Living Sanibel: Lakes Regional Park
Amidst the pizzas, ice cream, hot dogs, and surrey rentals, a naturalist might be quick to dismiss Lakes Regional Park as more of a family recreational park than a place to commune with nature. The truth is, plenty of nature is to be found along the many trails that wind through this attractive park. The wide variety of wildlife and bird species that inhabit this 279-acre oasis have earned it a place on the Florida Fish and Wildlife’s South Florida Birding Trail.
The park is situated on land that was a large gravel and limestone quarry during the 1960s. After the quarry was abandoned, ground and surface water filled in the excavations, creating the 158-acre lake that now gives the park its name. The water depth ranges from a few inches along the shore to more than 20 feet in places. Lee County purchased the site in 1978 and officially opened the park on April 21, 1984. In 1991 the park added a fragrance garden, which over the years has evolved into a botanical garden that includes exotic trees, flowers, and cacti. Butterflies abound in this area of the park, and identification signs help amateur entomologists identify the numerous species found throughout the gardens.
Birders will find Lakes Regional Park a surprising treasure of species. Wading birds such as great egrets, herons, and occasionally wood storks congregate along the lakeshore. This is one of the rare places where you can spot three different species of ibis in one day: common white ibis, glossy ibis, and the exotic scarlet ibis (these are escaped from zoos). The fragrance garden attracts dozens of species of migratory warblers, vireos, and assorted sparrows during the spring and fall migrations.
Cowbirds, blackbirds, boat-tailed grackles, and other urban species can be found throughout the park year-round. Active rookeries on several of the islands found in the lake present unique opportunities for photographers with good telephoto lenses to shoot hungry nestlings and anxious, feeding parents. The birding is so consistent throughout the year that Lakes Regional Park has volunteers who participate in bird counts for both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
Of course, the recreational value of the park should not be overlooked. The Railroad Museum of South Florida is located here and offers displays of model trains, historical information on the early regional railroads, and much more. The nearby playground has a full-size replica locomotive for the kids to play on, and an eighth-size scale railroad train takes children and parents alike on a 1.4-mile ride along a 7.5-inch-wide track for a nominal fee. A restored Baldwin Locomotive known as the ACL #143 (Atlantic Coast Line) and its coal tender sit across from the museum. The machine was built in Philadelphia in 1905 and officially retired in 1959.
Along the northern edge of the property two water parks offer welcome relief from the Florida sun for children of all ages. A rock-climbing wall and several playgrounds also help to keep the youngsters busy throughout the day. Visitors can rent bikes, double surreys, choppers, quad-sports, and scooters. Boat rentals include kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, and hydro-bikes. The park rents out several pavilions of varying sizes for private parties, weddings and special events. Fishing is allowed in the lakes, but a freshwater license is required. Swimming is prohibited because of the alligators that thrive in the lakes.
The 2.5 miles of hiking and biking trails that wind through the backwoods offer a more subdued environment where nature lovers can take in the wildlife or relax under the shade of a sprawling live oak. Most of the exotic vegetation has been removed, and, except for the botanical gardens, the park is well on its way to returning to native vegetation. Lakes Regional Park has a little something for everyone, and in the midst of the nearby Wal-Marts and Lowe’s superstores, this park is a welcome respite from the urban landscape that surrounds it.