Editor’s Note: Several parks featured in this story suffered significant damage from Hurricane Ian. Some have reopened with limited facilities. See individual park notes below.
The best Southwest Florida camping can be found in public parks, beaches and forests where the costs are low and experience is wild.
Myakka River State Park — RVs, tents and backcountry camping
CLOSED until further notice
A premier camping destination and one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, Myakka River State Park is less than 20 miles west of Sarasota — 58 square miles of wilderness protecting the watershed for the 66-mile-long Myakka River. Kayaking, fishing, paved and off-road bicycling, hiking a 40-mile loop trail and riding a 12-mile equestrian trail.
The park features three developed campgrounds with 90 sites, each with electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring. Sites in the new Palmetto Ridge also have sewer hookups. There are six (6) primitive campgrounds accessible from hiking or bicycle trails. RV sites, $26 plus $7 per night utility fee and a one-time $6.70 booking fee; Cabins, $70 plus utility and booking fees; Book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 800-326-3521 or TDD 888-433-0287. Primitive sites are $5 per night per person and can be reserved by calling the ranger station at 941-361-6511.
Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota FL 34241. Phone: 941-361-6511
READ MORE: Camping at this playground on the prairie
Myakka State Forest — Backcountry tent camping
Myakka State Forest is 40 miles downriver from Myakka River State Park at the mouth of the Myakka River, where the river flows into Charlotte Harbor. There are five small trailer sites and five tent sites reservable in the Flying A Campground, all accessible by vehicle, with portable toilets but no water or electric for $9 per night. You’ll find better availability for five more hike-in or boat-in tent sites, which also can be reserved online for the $9/night permit fee. Pets are OK.
I recommend camping in groups in state forests because for security reasons. Unlike developed state park campgrounds, state forests have limited staff and ranger patrols are infrequent. Hunting is allowed in this state forest, so waiting until after gun-hunting season would be prudent. Gun season begins in late October here and ends in late January.
Myakka State Forest, 2000 S River Rd, Englewood, FL 34223. Phone: (941) 460-1333
Turtle Beach Campground — RVs and tents
I came across this little gem while visiting a friend on Siesta Key a few years ago. Turtle Beach had been a private campground since the 1920s, but it was acquired by Sarasota County in 2006 as part of the expansion of Turtle Beach Park.
The campground is a narrow sliver, wedged between the park and a residential area, with 39 shaded RV and tent sites with full hookups and free Wi-Fi. The campground road runs down the middle of the sites — with direct access to the beach at the end. A kayak launch area is located in the adjacent park. No pets allowed. The nightly rate is $42-$51, depending on the season, with $5-$7 add-ons for weekends and holidays. Book online or call 941-861-2267.
Turtle Beach Campground, 8862 Midnight Pass Road, Sarasota, FL 34242. Phone: 941-861-CAMP
READ MORE: Beach Camping in Florida: 14 sandy sojourns
Oscar Scherer State Park — RVs and tents
PARK OPEN, CAMPGROUND CLOSED
Tucked behind the urban sprawl that marks Tamiami Trail in Sarasota County is a hidden gem, a 1400-acre wilderness with paddle trails for canoe and kayak, a freshwater swimming lake and 15 miles of off-road trails for hikers and mountain bikes, including access to the 18-mile-long Legacy Trail linking Venice to Sarasota.
There are 104 sites suitable for RVs and tents with water and electric, and they are booked well advance for the winter months. Sites are $26 with an additional $7 utility fee per night plus a $6.70 one-time booking fee. Taxes are not included. Reservations can be made online at reserve.floridastateparks.org up to 11 months in advance or by calling 800) 326-3521.
Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey, FL 34229. Phone: 941-483-5956.
W.P. Franklin North Lock and Campground — RV and tent
Campground, boat ramps CLOSED
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a bang-up job creating this campground on an island in the Caloosahatchee River, part of its management of locks on the 152-mile Okeechobee Waterway. The W.P. Franklin Lock is the furthest west, about 10 miles upriver from Fort Meyers. A boat ramp, fishing pier and trailer dump station are available.
Fishing for salt water (below the lock) and fresh water (above the lock) game fish is popular. All 29 RV sites and eight (8) boat sites on the island are connected to 50-amp electric and water hookups. Sites are $35 per night within a six-month booking window updated on the first of every month. Book online.
W.P. Franklin North Lock and Campground, 17850 N Franklin Lock Rd, Alva, FL 33920 Phone: (239) 694-8770
Buckingham Trails Preserve — Primitive tent camping
Once part of a much larger World War II training facility, gunnery range and Army air field, this 572-acre preserve consists mostly of pine flatwoods and scrub. There’s not much out here, although you’ll likely stumble upon remnants of the air field and gunnery range when exploring the old camp on more than 7 miles of hiking and equestrian trails. Obtained by Lee County using funds from a 1993 conservation bond issue, efforts are now underway to remove non-native vegetation and restore the preserve to its natural state.
This is primitive camping at its most primitive. There are no designated campsites, no restrooms, no showers, no nothing, and dispersed camping is limited to the marked Camping Area shown in the map above. Supplies must be walked in from the Buckingham Road parking lot. Bury human waste and pack out your trash. Camping is permitted only between Nov. 1 and April 30. Parking is free and camping is free, but you’ll need a permit to camp, which can be obtained online here. No campfires. No alcohol. No pets.
Buckingham Trails Preserve, 8790 Buckingham Road, Fort Myers, Florida 33905. Phone: (239) 707-2206
Caloosahatchee Regional Park — Primitive tent camping
Though still primitive, the rustic campground at Caloosahatchee Regional Park offers some amenities, including sites with picnic tables, fire rings and grills. The campground also offers restrooms with showers and designated sites for equestrians. But you’ll have to leave your motor vehicles in the parking lot and hike to your site. Gear carts are available to help you move in and cart your gear out. Sites are $15 for a single site, $30 for a group campsite and $50 for an equestrian site. You can reserve one of the 25 campsites online, or call ahead for reservations. Click here for campground rules.
Caloosahatchee Regional Park, 19130 North River Road, Alva, FL 33920. Phone: (239) 694-0398
Koreshan State Park — Tents and RVs
Park Open; Campground, boat launch closed
In 1894, this park was home to a cult that moved here from Chicago and created a commune: “The Koreshan Unity believed that the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere.” Their bubble is yours to explore: Hike and bike park trails, tour 11 historic buildings, or paddle the Estero River, which runs through the park to Estero Bay and you’re at Lovers Key State Park. Paddlers may use the park’s boat ramp to launch their own canoes or kayaks. Canoes and kayaks can also be rented at the ranger station.
Koreshan State Park offers 60 campsites with electric and water hookups, picnic table and fire ring. Twelve sites are tent camping only and are located next to the Estero River. Four sites are ADA. Pets OK. Camping fees are $33 (including $7 for utilities) plus a one-time $6.50 booking fee. Utility fee does not apply to tent campers. Reservations up to 11 months in advance online, reservations website, or call 800-326-3521 or TDD 888-433-0287.
Koreshan State Park, 3800 Corkscrew Rd, Estero, FL 33928. Phone: (239) 992-0311
Collier Seminole State Park — RVs and tents
Park, campground CLOSED
Collier-Seminole State Park sits on the edge of the Everglades with access to the Ten Thousand Islands. Bring your kayak or canoe for access to backcountry trails, and the park’s popular off-road bicycle trail plies a 3.5-mile course through marsh, hammock and pine flatwoods. The park features one of the original dredges used to build the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades, an amazing feat of engineering that took 13 years in sweltering heat and clouds of mosquitoes. Collier-Seminole has 105 sites, 86 for RVs or tents and 19 tent-only, all of which have hookups for water and electric. There are restrooms, picnic areas and off-road bike/hiking trails. Sites are Sites are $26 with an additional $7 utility fee per night plus a $6.70 one-time booking fee. Taxes are not included. Reservations can be made online at reserve.floridastateparks.org up to 11 months in advance or by calling 800) 326-3521
Collier-Seminole State Park, 20200 Tamiami Trail E, Naples, FL 34114. Phone: (239) 394-3397
Big Cypress National Preserve — RV and tent camping
A half-dozen campgrounds are available in the Big Cypress National Preserve, but only one, Midway, is fully developed with drinking water and electric hookups for RVs. Unlike other campgrounds in the preserve, Midway Campground also has a dump station and rest rooms. We camped in the Burns Lake Campground, which had none of those amenities. Strictly boondocking, but we were fine for four nights with our portable generator. (In fact, we only used the generator once.)
Camping fee $30/night at Midway for sites with water and electric hookups, $24/night for tents without hookups. At Burns Lake and Monument Lake campgrounds, sites are $24 year around. Holders of annual national park passes receive a 50% discount. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Nearby attractions include airboat and swamp buggy tours, museums, the Clyde Butcher art gallery, nature boardwalks and kayaking in the Turner River.
READ MORE: Camping in the Everglades and Big Cypress
Ten Thousand Islands — Tent camping, accessible only by water
Ranger station/Visitor center CLOSED
Thousands of wild, mangrove islands, some with beaches and many without, populate the southwest Florida coast from Marco Island south for 110 miles to Cape Sable. Marco Island is the only one in this remarkable chain of islands that is developed, the rest were frozen in time after being set aside in preserves, the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge and Everglades National Park. There is one major difference between the two: Backcountry permits are needed only within Everglades National Park, and sites are designated. In the wildlife refuge, you can camp where you want for as long as you want and no permits are needed.
Easiest access to the bulk of the islands in Everglades National Park north of Cape Sable is from Everglades City and Chokoloskee, where you can launch kayaks and canoes from the national park’s Gulf Coast Ranger Station. My favorite sites are on the beach at Tiger Key, the northernmost island in the park, about a 9-mile paddle from the ranger station. I’ve also camped on Picnic Key, which is more exposed to weather but it has a toilet. Ground sites, beach sites and elevated platforms can be identified on the park map below.
You will need to obtain a camping permit at the ranger station, which are first-come, first-serve for specific sites no more than 48 hours in advance. There is a $21 administrative fee plus an additional $2 per person per night use fee.
You do not need a permit to camp on islands in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is north of the National Park boundary, but you can still launch your kayaks or canoes from the ranger station.
Boaters and paddlers can access islands for free camping in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge from Everglades City, Port of the Islands, Collier-Seminole State Park and Goodland on Marco Island. The most popular island for camping in the refuge is on Panther Key, an island with fabulous beaches about two miles north of the national park’s Tiger Key.
A few tips to keep in mind:
- Be aware of the tides in the islands and time your visit so you paddle out on the outgoing tide and return on the incoming tide. The currents are swift in many areas, going every which way, and they hard to fight.
- Stay in marked channels and make note of landmarks. These islands all look alike, and it is very easy to get lost.
- Bring a waterproof GPS and an updated nautical chart of the area you plan to visit. For most people, those who abide by channels and markers, a $19.95 “Top Spot” fishing and recreation map should suffice.
- If you are a wanderer, then buy the more technical NOAA Nautical Chart No. 41 for $35 at Amazon. You can also purchase both of these maps at bait and tackle shops in the area.
- Be keenly aware of the weather and be prepared for anything. Storms pop up out of nowhere in these islands. Not every day, but often enough.
- Bring a fishing rod. These mangrove islands are a premier breeding ground for many varieties of gamefish, including sea trout, flounder, redfish, snook, snapper and even grouper.
- If it’s summer, stay home.
Best Camping in other regions of Florida
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.