Everglades National Park
After six days in the keys we packed up and headed back up the Overseas Highway into Florida City and Homestead. We were surprised at the amount of agriculture in this area just west of Miami. Endless fields of green with lots of irrigation going on.
After a trip to the grocery store for supplies (no provisions once inside the park), we headed into the Everglades, a few miles away.
Everglades National Park was established in 1947 and is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, following behind Death Valley in California and Yellowstone in Wyoming and Montana. 1.3 million acres. Though there is little in terms of developed roads through the park, more than one million visitors each year come for a visit. During the summer, the rainy season, most of the park, including the vast sawgrass prairie, is under water. Barely recognizable as a river, this fresh water covers an area 50 miles wide, but only a few inches deep, and flows south from Lake Okeechobee, a 100 miles into Florida Bay, on the southern tip of Florida. Developers have been diverting much of the water, covering too much of the land with subdivisions and shopping malls, but to early explorers, these vast, water-covered “glades” seemed to stretch far over the horizon, going on forever. Hence “everglades” seemed to be the appropriate word.
In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass, a work that would come to greatly influence the public perception of this often misunderstood region. The designation of this area as a national park was the first attempt to protect an area’s unique biology on such a large scale. Today the Everglades comprises a vast wetland wilderness unlike any other in the world.
More than 1,000 plant species can be found in the park. The sawgrass that makes up most of the prairies in the Everglades is one of the oldest green plants in the world. The roots of the plant are adaptable, allowing it to survive during wet and dry seasons. The park’s ecosystem is distressed because of several non-native plant species, including the Brazilian pepper and seaside mahoe.
Having two campgrounds within the park, we pulled into the campground nearest the park entrance, Lone Pine, which didn’t take reservations. It was late afternoon by the time we had set up. We had a nice spot with the sites spread nicely apart. We had our privacy—quite different from Key West, where we were packed in.
The next morning we went to the Royal Palm trailhead. Arriving at the parking lot, we were surprised to find the three or four cars already there had been covered with tarps. Okay, we had a couple of tarps with us, so I draped them over our truck and bikes. We quickly discovered the reason for the tarps. There were a flock of black vultures in the area. They would hop onto the cars and begin pecking away on the tarps, attempting to get at any rubber on the vehicles. The park service provided tarps and bungee cords for the visitors to cover their cars. There was a sign explaining that the vultures were migrating through, and being a protected species no effort was made to disrupt them. Even with the tarps, the vultures would pick at a wrinkle until they got a hole made. I decided to guard our truck while Melinda checked out the trail.
After a while the vultures moved on and I was able to head around the pond and onto a long boardwalk crossing through the marshes. It was our first exposure to the everglades wildlife, in particular a funny bird, the Anhinga. It dives into the water for fish, and then must climb up on a branch, spreading its wings towards the sun in order to dry out the feathers. Until they dry out, they aren’t able to fly. In the coming days we would frequently see them dispersed in the bushes, with the very distinguishing pattern on their wings.
We saw our first big gators. They sure look vicious. Contrary to rumor, they cannot run 30 mph. Just stand back a ways, because they do have some momentum.
We toured an old Nike missile site located within the park. It was one of 4 in lower Florida built around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each site had a huge radar facility and three batteries of 6 missiles each for a total of 18 missiles. Some of them were nuclear tipped. Scary stuff for those of us old enough to remember the crisis. We had an excellent ranger that was very interested in the history of that time and gave a great tour. We learned that he worked 6 months at Everglades, and the other 6 were spent in Yellowstone.
The next morning Melinda returned to Royal Palm to take photos. The early morning brings out more bird activity (and less people). Chris rode over and back on his bike.
The next day we packed up and drove further into the park to our next campsite. We made several scenic stops along the way, taking in the diversity of habitats that make up the Everglades. Along the way we went over the highest elevation in the park. Quite the contrast to the passes we’re used to out West.
Located near the shores of Florida Bay, Flamingo Campground provided us with an even nicer site, having both water and electrical hookups. We eventually realized that the campground wouldn’t get much use during the hotter parts of the year without A/C, hence the electrical hookups (rare for campgrounds in national parks).
Flamingo is at the southern-most part of the Florida mainland. When Henry Flagler was trying to decide whether to build his railroad out to Key West he considered going to Flamingo instead. He sent out a survey party and it took them an entire month just to hack their way through the mangroves and sawgrass prairies in waist deep water. Consequently, Flagler gave up that idea and went ahead with his Key West plans.
If one isn’t kayaking or canoeing, there isn’t much to do in the Flamingo area. True to form, Melinda found the character of the area by catching some early morning pictures looking out over Florida Bay.
We rode our bikes around as much as possible, went on some hikes to watch the wildlife (if you’re a birder this is your kind of place) and went canoeing one afternoon in the bay. The weather for the trip has been great, sunny and warm (but not too hot).
After four nights in the Everglades we headed back up the road to the entrance and then north towards the Big Cypress National Preserve where we will spend the next three nights.
From the sawgrass prairies,
Chris and Melinda