Even though Fort Lauderdale is on the East Coast of Florida and Fort Myers is on the state’s West Coast, the drive from one city to the other is only about two hours. But since you’re already going to be making the trek across the southern region of the Sunshine State, why not turn the car ride into an adventure-packed road trip? From art and culture to wetlands and wildlife, there are plenty of exciting destinations that are well worth a detour or two. Keep reading to see what we mean!
Miami is one of Florida’s best-known cities, and since it’s only about a half-hour from Fort Lauderdale, you might as well do a little sightseeing while you’re in the area, right? Around 15 minutes north of Downtown Miami, you’ll find the neighborhood of Wynwood, a cultural hub that’s known for its lively arts scene, trendy boutiques, and contemporary restaurants. Among the neighborhood’s most popular attractions is an outdoor art gallery called the Wynwood Walls.
The idea for the Wynwood Walls was first conceptualized in 2009 by the late real estate developer and respected visionary Tony Goldman, who decided to transform a few of Wynwood’s many warehouse buildings into canvases for street art. As the project has grown, artists from all over have contributed to the nontraditional installation, and today, more than 80,000 square feet of warehouse walls have been transformed by striking murals and explosions of color.
Miami has a number of fascinating and alluring museums, including the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Miami Children’s Museum, and the Haitian Heritage Museum. But if you’re looking for a blend of history, scenery, and architecture, it’s hard to beat Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, about 10 minutes south of Downtown Miami in Coconut Grove. With a location that overlooks Biscayne Bay, Vizcaya is brimming with both breathtaking views and rich history.
Construction of the lavish estate began in 1916 under the watchful eye of owner and retired millionaire James Deering of Deering Harvester Company, who died in 1925, shortly after Vizcaya was completed. Considered by many to one of Miami’s must-see attractions, Vizcaya invites visitors to step back in time as they walk the intricately manicured property and learn about the history that it holds.
One of the best ways to see the Everglades is by airboat, and as an authorized Everglades National Park concession, Everglades Safari Park is a tour company that offers official boat tours of the “River of Grass,” ensuring that visitors get a safe, comprehensive look at Florida’s famous sprawling wetlands. Everglades National Park boasts the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and it spans 1.5 million acres. The Everglades provide habitat for an array of wildlife, including alligators, crocodiles, otters, turtles, dolphins, manatees, bobcats, and panthers.
Everglades Safari Park’s main attraction is, of course, its airboat tours. The most popular tour that the company offers is its “Eco-Adventure Tour,” which consists of a 30-to-40 minute airboat ride, a wildlife nature show, and a jungle trail hike, complete with an observation platform. Tickets for adults are $28, and tickets for children ages 5 to 11 are $15. Tours typically leave every 20 or 30 minutes, and you can buy tickets onsite, no reservations needed!
Everglades National Park has a few different visitor centers, but Shark Valley Visitor Center is right off of Highway 41 when you’re coming from Miami, and it’ll provide you access to some of the park’s easier walking trails. The visitor center has informational displays so that you can learn more about the park (as well as its many inhabitants), and it’s a great place to pick up postcards and other souvenirs.
The Bobcat Boardwalk Trailhead is located just behind the visitor center, and at a little under a half-mile, the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail is a short loop that makes for a quick but striking hike across a bayhead, one of the Everglades’ nine major ecosystems. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the Shark Valley Trail—a 15.4-mile loop—is also in the immediate surrounding area. Not a hiker? No problem! Shark Valley Tram Tours offers guided educational tours of Shark Valley, which will take you to the highest accessible point in the entire park, the Shark Valley Observation Tower.
Ranked by National Geographic as one of the country’s “Top 10 Underappreciated National Parks,” Big Cypress National Preserve—America’s first national preserve—is adjacent to Everglades National Park in southwest Florida and covers over 700 thousand acres of hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps, and estuaries. Some of the animals that you might come across in the preserve include alligators, egrets, herons, otters, bears, bobcats, and panthers. In addition to its many hiking trails, Big Cypress National Preserve also has two popular scenic driving routes, Loop Road and Turner River Road. At 27 miles, Loop Road (also known as County Road 94) is the longer of the two loops, and you can access it from Highway 41.
Visitors are recommended to ask a park ranger about the current road conditions before starting the drive, as the area is subject to flooding, especially during the summer wet season from May to October. The drive is usually lined with all sorts of wildlife—if you keep an eye out, you’re likely to see some American alligators, some of which might even be trying to cross the road that you’re driving on! (Don’t forget to keep a safe distance from any animals that you see and to respect them and their habitat.)
The largest state park in all of Florida, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park represents ecotourism at its finest: The park’s primary goal is preservation, meaning that while visitors are free to enjoy the area, facilities and invasive activities are intentionally kept to a minimal. East of Naples and west of Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand encompasses more than 85 thousand acres and is an ideal spot to bike, hike, fish, canoe or kayak, and look for wildlife. The most commonly seen animals here are white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, raccoons, hawks, turkeys, eagles, and ducks, but alligators, crocodiles, and manatees can also be found, depending on the terrain and the time of year.
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, a 1.2-mile boardwalk, is among the park’s main attractions and leads visitors through one of the most visited and most accessible areas of Fakahatchee Strand. Virgin cypress trees, Myrsine, royal palms, and floating ferns are some of the many types of plant life that you’ll come across as you traverse this tunnel-like forest. An easy but serene walk, Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is a must-do when passing through Fakahatchee Strand. The boardwalk will also take you by the Miccosukee village, which includes a museum and alligator demonstrations.
The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is one of peninsular Florida’s most-sought-after creatures. An endangered species, manatees are actually considered the aquatic relatives of elephants, and they can weigh upwards of three thousand pounds and be over 14-feet long. During the winter months, Florida manatees flock to the state’s warm waters, as they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Large but gentle, wintering manatees have become a popular tourist attraction, and there are several parks, sanctuaries, and tours that you can take advantage of to see these majestic “sea cows” up close.
See Manatees – Manatee Sightseeing Eco Adventures (also known as Manatee Eco-Tours) is an ecotourism company based out of Port of the Islands that prides itself on being the “only manatee sightseeing tour company in the world that sees manatees every day, all year.” Climb aboard one of Captain Barry and Carol’s boats, and venture through the Faka Union Canal and the Ten Thousand Islands. Tours are usually around 90 minutes, and other types of wildlife that you might see include alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, and shorebirds.
Only about an hour south of Fort Myers, the city of Naples is well worth a short detour on your way up Florida’s West Coast. Named after its Italian counterpart, this seaside city along the Gulf of Mexico is famous for its luxurious beaches, pristine golf courses, and stylish neighborhoods. But whether you’re more interested in sinking your toes in the sand or hitting the greens, you don’t want to miss out on one of Naples’ most iconic landmarks: the Naples Pier.
Located in Downtown Naples, this historic pier was originally built in 1888 and stretches a thousand feet out across the Gulf. Because it has a bulk fishing license, everyone is welcome to cast a line from the pier and reel in snook, mackerel, pompano, and sea trout. Even if you’re not into fishing, the pier is a picturesque place to go for a walk or to watch the sunset. Be sure to stay on the lookout for wildlife—dolphins can often be seen jumping in and out of the sparkling waters.
Bonita Springs is another town that falls just south of Fort Myers, and if you’re looking to see the more tropical side of Florida, then you might want to consider making one last stop before finally reaching Fort Myers. Not too far from Bonita Springs, you’ll find a Bonita Bay and Estero Bay, as well as a series of parks and islands. Filled with sightseeing opportunities, this is yet another gorgeous part of the state that’s ripe with adventure.
Kayaking is a pretty popular activity throughout most of Florida, and hopping in a kayak and paddling through the local waters is a fun, immersive way to experience Florida. Seaside Kayaking is a kayak tour-and-rental company that rents out single and double kayaks and offers guided nature tours and fishing trips. Whether you decide to go it alone or book tour, you’re sure to see a whole new side of Southwest Florida when you hit the waters with Seaside Kayaking.
With a wonderful mix of bustling cityscapes, coastal views, and scenic wilderness, Florida is definitely road trip material. Whether you plan a couple of stops or a whole bunch, one thing’s for sure—you won’t be sorry for extending your trip to do some more exploring in the Sunshine State. So, pack your bags, fill up your gas tank, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!