies.
There are alligators and otters in the park, although, to our disappointment, we didn’t see any. There is a white board where people can record what they have seen on a daily basis; both a gator and an otter had been spotted the day before we were there.
We did encounter a marsh rabbit, red-eyed slider (turtle) and raccoon tracks. We saw a wide variety of birds including anhinga, red shouldered hawk, blue jay, great and snowy egrets, moor hens, red bellied woodpecker, cardinal, black vulture, mockingbirds, palm warblers, and cat birds. We also observed a zebra winged butterfly who braved the chilly morning.
Adjacent to the parking lot, and where the first restrooms are located, is a well-stocked educational facility which children and adults willfind interesting. Staffed by a park ranger, it has displays of Florida plants and animals. The park is open 8 AM to dusk every day; the educational center Tuesday through Saturday 9 AM to 5 PM.
So to all you nature lovers and armchair travelers, there is no excuse to not avail yourself of this travel opportunity. Freedom Park is just over a half hour away, an easy walk with restrooms, and the convenience of restaurants and shopping nearby. Its a great place to see what the Naples area might have been like before all the development, get some exercise, learn about and enjoy nature. And, the best part is, no suitcase packing is necessary.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is a former board member of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.