Looking for a budget friendly day trip? If you enjoy “real” Florida and a bit of fascinating state history, this one’s for you. The “twofer” is a paddle ride down the Estero River, which also borders and provides access to the unique Koreshan Historic State Park. The seven-mile Estero River, part of the Great Calusa Blueway Paddle Trail is located between Ft. Myers and Naples emptying into the Estero Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. The “natural beauty” of the river coupled with a glimpse of life in the early 1900’s promises a very special authentic Florida day.
Koreshan State Park
Originally inhabited by the Calusa Indians thousands of years ago, this slice of old Florida exists thanks to pioneer Gustave Damkohler who in 1882 lived on the Estero River property. He returned to his hometown in Chicago where he met Cyrus Teed, leader of a religious sect, who was looking for a new home. Damkohler donated his 300 acres to Teed’s Koreshan Unity (Koresh is Hebrew for Cyrus). Founded upon the principals of communal living and celibacy, Teed’s utopia was based on the belief that the universe existed within a large, hollow sphere. But in 1894, rather than finding a spherical bubble, he met a hot, humid and buggy Florida wilderness, a true test for the Koreshan leader and his converts.
But Teed had a plan. His vision was to clear the land, create a community consisting of geometrically designed formal grounds marked by shell paths, gardens and orchards. A power generated store, school, bakery, cottages, machine shops, printing facility and even a cultural center replaced the Florida scrub for the two hundred Koreshan followers. Eleven historical buildings still remain with original décor and displays of period artifacts, materials, machinery and equipment.
The Koreshan’s strict celibacy rules left no living members to continue the legacy and luckily for our state, the remaining few eventually deeded the property to the Florida park system. They were a hard working lot, and their commitment preserved valuable Florida land and produced another chapter of our unique history.
Access to the Estero River
There are several ways to get on the spring-fed river. One access point is through the Koreshan State Park where canoes are available for rent or through the nearby Estero River Outfitters, a friendly, family-owned business on the river. The Outfitters have plenty of rentals and guided tours. If you bring your own kayak, you can access the river free of charge.
Once on the river, the partially shaded, easy moving tributary is a 3.5-mile leisure paddle ride to Estero Bay. The part of the river bordering the Koreshan State Park is shaded with luscious tropical greenery, overhanging Florida oak trees, bamboo and ferns. Paddlers can easily disembark and tie up to park docks or the boat ramp to tour the grounds. If you prefer to skip the paddling experience, you can drive directly into the state park and enjoy the gardens on the water’s edge.
Paddling down river, be on the lookout for manatees. Frequently spotted, they are especially prevalent during the cooler months. On the north side homes and trailer parks dot the landscape and further down river, mangroves share the water’s edge with swamp lilies. Be on the lookout for green herons, yellow crowned night herons, mangrove cuckoos, black-whiskered vireos. Alligators have been seen on the river and otters are spotted during the early morning.
Continuing the westward paddle, homes begin to fade away, the brackish water becomes saltier and the subtropical vegetation thickens with mangroves. Osprey nests are easily spotted. Boat traffic moves slowly until the river widens allowing greater access for both kayaks and other boats.
Down river we stopped at the Estero River Scrub (part of the Estero Bay Preserve State Park). A scrub habitat of pine flatwoods, saw palmettos and sandy trails wind through the park. The scrub ridges provide habitat for gopher tortoises, wild hogs, armadillos and racoons. Bald eagles soar overhead. The Estero Bay Preserve serves as an important buffer to protect the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve estuary from ever-encroaching development.
We chose to turn around once we reached the Estero River Scrub and spend more time at the Koreshan State Park. Eventually, the river empties into the Estero Bay, a key estuary for Florida marine wildlife. Dolphins, cormorants, anhingas, herons, ibis, egrets, roseate spoonbills, and many wading birds are often observed. From there, if you’re a more ambitious or advanced paddler, you may want to continue to Mound and/or Lovers Keys.
The Estero River and Koreshan State Park are part of Lee County’s Great Calusa Blueway Paddle Trail, 190 miles of coastal and inland tributary canoe/kayak trails. Two nearby parks on the paddle trail are Mound Key Archeological State Park and Lovers Key State Park.
Mound Key is located southwest of the Estero Bay entrance. Believed to be the capital of the Calusa Indians, the island’s shell midden reaches heights of 30 feet. The self-guided hiking trail starts at the northwest and southeast sides of the island under canopies of cabbage palms and gumbo limbo trees. Hikers can enjoy lovely views and plenty of birding, especially ospreys.
Located southwest of Mound Key, and known to be a historic getaway for “lovers” who accessed the island only by boat (prior to the bridge construction), Lovers Key State Park actually consists of four islands, separated by canals and lagoons. The park sits on over 1600 acres and includes some of the area’s most beautiful white sandy beaches.
This day trip provides plenty of variety combined with a tremendous amount of Florida beauty. Enjoy your special day exploring one of southwest Florida’s lesser known, but exceptionally authentic gems.
What to bring
Map of the area (Estero Outfitters will lend you one), water, food, hat, shirt, sunscreen, bug spray, GPS or cell phone.