It’s not often that you get to walk into the mirror image of a view you’ve seen before, but that was our treat for today.
Barefoot Beach, the northernmost stretch of wild shoreline in Collier County, isn’t somewhere you’re going to stumble across. To get there requires an approach through Bonita Springs in Lee County, and a slow ride through an upscale community of oceanfront homes. Fortunately they don’t make you wait at the gate.
Once you’ve wound along the (not yellow) brick road, past a line of condos, nature takes over. This 342 acre preserve protects the north side of Wiggins Pass; Delnor-Wiggins State Park protects the south side. More importantly, this beachfront preserve goes on for nearly two miles of coastline on both sides of the peninsula.
After paying the $8 entrance fee (not applicable to locals with a beach pass) we inquired about the nature trail. “Stop at the chickee,” said the gate attendant. There wasn’t a volunteer on duty, but there was a rough map showing the location of the trail. We headed down the road to the final parking area. A couple of folks in the parking area pointed us to the corner, where we found the first sign for the Saylor Trail.
Burrowing into a tunnel of tropical vegetation, we followed the trail towards the pass, genuinely surprised at the lack of mosquitoes along the edge of the mangrove habitat. Colorful interpretive markers call attention to the botanical diversity of this coastal trail, where sea grapes grow to incredible heights. The peeling bark of gumbo-limbo glistens in the sun.
Wildlife wasn’t plentiful, but the heat of the day had set it. We could see the shadows of butterflies on the footpath but they were well overhead. Little crabs, some so tiny they looked like ticks, scurried into the salt-infused grasses. Squirrels made a lot of noise crunching sea grape leaves underfoot, as did the immense gopher tortoises we encountered.
There are a lot of signs throughout the preserve about being alert and cautious of where you drive and park because of the gopher tortoises, which makes us wonder if this is a “mitigation” site for tortoise relocation. When a developer bulldozes habitat, they’re required to have the tortoises moved elsewhere – a far cry from the not-so-distant past when they buried them alive. From the looks of the tortoises we saw, they’re some of the largest we’ve seen.
There is no getting lost on the Saylor Trail, as it hems you in between habitats in a mostly shady corridor. Reaching the only decision point – to turn or continue straight ahead to the pass – we continued ahead. Smart move. It adds a quarter mile to the walk but the thrill of emerging from the tropical forest to this scenic spot makes for a nature trail with a very happy ending. Especially if you’ve been to Delnor-Wiggins State Park and wondered “how do I get over there?
You have two choices from this point (and it is, truly, a point): walk back a mile on the beach or go back the way you came. We opted for shade. After that quarter mile, the option of the East Saylor Trail had us curious, so we followed it to make a long skinny loop. It climbs up out of the tropical forest to a high point behind the dunes.
There was a road here once. So the pristine habitats weren’t always this way. Crumbling pavement is vanishing beneath the sand, with coastal scrub plants having full command of the understory.
While this path wasn’t as shady as the tropical tunnel, it did offer benches, a composting toilet, and even a little outdoor classroom under a big chickee. More importantly for most visitors, there are plenty of crossovers to the beach.
We’re not beach people: baking in the sun isn’t on the to-do list. But after 2.5 miles on a hot morning, the Gulf of Mexico tempted. The Saylor Trail has the built-in chill-down before, during, and afterwards, making it a great summer hike.