After visiting Sanibel Island for the day, I seeked out a Cracker Barrel outside of Fort Myers for the night. This was my first time to camp at a Cracker Barrel, and the parking area was much nicer than Walmart’s where I tend to stay at when wilderness is not available. Cracker Barrel parking lots in Florida are heavily shaded which is a luxury for these hot days. I joined several other quiet campers in the back.
It was so nice, I actually returned for another night, but things were different the second time. The person next to me was running something gas powered, and all the fumes were seeping into my open windows. After an hour of breathing exhaust, I finally moved only to be awoken at 5:30 am as workers delivered boxes of supplies from the truck to the Cracker Barrel kitchen.
Oh well, what can I say? You get what you pay for! And in this case, boondocking in a shaded parking lot was probably still better than reserving a $100 shadeless, campground a year in advance!
Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve East
Anyway, I began my morning by driving to Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve East. It was just on the other side of the river from Cracker Barrel. Being less than 10 minutes away, we arrived early and were the first at the free park.
The beginning section features a short 1.5 mile trail and boardwalk through the native forest. This part is very nice and rather popular as the day progresses. In addition to the nice trail and boardwalk, there is a grass road cut through the vegetation which makes a three-mile loop. About half of the loop follows the shore of the Caloosahatchee River.
I did not complete the entire loop because one section to the left requires wading, and I don’t wade through stagnant water that I can’t see in! Regardless, the loop is far less traveled, so I took advantage of the space and let Annie off the leash as she needed to expend some energy. While I suppose she could have gotten eaten by an alligator if we’d seen one, she doesn’t venture toward the water and is remarkably fast. Not to mention, unless they are fed by humans or it is easy prey, alligators typically don’t go on a hunt. Fortunately, she is calmer now and still with me!
After our morning jaunt, we took a longer drive to Pine Island to walk on the Calusa Heritage Trail. It was only a mile long, but very interesting and much different from what I expected. After passing over the bridge at Matlacha, I continued along Pine Island to what felt like a very quiet, out of the way area.
Soon I ended up at the parking lot that already included a handful of cars. I wasn’t ready to start yet, and as I piddled around in VANgo, I was perplexed at how long it took for people to walk a mile. Little did I know, how comprehensive the free park was, albeit donations are requested.
The park included bathrooms, a gift shop, many interpretive signs and volunteers scattered around. Normally, I’m not that fond of interpretive walks, but learning about the Calusa people, seeing their mounds, and admiring the many osprey was a pleasant surprise.
The Calusa Indians
The Calusa Indians lived in Pineland up until the 1700’s when they were forced out by the Spaniards. For the most part they relied on the sea for their primary food as the shallow estuary attracted all types of fish and birdlife. They resorted to eating birds during hard times.
As expected, during excavations, shells and duck bones were found in some of their mounds. Surprisingly, so were ancient papaya seeds. Prior to this finding, papaya was not considered native to the USA. While there are a handful of small mounds around the complex, there is one big mound.
The Smith mound, standing 30 feet high and 300 feet long and surrounded by a manmade canal, was the largest burial mound ever built in Southwest Florida. They laid the dead on their sides with their knees tucked in, sometimes scattered pottery around the body, and covered them in sand. The dead were revered, and the Calusa brought them offerings.
The mounds are covered in vegetation. If I were randomly walking by them, I don’t know if I would have noticed them. On the flip side, I did notice the many osprey nests and the six ospreys! Some flying and some in the nests protecting their chirping babies (which I couldn’t see). The osprey sightings prompted me to return to VANgo and come back with my good camera for a better close up shot.
After spending the morning on Pine Island, I returned toward Cape Coral, so Annie and I could spend a hot afternoon on a boat looking for manatee and dolphins. We planned to take a brief stroll around the artsy and colorful town of Matlacha along the way, but the empty streets at 9am were bustling around noon with a major traffic jam. Seeing as how I don’t like to shop, it worked out perfectly as I could window shop from VANgo since we were going so slowly!
Dolphin and Manatee Tour
In Cape Coral, I circled the Cape Coral Yacht Club Park Fishing Pier once before I lucked out and found a parking spot. It was absolutely packed, and I was thankful to have arrived early. I gathered my snacks and sunscreen, leashed up Annie and walked to the pier where I met Captain Carolyn with Beach Buddy Tours.
We climbed on the boat and found our seats. Annie tended to circle from the soft cushion seats to the dog blanket on the deck. Sometimes she laid down, other times she was bound and determined to see as her ears fluttered in the wind.
We traveled quite a distance in the boat but spotted a few dolphin near the Sanibel Causeway. While there, we snapped a photo of us in front of the lighthouse. We also found some manatees that make their home in one specific canal.
Carolyn was well versed in manatee and dolphin facts, and it was fun to learn more about them. Sadly, I only remember a few facts about the manatees like they weigh 1,200 pounds and only feed on sea grass. I can only imagine how much they need to eat!
I suppose I was concentrating on Annie who got braver as time progressed. By the end of the boat ride, she was standing on the bow debating if she was going to jump, especially when we saw the manatee!
Cape Coral Yacht Club
Upon our return, I asked Carolyn if there were any public showers at the Yacht Club. Believe it or not, they are at the pool whose entrance is somewhat hidden around the corner. They require you to take shower before entering the pool.
I asked if I could pay the pool entrance fee and just take a shower. The young man replied, “Well, you can take a shower for free if you aren’t going into the pool. This was music to my ears, despite the facilities needing a good clean.
Freshened up, I headed back to Cracker Barrel where I stayed the night and prepared for our next outing, Venice. While it was a little more driving than I usually do in one day, we enjoyed our day in the area. ETB