Bunche Beach is a favorite among locals, but its fame spread in winter 2016 when a lone flamingo took up residence on its salt flats and posed for hundreds of nature photographers.
The iconic pink visitor hasn’t returned, but plenty of other birds have. And whatever the season, there are good reasons to visit San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve.
The Lee County park preserves 718 acres of beautiful and unspoiled land — sandy beaches, salt flats and mangrove forests, all along San Carlos Bay overlooking Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.
There’s an excellent kayak launch site and a friendly outfitter, Kayak Excursions, who can rent you kayaks and stand up paddleboards and explain the various kayak trails.
From the kayak launch site, you can paddle along mangrove creeks and through narrow mangrove tunnels. You also can paddle a short way out Rock Creek into San Carlos Bay.
On a January 2017 outing, we combined the two options, canoeing out Rock Creek, past broad salt flats and sandbars, then north along what is called Plover Beach to an inlet where a spectacularly beautiful creek winds its way through mangroves filled with birds. When the creek narrowed, we turned around and returned the way we came. (It is possible to continue, but it gets very narrow with little headroom and the outfitters didn’t recommend going the whole route.)
We paddled a few hours before low tide, which meant the salt flats had only an inch or two of water on our return. And that was just fine — the solid sandy bottom was a joy to walk on. We carried the heaviest items and pulled our boat through the shallows, enjoying the spectacular views and finding live shells along the way.
We had two wonderful wildlife encounters.
First, flocks of migratory white pelicans joined the crowd of birds on the sandbars, and we couldn’t get enough of admiring them. With their 9-foot wingspan and 30+ pound weight, these shy birds stood out like giants among the brown pelicans who shared the flats. We spotted so many other birds – magnificent frigatebirds and ospreys overhead, yellow-crowned night herons and kingfishers in the mangroves, reddish egrets, terns and skimmers on the sandbars. (Bunche Beach is a site on the Great Florida Birding Trail.)
Second, as we skirted the sandbars and paddled in deeper waters of San Carlos Bay, we heard the whooshing noise of a dolphin breathing and then enjoyed watching two dolphins actively capturing fish nearby. (At one point, a dolphin flipped a fish high into the air.)
A few more thoughts about visiting Bunche Beach:
- Bunche Beach is one of several dozen designated kayaking routes that are part of the Great Calusa Blueway. A joint project of Lee County Parks and Recreation and the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Blueway is a series of marked trails for kayakers. The Calusa Blueway will mail a free set of maps to anyone who requests them.
- Bunche Beach makes a good summer kayak destination, according to Mike Hammond, the coordinator for Lee County for the Great Calusa Blueway, because you can swim in the shade at the mangrove creek that empties into the bay at Plover Beach and then paddle in the shade up the creek, as we did.
- Even without a kayak, Bunche Beach makes a great destination for folks who like beachcombing and birdwatching. You can stroll a mile along the beach in either direction from the inlet. During low tide, you can venture out onto the sandbars to look for shells and observe birds.
- This is a good place to watch the sunset over San Carlos Bay. (Bring bug spray. No see ums can be fierce.)
The interesting history of Bunche Beach
In segregated Fort Myers in 1949, it was a happy day for African American residents when a “colored beach” was opened at Bunche Beach. The dedication was a festive barbecue that attracted 3,000 people from the entire region.
The beach was named for a great man whose story is not well known now, but should be. Ralph Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the first African American to do so. Bunche was the mediator for the United Nations who reached an accord between Palestinians and Israelis at the founding of Israel. It was difficult and dangerous work – his predecessor in that role had been assassinated in a plot that was supposed to kill Bunche too. Bunche went on to be a civil rights leader who participated in the 1963 March on Washington and other protests.
San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve
18201 John Morris Rd, Fort Myers, FL 33908
Phone: (239) 765-6794
Kayak Excursions, outfitters at the Bunche Beach
Parking: $2 per hour parking fee. Approximately 100 vehicles can park near the beach. There is a separate parking lot for two dozen cars and a restroom at the kayak launch site.
More things to do near Fort Myers
- Where to see white pelicans wintering in Florida
- Kayak Orange river in Fort Myers for manatees in winter, Old Florida scenery
- Lovers Key State Park: Great beach, kayaking and manatees in winter
- Koreshan State Historic Site in Naples: Wacky Florida history; lovely spot preserved
- Fort Myers Beach is a charming seaside getaway
- Clam Pass Park, a Naples beach where you ride the tide
- Kayaking Imperial River in Bonita Springs
- Kayak Sanibel and Captiva
- What makes Sanibel so special
- Bicycling Sanibel Island