Location: 10941 Burnt Store Road, Punta Gorda, Fla. / Phone: 941-575-5435 / Website: www.checflorida.org / 30,000+ acres / Admission: free.
What you will find there: Birding / Hiking-nature trails / Interpretive center / Gift shop/bookstore / Restrooms / Picnic area / Drinking water / Guided tours / Self-guided tours / Pets on leash / Butterfly garden / Photography / Fishing / Recycling / Parking / Boat tours / Information
Located on Burnt Store Road in Punta Gorda, the Alligator Creek Preserve is the most well-known and visited park of the non-profit Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (CHEC), which provides environmental education, research, recreation, and land management services in Charlotte County. The preserve encompasses more than 30,000 acres of state-owned land buffering Charlotte Harbor, a portion of which CHEC leases and manages. (CHEC also manages the county’s Cedar Point Environmental Park, described later in this section.)
Among Alligator Creek’s highlights is its more than four miles of well-groomed hiking trails. The preserve’s network of trails connects with others in the area, including the Old Datsun Trail located a mile south at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor State Park. An experienced hiker could easily cover 10 miles of backwoods trails in a single day here. (Note that like many trails in Southwest Florida, those at Alligator Creek can be very wet during the summer.)
Many of the trails have clearly marked numbers that correspond to a trail map, making it easy for amateur naturalists to take a self-guided stroll through the preserve’s various ecosystems and learn about everything from black mangroves to beautyberry. Pine flatwoods is the prevailing habitat found along Burnt Store Road to the northern edge of Cape Coral. Other habitats include salt marshes, mangrove forests, and oak/cabbage palm hammocks. Although the property does have some Brazilian pepper, for the most part it has been kept free of invasive plants, and the native flora dominates the landscape.
Wildlife thrives along the Alligator Creek’s trails. Expect to see osprey and wading birds in the various freshwater lakes found in the preserve, where more than 124 species of birds have been documented. Alligators, bobcats, and even an occasional black bear have been sighted here. In fact, more than 22 species of mammals and 59 reptiles and amphibians have been identified in and around the 3,000 acres traversed by the trails. During the spring and fall migrations, the surrounding woods, wetlands, and shrubs abound with warblers, cedar waxwings, and catbirds.
The spacious Charles E. Caniff Visitor’s Center, named in honor of the visionary environmentalist who helped establish CHEC and the Alligator Creek Preserve in 1987, features an incredible hand-carved wooden mobile with life-size pelicans, herons, and other regional birds suspended from the ceiling. A mounted adult bald eagle sits on a simulated nest with a hatchling. There are other displays on wildlife and Native American Indians, a film, lecture, and educational area, a bookstore and gift shop, and children’s play area. A nearby screened picnic pavilion is available for use, although reservations are required.
CHEC also provides guided tours of the preserve and the surrounding estuary (see the website for a schedule). During the winter months, it offers a voyage of discovery across Charlotte Harbor aboard a 29-foot tri-pontoon boat, the “Miss Charlotte,” departing out of Cape Haze Marina. These trips sometimes involve shallow-water wading and exploration stops that allow participants to net the seahorses, minnows, lightning whelks, and horseshoe crabs that thrive in one of the largest and healthiest marine estuaries in the state. During the school year the center works with the regional school district to take children through the preserve.
With its proximity to Cape Coral, Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Fort Myers, the Alligator Creek Preserve is an easy drive away from these population centers to a more natural side of Southwest Florida. A stroll through these lovely forests or a look around the elevated visitor’s center with its well-stocked gift shop and friendly staff, makes this a great destination for anyone looking to experience more of what the real Florida is all about.
So, check out its website, put on your hiking shoes, and get outside!