1. Favorite Backcountry Camp
From Chokoloskee, paddle 7.5 miles on the Wilderness Waterway to Sunday Bay Chickee. William Michie (below) and his wife spend sunsets watching dolphins play. "And we often see rays jumping completely out of the water," he says. His advice: Plan trips for either no moon or a late-rising moon, to see star-studded skies reflected in the water.
2. Best Beach
Find it on Rabbit Key's secluded strip of crushed-shell sand, just 5.5 miles of paddling from the Chokoloskee launch. Head to the leeward side; land at high tide to avoid shoreline oyster patches.
3. Top Hike
Find the Florida Trail’s wildest miles at the park's northern border. From US 41, hike south 7.8 miles through sandy islands of slash pine covered in giant bromeliads to Loop Road. At night, wild turkey calls pierce the swamp. Pack water shoes for wading.
4. Sweetest Sunset
Pavilion Key juts out into the Gulf, offering a full-horizon spread for long, Day-Glo sunsets. Paddle 11 miles south from Chokoloskee to the key’s beach-rimmed north side to make camp. Savor the endless dusk on a stroll over fine-grained sand, while ospreys circle over the key’s small pond.
5. Best Weekend
Explore the 11-mile (round-trip) Hells Bay Canoe Trail. Wind through mangrove-lined creeks to a string of protected bays with chickees and ground sites. Paul Marcellini (below) says, "Slot this trip in winter, when Gulf-size skeeters are dormant."
6. Brightest Stars
Head into Florida Bay and paddle 21 miles west to Northwest Cape’s long beach bordered by salt prairie. Pitch on the sand to enjoy the evening show.
7. Primo Long Paddle
Blaze a trail through a maze of mangroves and cypress on the 50-mile Ten Thousand Islands Loop . Tip: Chickee ladders are easier to access at high tide.
8. Most Wildlife
Head to Nine Mile Pond and see both alligators and crocodiles in the same place (a rarity), says Marcellini. In March, hear the bellows of gators during breeding season. Launch from Ingraham Highway for the five-mile paddle; peer through the cattails for cormorants and herons.
9. Best Birdwatching
Short on time, but want the best of the park? Hike the .8-mile Anhinga Trail for birdwatching galore, peaking in February. Scope great egrets and black-green anhingas diving underwater to spear fish. After a feed, they dry their white-tipped feathers atop the brush.
Miami resident Paul Marcellini, 25, first visited the park as a five-year-old and now spends 50 days a year exploring the mangroves. While winter’s low water offers easier off-trail travel, he prefers summer, when powerful storms whip up cirrus clouds. "It’s a photogenic treat for us shutterbugs," he says.
William Michie, 46, of Naples, Florida, and his wife took a guided kayak-camping trip in 2007 and were instantly hooked. Now, they get into the ’glades at least twice a month from November to April. "My wife will go out once a week if the weather is right," says Michie. "We like it when temps are low and tides are high."