Bonita Springs / Bonita Beach
The keys here offers a lot of public access to go along with all of its private waterfront.
- Less-traveled than neighboring beaches.
- A friendly, small-town atmosphere.
- One of the best dog beaches in the state is nearby.
- There's not much in the way of nightlife.
- Even with its public access, most of the land is still privately owned.
Bonita Springs is a lesser-known southwestern town with plenty of coastline. South of Fort Myers and north of Naples, this beachfront city is less-traveled than either, and therefore a better location for vacationers looking for a bit more privacy.
The stretches of public beach span several spits and keys, from Bonita Beach at the south end of Lee County all the way up to Lovers Key State Park.
That famed Gulf Coast sand covers the beaches here and, being this far south, the water tends to stay warmer most of the year. Such ideal conditions mean people have been living in the Bonita Springs area for a long time — archaeological research has unearthed proof of human habitation going back 8,000 years.
The Calusa Indians were here when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. Diseases and slave trading wiped out the civilization, numbering in the thousands, over the following 200 years.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to the region in the 1870s, camping on what would become known as the Imperial River to survey the area, which they recorded on maps as simply “Survey.”
Homesteaders arrived and settled a village under the name, opening a post office in 1901 and a tourist-focused hotel in 1910. Savvy marketing types decided that Survey wasn’t an ideal name, so the village became Bonita Springs.
The Fort-Myers Southern Railroad was extended to the area in the 1920s and Tamiami Trail was finished in 1928, spurring growth and, for a time, incorporation for the city.
Interstate 75 and a new airport helped fuel a population boom in the 1980s and 90s, and the city reincorporated at the end of 1999. Now Bonita Springs boasts some 43,000 residents, with a healthy chunk of that being retirees.
Bonita Beach, meanwhile, continues to be a main attraction for the city, although not at quite the same rate as its neighbors.
Coming by airplane, Southwest Florida International Airport (CPA) is the regional airport servicing Bonita Springs. It’s east of Fort Myers, about 18 miles away, with 12 airlines offering flights.
Once on the ground, shuttles, ride-sharing, buses and taxis are available. Bonita Bee Airport Express is a locally-owned, reliable shuttle service.
By car, you’ll want to take Interstate 75 or the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41) into town, then hop onto Bonita Beach Road (S.R. 865), the main road in Bonita Springs that marks the county line. North of the road is Lee County, south of the road is Collier County.
Bonita Beach Road turns into Hickory Boulevard at the bend of the coast just before Bonita Beach Park on the barrier island, Little Hickory Island (turn left at Barefoot Beach Boulevard to reach Barefoot Beach). The road then becomes Estero Boulevard north of Little Hickory Island Beach Park.
Depending on the season and how close your hotel is to the beach, you will need a car or at least a bike to get around. The downtown area is about a 15-minute drive from the beach, so nothing is that far, but it can seem that way in the South Florida heat.
Once in town, LeeTran is the only public transportation option. The countywide bus system’s Route 150 goes up and down Bonita Beach Road, all the way to Lovers Key State Park. Check the LeeTran website for more details, including how to access Bonita Springs’ beaches from Fort Myers.
Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft operate in Bonita Springs.
Two words: Easy parking. Finding a spot on a hot beach day usually isn’t a concern in Bonita Springs, although it can get a lot more crowded in snowbird season in the winter.
There are several beach parks and access points along S.R. 865/Hickory Boulevard. The very first one moving from the south of Bonita Springs’ beaches northward is Bonita Beach Park, which has a large lot at the entrance. There are showers, restrooms, a playground, and picnic areas.
If that lot happens to be full by the time you get there and you absolutely must be in that area, the lot just south of the park is for Barefoot Beach, and is just steps away.
Traveling north on Hickory Boulevard, there are several small lots — as in four to eight parking spots — with public beach access along the way. These access points boast free parking, but don't have the amenities of the large lots.
The first, Bonita Beach Access No. 1, is actually just north of Bonita Beach Park. It has paid parking. The rest are free:
Bonita Beach Access No. 1: 27890 Hickory Blvd. (paid parking)
Bonita Beach Access No. 2: 27720 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 3: 27494 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 4: 27260 Hickory Blvd.
Past that, there is Bonita Bay Beach Park, which again features a large lot and amenities. Then it’s back to the small accesses.
Bonita Beach Access No. 5: 27010 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 6: 26786 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 7: 26590 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 8: 26410 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Beach Access No. 9: 26220 Hickory Blvd.
At the north end of the island is the Little Hickory Island Beach Park parking lot. It has plenty of metered spots and other amenities.
Bay’s Island, just north of Little Hickory Island, has some parking off the side of the road if you want to hang out around the sea wall. If you’re kayaking off Big Hickory Island, Seaside Kayaking has its own parking lot. Folks headed to Pelican Landing Beach Park on the northwest side of Big Hickory Island are going by boat and don’t need to worry about parking.
Finally, Lovers Key State Park has free parking, but charges an entrance fee per car. If you’re going to the dog beach on 865 at the south end of the key, there’s a lot to unload your pooch.
If you’re visiting the downtown area, there’s plenty of free street parking along Wilson Street and Old Highway 41, as well as private lots on Bonita Beach Road.
Parking passes are available for $60 per year and can be purchased online, but are only for residents.
People come to Bonita Springs for two things: The small-town atmosphere and the squeaky clean beaches. The water stays relatively warm year-’round and the waterfront makes for a good shell hunt.
Beachgoers include a range of tourists both foreign and domestic, with a healthy dose of locals. That last group is especially well represented in the winter, when the winter residents come back to roost. The combination makes for a friendly, family-focused atmosphere.
There are several stretches of beach here, ranging from busy public beaches to a nature sanctuary, so there’s a little something for everyone.
One thing to be wary of here, however, is that there are no lifeguards to watch over swimmers. Keep in mind, too, that no alcohol is allowed at these beaches, nor are pets (except at the dog park, of course.
Bonita Beach is the broader name of the beachfront on Little Hickory Island, the main barrier island that features all the access points we discussed in the parking section.
The beach off Bonita Beach Road at the southern end of Lee County is part-public, part-private. Bonita Beach Park is the Lee County public beach, while Barefoot Beach to the south is in Collier County and private.
This is by far the most popular area of Bonita Springs. The parking lot there is usually full and so is the beach, thanks to the park amenities, volleyball courts and watersports rentals. Retirees and families account for many of the beachgoers.
North of Bonita Beach park, most of the land is privately owned, so pay attention to those public beach access points.
By the time you reach Little Hickory Island Beach Park at the northern end of the island, the beach is more secluded. Hotels and condominiums surround the park on both sides, so tourists make up much of the population. It’s a quieter version of Bonita Beach Park, with its own lot, restrooms and showers.
Pelican Landing Beach Park
There is a stellar beach on the Gulf side of Big Hickory Island, the key you reach by taking 865 north from Little Hickory Island. But it’s gonna cost you.
Pelican Landing Beach Park is a 34-acre property owned by Pelican Landing, a community north of Bonita Springs in Estero. You actually can't reach the beach from the road. A bus shuttles residents to the Coconut Point Marina on Coconut Road on the mainland to take a ferry that runs across Estero Bay every half hour in winter and every hour in summer.
There’s a laundry list of rules for using the beach, which features restrooms, showers, a beach house, chairs and umbrellas, a screened picnic pavilion and two bocce courts. You need a special ID card to take the ferry, and the ID is non-transferable.
There’s a special parking lot near the marina. The Pelican Landing Community Association has the details.
Long Key Dog Beach
Keep going north on Estero Boulevard across New Pass Bridge to Long Key and you’ll see the off-leash dog beach on the left. This dog beach is unique in that there are no waves. It’s a tidal flat, which is more of a giant, shallow crystal-clear pool full of dogs.
From the free parking lot off 865, it’s a short walk through the mangroves to the beach area. You’ll know you're there when you see tons of dogs running and playing in the water, with their owners casually lounging with them.
There’s plenty of shoreline to post up a chair in the sand, and plenty of water for man and beast to swim. Once your pup is tired out for the day, there are dog showers near the parking lot to rinse off the mutt.
Lovers Key State Park
WHERE TO STAY
Much of the housing stock around here is chock full of beach homes, which you can find for rent through any of several rental services. The north end of Little Hickory Island is where you’ll find most of the condos and resorts.
This family-owned motel hosts eight suites open for booking. It’s right across from the beach on Hogue Channel, bayside. Guests have access to a dock and a sundeck that’s perfect for watching sunsets.
The hotel sits pretty far from the beach, off the Tamiami Trail on the mainland. But it’s near the bay, where kayaking and fishing make for a fun day. Low prices, memory foam mattresses and continental breakfast put it on the map.
A timeshare resort just off Big Hickory Pass, before you hit the bridge to Bay’s Island. There’s a pool, rooftop sundeck and dock space to help create a solid base camp for a lengthy stay in the region.
This highly rated fine arts festival is actually three festivals. These artist-focused shows are in January, February and March, featuring hundreds of different creators and works from all over the world. The work is for sale, too, so this can double as a shopping trip for art lovers.
THINGS TO DO
Roadside attractions for people driving through southwest Florida were a major industry in Bonita Springs. The Everglades Reptile Garden on the mainland opened in 1936 to bring looky-loos who wanted to see exotic animals. Now called the Everglades Wonder Gardens, it’s a botanical garden that is among the last such roadside attractions in the state. Alligators, flamingos, peacocks, snakes and many more animals roam the gardens, but rest assured the scarier ones are in cages.
This fruit and vegetable garden allows you to pick what you want. The cafe offers an impeccable farm-to-table meal, and the farm hosts a festival and corn maze every fall.
Visit the Corkscrew Watershed to see 13,000 acres of wetlands habitat up close. There’s a long boardwalk to explore the luscious tropical area, known for the bald cypress and wood storks. Be aware that this is a good spot to potentially spot an endangered Florida panther in the wild.
WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS
While at Little Hickory Island Beach Park, rent out a kayak or paddleboard to use during your stay. The prices are reasonable and it’s right across the road from the beach.
If you’re looking for more mangrove and shoreline kayaking action, check out this rental stand on Big Hickory Island. Seaside also offers ecotours and guided fishing.
Drive your own boat through the waterways running through Bonita Springs with a pontoon boat rental. Where and how you explore is up to you. It’s possible to cover a lot of area in just a few hours, but tying off on a dock somewhere is a good way to spend the day, too.
Located centrally at Bonita Beach Park beachside, this rental shop has endless options and is the closest you’ll get to the water. Rent out paddleboards, sailboats, parasails, kayaks, jet skis and more. They also host dolphin sightseeing tours, for those who want to get a closer look at the underwater mammal.
The small studio offers yoga, pilates and even dance classes. Times are available from morning until evening, so check the schedule ahead of time.
While there’s a boat ramp available up at Lover’s Key, you can also put in at this marina, which boasts a serious restaurant. Keep an eye out for the all you can eat fish fry after you come in from Broadway Channel.
A note to paddlers: There’s a primitive county campground on tiny Bow Tie Island in Estero Bay just east of Big Hickory Island. It’s free and available to folks who want to stay there, but there are no amenities, no water and no toilets. It’s also not available to motorboaters.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
Drive out to mainland for this high-end Italian eatery to get fresh pasta cooked daily. It’s the best traditional Italian restaurant in town. We recommend their tagliatelle.
This unassuming hole-in-the-wall puts out superior food. Walk to the back of the corner store and you’ll find a cramped kitchen with outdoor seating. This is where you’ll find the best tacos in the area. They make all of their own traditional Mexican cuisine, drawing in locals and tourists daily.
Come to this outdoor covered bar for a great happy hour. They make just about everything, at a decent price. It’s located in the Promenade at Bonita Bay, a central location to shop.
Location makes this spot worth it. It’s right at the entrance of Bonita Beach Park, right on the beach. The menu features many types cuisines, and the views at sunset and the fun atmosphere makes it a popular tourist pick.
This sophisticated French eatery and wine bar is a must-visit for wine connoisseurs. A merlot and the French onion soup are a great starting combo.
A one-stop shop and dine on the Tamiami Trail. This outdoor mall contains dozens of high-end clothing stores, restaurants, entertainment options and more. You can find the directory on their website.
This shopping plaza on Bonita Beach Road on the way to Little Hickory Island is home to several cute boutiques. There’s also a golf simulator, a salon, a few restaurants and more.
There are lots of microbreweries throughout southwest Florida, but this is the only one in Bonita Springs (at least until Ceremony Brewing opens in the future). This rather large space features vintage arcade games and rotating food trucks to go with its lengthy roster of beers, of which a core eight are always on tap.