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America’s Everglades

One of the Everglades’ famous alligators

While on a short hop to Miami, Florida, in the southeastern United States, we decided to spend a day at Everglades National Park. The South Florida peninsula is naturally a wetland, and water once freely flowed from Lake Okeechobee south to the Florida Bay. Manmade activities and development, both well-intentioned and otherwise, have permanently altered this flow of water, thus forever altering the Florida landscape. The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought much development to the region, with wetlands being dredged to make farmland as well as room for real estate development. The abundance of birds supplied trim for fashionable women’s hats at the turn of the century, as ladies adorned hats with feathers and even whole stuffed birds, so much so that their numbers were plucked to near extinction. Everglades National Park was established in 1947 thanks to the efforts of conservationists such as Ernest F. Coe and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and many more. To these protectors of Florida’s natural lands, we are thankful for their efforts. America’s Everglades is truly a unique and remarkable place.

Pine forest in the distance.

As mentioned, this trip to Florida was a short one, and there was no better way to spend our limited time than at Everglades. With it being the off-season, the park was relatively quiet, making it a good place for socially distancing. Getting to the park from where we were staying in South Miami was a quick 30 minute drive on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike and State Route 9336. We noticed the change in scenery as we exited the turnpike in Florida City. The landscape became more rural, with more farmland, and at the same time, more tropical and more rugged. As we entered the park via SR 9336, we stopped in the lot of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. The center is located outside of the vehicle admission kiosk. Here would normally be where you could pick up your junior ranger books before entering the park; unfortunately while all areas of the park have resumed operations since the Covid19 closures, all four visitor centers are still currently closed. So after deciding what our top activities would be for the day, we drove on to the Royal Palm Visitor Center, where you can hike both the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails.

The Anhinga Trail was what I had always imagined the Everglades to be. The trail consisted of a wooden boardwalk meandering over the watery Taylor Slough. The Taylor Slough is a shallow wetland that provides drainage for freshwater to the Florida Bay. Here we saw a diverse aquatic ecosystem at work. The surface of the slough was covered by bright green water lilies, with cypress trees forming islands in the water. These gave cover to some of the animals we were able to spot, including an alligator hiding among the cypress roots. We also saw an abundance of fish swimming in the water, and the trail was littered with swarms of lubber grasshoppers, one of the world’s largest species of grasshopper. As we completed the Anhinga Trail and walked back to hit the short Gumbo Limbo loop trail, Emily spotted something large and round. As we got closer, we were surprised to find that it was a large alligator slinking back into the water after sunning itself. Even with a few people watching his movements, he was unbothered by our presence, and paid no mind to us. We kept a safe distance and enjoyed the sight of nature at work, taking only photos.

After he swam away, we hiked the short Gumbo Limbo Trail, named after the gumbo limbo tree. It is also called a “tourist tree” as it is characterized by red bark that flakes off like a tourist’s sunburn. I don’t know who thought that would be a good nickname for a tree, but I guess that’s one that stuck like aloe vera to a summer top. These trees are native to southern Florida, and thrive in its subtropical environment. Along the trail we saw the gumbo limbos, more lubber grasshoppers, and other low-growing plants such as ferns, palms, and wildflowers. The trail was a bit overgrown by the low growing plants, and there were some mosquitoes, so it wasn’t as pleasant as I had hoped. Still it was a nice example of a tropical hammock, and the blooming flowers were lovely to see.

Gumbo Limbo canopy

After exploring around the Anhinga Trail a bit longer, we hopped back into the car and followed the main road south to Flamingo. It was about 38 miles, and took us about 45 minutes to get down there. There are a number of signs, trailheads and picnic areas on the way to Flamingo. We didn’t make any side trips on this visit, but for someone who has more time, I’d absolutely recommend pulling off to view the Pinelands or Mahogany Hammock trails. The Pinelands especially are so different from the wetlands. Just three feet in elevation makes a world of difference to the biodiversity of the area. Here slash pines rise above the forest floor, which is dominated by saw palmetto and sabal palm trees, which are Florida’s state tree. We made a couple stops to peek and read signage, but otherwise drove onto Flamingo.

When we arrived at the Flamingo Visitor Center, we walked in search of some wi-fi. This proved to be a mistake, for though there was service at the closed makeshift visitor center (the new visitor center is supposed to be completed next year), there we found many of Florida’s infamous mosquitoes. These guys were especially vicious, and bit through our even DEET-covered selves. Still we were wanting to see more wildlife, and as Emily had read that canoeing was the best way to see Flamingo’s estuary, where the overland flow of freshwater meets saline Florida Bay, along with all the wildlife living in that environment, we had to rent a canoe.

Well, that idea was a bit of a bust at first. We quickly discovered that while in the past we had both gone canoeing in larger groups, it was much harder to control a canoe with just two people who admittedly have zero upper body strength. So after watching us struggle to leave the dock, and possibly laughing with us as we laughed at ourselves, the guy brought us a kayak, which proved to be much easier to handle. We had a great time exploring the estuarine environment while floating on the water and working together to paddle the kayak. After about 45 minutes or so, we decided to turn back, giving up on the hope of finding crocodiles or manatees. As we floated under the bridge and toward the dock, I spotted a floating snout. We had indeed spotted a small crocodile at the surface of the water within about three feet of us. In my excitement, I ceased rowing, and we quickly headed straight into a mangrove tree. At that point the guy who had helped us with our kayak pointed out the much larger crocodile, one that was at least a six-footer, that we possibly almost ran into. It was a sight to behold, as it glided gracefully through the water and sank from view. We didn’t get to see any manatees, but we did see a nice grouping of bright blue needlefish back at the dock, as well as a number of birds.

Kayaking was a fantastic way to see the estuary, and get a good arm workout.

Our visit to Everglades National Park was a trip to remember. With such great biodiversity in truly unique ecosystems, its no wonder that large-scale and expensive efforts are underway to protect Florida’s wetlands. I truly hope that these will be successful, and that America’s Everglades will be lush, green, and healthy for many generations to treasure and enjoy.

Some things to consider:

All park visitor centers are closed at time of writing. Restrooms are fortunately open, and if you need assistance, you can contact park rangers via text, phone call, or Facebook. There is cell service through many areas of the park, however, our signal dropped about 20 miles from Flamingo, where there is no cell signal.

The entry fee for vehicles is $30, with the receipt being good for seven days. I recommend the America the Beautiful pass if you plan on visiting other National Park Service sites. If you’re in South Florida and you have the time, Biscayne National Park is only about 30 minutes from South Miami. Big Cypress National Preserve is also in South Florida. My new annual pass actually came in the mail the day I left for Florida, but the ranger at the entry kiosk allowed me to show my receipt with the new date.

The mosquitoes at the Everglades are infamously vicious. We learned this the hard way. Even covered in DEET and mosquito repellent balm we were eaten alive. The biting insects weren’t too bad around the Royal Palm Visitor Center, but they were there. When we got to Flamingo, however, they were relentless especially around the grassy areas. Our tube of hydrocortisone and Benadryl spray did little to help the itch. Fortunately the Flamingo Market was open and sold cups of ice. We used the ice to slow the inflammation and numb the itch. As I mentioned DEET did little to protect us. I would recommend long pants and sleeves, as well as repellant, even in the Florida summer heat.

Sun protection and plenty of trail snacks and water are a must. You can purchase food, water, fishing gear, bug repellent, and basic first aid items at the Flamingo Market, but all visitor centers are closed at time of writing due to Covid19.

While at Flamingo, you can rent canoes, kayaks, eco-tents, small watercraft, and even houseboats from Flamingo Adventures. They are an NPS authorized concessioner. For the canoes and kayaks, there are two hour, half day, and full day rentals. We were short on time, so we did the two hour rental, but a half day would give more time to head up the canal and to Coot Bay. We also saw people canoeing in the Florida Bay. For more information visit Flamingo Adventures. You can book your adventure online. We didn’t need a reservation for this trek. Then again, between the Covid19 travel slowdown and Florida’s hot and humid off-season, the park wasn’t particularly busy. Though I did notice that the largest numbers of people we saw were at Flamingo, and many were doing some type of watersport.

Five fun facts about alligators versus crocodiles:

On this vacation, Emily and I were lucky enough to see two alligators and two crocodiles. While these large reptiles often get confused, there are some important differences between the two groups. And no, as the husband once pointed out, it’s not that you see an alligator later and a crocodile after a while (insert eyeroll).

  1. While alligators and crocodiles are both taxonomically ordered crocodillians, crocodiles and alligators belong to different taxonomic families.
  2. Alligators live in freshwater environments, while American crocodiles live in estuaries with higher salinities.
  3. Alligators tend to be darker in color and have broad snouts. Crocodiles are lighter, and have more pointed snouts.
  4. Alligators do not have the same salt-secreting glands that crocodiles do. This is why they tend to stay in freshwater environs.
  5. Alligator teeth are hidden when their snouts are closed, whereas in crocodiles, the fourth tooth in their lower jaws can be seen. While we were close to crocodiles in the water, I did not stop to take a look at their teeth!

Contrary to what the movies would tell us, alligators and crocodiles do not hunt humans. We are not a part of their natural diets; if anything we eat them. For those with daring culinary sensibilities, you can get alligator at several restaurants in Florida. American crocodiles are typically shy and non-aggressive, and will tend to hide in the vegetation in their habitat. Alligators, even the large and more aggressive American alligators are usually afraid of humans, and tend not to go after us unless provoked. That said, they are predators and can be dangerous. We stayed a respectful distance from them, and watched amazed as they swam in their respective natural environments. After all, if we allow them to have a good day, they’ll more than likely allow us to have a good day. Happy trails!

Chris the Puppy had a great time visiting the Everglades.

For source information, as well as planning your visit, check out:
nps.gov/ever
Historical source info:
https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/historyculture/index.htm
Alligators and crocodile species profiles:
https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/crocodile.htm
https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/alligator.htm

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