March 13 – 18 & April 17 -19, 2021.
“But it all looks like — this.” It was both a question and a judgment. The woman who voiced it had just listened to a Park Ranger describe some of the things to see and do in the northwest Everglades.
We were waiting behind her with our own questions about kayaking in the 10,000 Islands. The ranger was very diplomatic. She smiled and said, “I guess we just look at things differently”.
I could relate to both perspectives. I grew up in southern Florida. At the time, it was less than a two-hour drive to the Everglades. We did at least one family trip there, but I never went back exploring.
To me, Florida was flat, hot, humid, and boring. (Except for the beach, of course.) The Everglades was a superior example of all of those qualities.
But Duwan hadn’t been there, so she should have a chance to see it. And, we’ve read that the birds like the glades. In fact, it’s the only place in the US to spot some species.
So we went. It was a blast. And I learned, once again, that if you’re bored in this world, you’re just not paying enough attention to what’s going on around you.
* All pictures are click to enlarge. Once enlarged they can be viewed in a slideshow. Hover over the pictures in tiled mosaics for captions.
Shark Valley Visitor Center
We didn’t have a plan before we set out for the Everglades National Park so we did what we usually do in National Parks – head for a visitor center for more info. Traveling south to the park, the closest visitor center appeared to be Shark Valley on the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41 which stretches across the state from Miami to Tampa). It was a Saturday. We usually try not to start adventures on the weekend to avoid crowds. So we weren’t too surprised that we found a crowd when we arrived. What was surprising, though, was that they didn’t have enough parking to accommodate this crowd and were only letting cars through the gate one at a time as parking spots opened up. A line of autos stretched back toward Tamiami.
But the Everglades is rich with details everywhere you look. Outside the van, a canal ran along the road leading into the park and it was full of wildlife. An alligator, an egret, herons, crows. I started taking lots of pictures out my window as we inched forward. I was having so much fun, it was a bit of a disappointment when we finally got through the gate.
Once parked at the visitor center we learned that Shark Valley features a 15-mile paved trail with a huge observation tower at the end of it. You can buy tickets for a two-hour tram tour to the tower. You can also rent, bring your own bikes, or walk the paved trail as well as a few shorter trails.
We stopped at this visitor center twice. After our initial trip to the Everglades in March, we made an impromptu return trip in April. On our first visit, we just picked up brochures and moved on since it was Saturday and due to our lack of planning we needed to secure a camping spot. On our second visit, I wanted to see what we missed previously. More lack of planning brought us here again on a Saturday. Despite once again breaking our rule not to arrive at new places on weekends we felt the sweltering Florida temperatures of spring would probably keep the crowds at bay. We were wrong. When we got to Shark Valley that morning we found another line of cars backed up to the highway a half hour before the park even opened.
But once again it was fun waiting in line. People jumped out of their vehicles and scrambled to a ditch to watch an alligator swim by.
On this visit, we walked two short trails – the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail and the Otter Cave Hammock Trail. We saw neither bobcats nor otters on either trail or any other wildlife. The main, Shark Valley Loop Trail was abundant with wildlife, though. We just walked a mile or two of it but it was an amazing and lovely introduction to the park – worth waiting in line.
Long Pine Key
We were relieved to find several empty campsites at Long Pine Key when we arrived on that first Saturday afternoon in March. Of the two campgrounds in the park and Long Pine is definitely the prettiest. Lots of tall pines surround each campsite. There is a nice lake to walk around or to just hang out by on a lazy afternoon. The campground hosts ranger programs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night (they might not run these in the off-season) at an amphitheater adjacent to the camping area. There are hiking trails leading out of the camping area. But one of the best things was the wood storks we saw many mornings hanging out in the trees at the turn-off from the park’s main road leading to the campground.
On day two of our Everglades adventure, we did what we usually do in a new park, a recon of the area. We drove from our campsite at Long Pine down the Flamingo Lodge Highway, a 47-mile road that runs from one end of the park to another, to the Flamingo Campground at the end of the road. Along the way, we stopped at most of the easily accessible small boardwalks and short hiking trails. Right before the Flamingo Campground, we stopped at the Flamingo Visitor Center – just a small trailer for the time being. The real visitor center had been destroyed in a hurricane and they were currently in the process of rebuilding this big facility. At the trailer, we got info about hiking and kayaking in that part of the park. After that, we checked out the Flamingo campground and decided to camp there for a few days.
Pinelands was our first stop on our recon. This 1/2 mile trail featured a subtropical pine forest. This is also where we first realized that we needed to be diligent about applying the bug spray. Lots of bug spray. This is also when we realized that we didn’t bring enough bug spray with us and would have to shell out a few extra dollars to buy an overpriced can at the store at the Flamingo Marina.
This is just a little tiny boardwalk leading from the main road. It isn’t even on the park brochure map. A nice stop considering we saw a fun lizard, a Peter’s Rock Agama. These colorful lizards aren’t native to Florida. They were introduced from western Africa in 1976.
Pa-hay-okee is a Seminole Indian phrase meaning “grassy waters.” A quarter-mile boardwalk loop takes you to a view of the saw grass prairie and the Shark River Slough.
Mahogany Hammock is a 1/2 mile boardwalk loop into a subtropical tree island with massive mahogany trees. We visited this hammock a few times. Our first visit in the morning netted us lots of wildlife observations. Our second visit was in the afternoon and everyone seemed to be asleep. We would find out that timing was often key to enjoying the trails and walks in various parts of the park.
Nearly at the end of the Flamingo Lodge Highway, we found the Flamingo Visitor Center trailer and the Flamingo Marina. At the marina, you can pay for boat tours into Florida Bay at the very bottom of the state, rent kayaks and canoes, stock up on gifts and snacks at the marina store. You can also see lots of wildlife including manatees that come into the marina to feed on aquatic plants growing on the sides of the marina’s seawalls.
Nine Mile Pond
On day two we went on our first kayak trip. A kayak trail marked with numbered white poles makes a loop through Nine Mile Pond. The trail is five miles with a shortcut that turns it into three miles. Since we had previously paddled five miles with relative ease we decided to take the long way. After we spent three hours traversing the first 2 1/2 miles of the loop we realized that perhaps five miles was a bit much for the poky pace we have adopted since becoming birders. We sped up for our return trip only to find ourselves paddling through a thick expanse of periphyton – a soft spongy mat of algae. It was like paddling through a sea of goop.
Despite the difficulty of our return trip – the paddle was beautiful. We went through mangrove tunnels, traversed tight spaces, pulled ourselves through reeds, heard the loud grumbling of crocodiles as we paddle past trying not to get too close, and took a few pictures of birds.
After two nights at Long Pine campground, we switched to Flamingo. The Flamingo Campground was closer to many of the things we wanted to do and being close to Florida Bay we got a better breeze.
The campground has two big loop sites, one for RVs with a limited number of electric hookups and one for tents. There is also a walk-in tent camping area right on the Florida Bay and Eco tents with beds, dressers, floor fans, and electricity available for rent.
Eco Pond was one of our favorite stops in the park and we visited here often. Located right off the main road not far from the campground at Flamingo, it was convenient to stop every morning as we headed out exploring. The pond trail is a short half-mile loop with a deck overlooking the pond in the middle. We saw different birds almost every time we visited.
One of our favorite birds to watch was the Reddish Egret.
The Reddish Egret doesn’t hunt for fish by standing and staring into the water as many wading birds do. It dances. It seems to start the day with a moment of reflection, gazing over the still pond water. Then it begins a gangly, yet graceful dance. It runs or leaps from one spot to the next, wings going in all directions. Occasionally it will hold a wing out, shading the water, and giving fish something to “hide” under. It pounces just when they feel safe.
I hope you enjoyed Part I of our Everglades blog. I really loved this park and took about a million pictures so there is more to come! Please let me know if you enjoyed the post in the comments section below. If you have been to the Everglades, do you have a favorite hike, kayak, overlook, animal? Do you have any questions about the Everglades or any of my wildlife pictures, hopefully, Greg or I can answer them.
It is quite possible that I will be sharing this post on any one of these sites this week: My Corner of the World, Travel Tuesday, Wild Bird Wednesday, Through My Lens, and Sharon’s Souvenirs. Check out these links to see what other people are doing all over the world!