Matanzas Pass Preserve Free Nature Walk Every Thursday


“Life in The Mangroves”

Fort Myers Beach is synonymous with entertainment, from bars and restaurants to beaches and shops and tourism venues. Lee County Parks & Recreation adds to this treasure-trove with a series of free guided programs.

One of these is “Life in The Mangroves” at Matanzas Pass Preserve every Thursday through Spring from 9:30 to 11 a.m. This inspirational walk through one of Florida’s original aquatic preserves examines the diverse plant and animal communities in this maritime oak hammock, transitional wetland, and mangrove forest ecosystem at 199 Bay Road, with limited free parking, just down the road from the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. Jim Rodwell, a Florida master naturalist and long-time Fort Myers Beach nature expert, is the endlessly-fascinating guide, combined his incredible knowledge and droll sense-of-humor that made the 90-minutes fly by!

The entrance to Matanzas Pass Preserve at 199 Bay Rd, Fort Myers Beach. Photo by Sarah List.

We quickly learned a portion of the trail remains closed due to Hurricane Irma damage, with that segment under preparation for a boardwalk. Another Irma holdover not so readily apparent is almost all the Preserve’s ground is under fallen leaves, nullifying the seed bank. “How can you get seeds to grow when everything is covered,” asked Jim. Other than those, however, there does not appear to be much more lingering hurricane effect.

Much of our walk focused on the several species of air plants in the Preserve that are a part of the pineapple family, such as grass or tank air plants. “There are over 650 varieties of this perennial flowering evergreen,” explained Jim, “but we only have a half-dozen or so here. They like dew and our tropical humidity, and grow on trees because they need something to grab onto, taking about 8 years to flower. Once you see one, you tend to see a cluster.”

The Preserve includes a bayfront pavilion with shade and benches. Photo by Sarah List.

We witness White Indigo plants with seed pods. “That is very strange in late December,” said Jim, “as they tend not to have seed pods until April or May.” Ficus abound, as they are a keystone tree that provide the primary forest canopy, but they “wrap around everything, so they are nasty little things!” The Preserve is home to Cabbage and Sabal Palms, though this is not always good: “Even though they are natives to this area, they are ‘trash,’” exclaimed Jim! “You used to be able to see through and around them, but they quickly grow into a solid wall, as they are a fiber. Another nasty native here is the Nickerbean that uses little hooks to climb up neighboring trees to cut off their water.”

A Better Story!

Jim offers local Sabal Palm legends: “We call its distinctive bark ‘boots’ because area cowboys hang their boots on them to dry out. You can use the bark to collect water or attach a squirrel on one to cook its meat. I heard these from a bunch of good old boys from LaBelle, so that is my source – unless you have a better story!”

When asked about the numerous mangroves, Jim cautioned, “Be prepared to be here for a while. Globally, there are 42 varieties, but here we have three – red, black and white. Mangroves are excellent for gas exchange, as in comes oxygen and out goes carbon dioxide. Mangroves adapt to survive in tidal saltwater, providing habitat for birds, with leaves crucial to the food chain.”

Cheryl from Indiana listens as Jim explains mangrove leaves along the boardwalk. Photo by Gary Mooney.

We never ventured off the boardwalk through the 60-acres, though our walk covered about a mile, as we stopped periodically to examine the flora & fauna. Our late December morning was cool, with the Preserve’s canopy making it a few degrees colder. “Life in The Mangroves” is an entertaining and educational walk through our gorgeous natural preserve.

In addition to “Life in The Mangroves,” Lee County Parks & Recreation offers other free nature walks. “Barrier Island Ramble” at Bowditch Point Park at 50 Estero Boulevard is every other Tuesday through March from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with parking at $2-per-hour, and the next one on January 16. “Life Along the Shoreline” is at Bunche Beach Preserve at 18201 John Morris Road in South Fort Myers, off Summerlin Road, on Mondays except for holidays through April 30 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with parking $2 per hour. For additional information, contact Lee County Parks & Recreation at 213-533-7275 or at

In a related program, the historic Mound House hosts the free year-round “Beach Walk at Newton Beach Park” every Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. at 4650 Estero Boulevard, with parking at $3 per hour, weather permitting. Meet at the thatch hut, then explore the natural treasures on Fort Myers Beach through a guided walk along the shore. For more details, call 239-765-0865 or see Wear closed-toes shoes that can get wet to all the walks, and bring water, bug spray, sunglasses, binoculars and cameras.


Gary Mooney