Leaving the Florida Keys, the highway passes the turnoff to Everglades National Park–you can’t miss it–but we chose to. As great as our experience was last winter when we spent a week there, we were passing it by on this trip. We were headed west, over to the Gulf Coast, with some new places to check out. Our route would cut through the Everglades watershed, and we hooked up with the Tamiami Trail just north of Homestead, Florida. Ever heard of the town? It is one of the largest agricultural areas in the state, if not the entire country. We drove by mile after mile of plowed and planted fields, irrigation being done by pump trucks–something new to us. The crops consist of a wide variety of vegetables, strawberries and tomatoes being the predominant ones.
Even though we were bypassing Everglades National Park, we would still be having an Everglades Experience. The Tamiami Trail, a.k.a. Highway 41, cuts right through the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve, which lies just to the north of the Everglades. Set aside in 1974, the Preserve helps to ensure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the Everglades, which was a major consideration for its establishment. The Preserve has a lot to offer in its own right and even though we had stopped here last year, we decided to make it another stop this year also.
Two NPS campgrounds are located along the highway, within the Big Cypress boundaries. The one with hookups, Midway, was filled, and so we proceeded down the road a few miles to the more primitive (no hookups, no water, no dump station) one, Monument Lake, and pulled in. A few sites were still available here in the early afternoon . . . we chose a very nice one with a great view looking over the water. Several more RVs would pull in during the remainder of the day, and by nightfall most of the 26 sites were taken.
The Big Cypress Preserve is all about nature . . . the flora and fauna of the Everglades environment. The freshwaters of this Cypress Swamp are essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades and support the rich marine estuaries of nearly 730,000 acres. The preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife and waterfowl. Unfortunately, the stands of cypress trees, for which the preserve is named, looked like ghost forests this time of the year. The bald cypress is a deciduous conifer, and they lose their needles from November to April. Fortunately, the varieties of palms and swamp oak trees help to fill in the landscape and offer a contrast to the swamps and sawgrass prairie.
We made plans for tomorrow’s activities, which included an early start. We ended our first night around a campfire as the sounds of the surrounding wilderness increased. Birds were nesting and night critters were prowling and we were in the midst of it all. The sun went down in a clear sky, an indication it would be a cool night. The fire added warmth . . . the dinner soup tasted good . . . this was our kind of camping experience.
Shark Valley is part of the Everglades National Park and is the only entrance to the park from the Tamiami Trail. Named for the Shark River that flows through the park, it is an area of slow-moving sheets of water interspersed with large tree islands. It is a magnet for a wide variety of wading birds, alligators and other small predators. It is also a big draw for birders and photographers, as well as the interested tourists.
Biking the paved 15-mile-long trail that loops through the area is the best way to get the full effect of the landscape. Besides offering prime views and spontaneous photo ops, it is the ideal way to escape from the people. Just a couple miles down the trail and we had the place to ourselves . . . just us and the occasional ‘gator.
The morning was a wonderful experience. Not being “birders” by any particular interest, still we were fascinated by the variety of water birds encountered along the way. Obviously inured to people, our presence didn’t seem to disturb them. We enjoyed seeing them in their own environment, carrying on with their regular routine.
The Anhinga is an interesting bird. Also known as the Snake Bird for its habit of swimming with just its long head and neck sticking out of the water. Unlike other water birds, its feathers are not oily and consequently not waterproof. Its feathers become waterlogged as it swims, making it barely buoyant. However, this allows the anhinga to dive easily as it searches for underwater prey. Having accomplished its mission, it is common to see them drying their feathers out in the sun; wings spread wide, as well as tail feathers fanned out.
Halfway through the ride we came to the Observation Tower. Standing 45 feet high, it provides a prime platform for surveying the Everglades’ landscape. It’s easy to see from this vantage point how this land became known as The Sea of Grass.
We had a nice interlude from biking, as well as an opportunity to see those ubiquitous alligators. Near the bike parking area was an obviously prime sunning spot for them. Seemingly oblivious to people, we could see how it would be tempting to approach them close up. Later we were to inquire from a park ranger if there had ever been any incidents resulting with injurious consequences. Interestingly, he told us that there was really only one reported alligator attack on a person, and ironically it was totally unprovoked. Fortunately, no death resulted, and we didn’t go into specific injuries.
We took a lunch break back at camp, enjoying the sunshine on this warm winter day. Then, come mid-afternoon, we headed back to that same Shark Valley. A tram tour takes the more sedentary sight-seer through the Shark Valley terrain. We had heard from various sources that this ranger-led tour was most informative and interesting in its own right. What better way to enjoy the late afternoon light in the Everglades while picking up some educational facts?
With 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, and it is the largest wilderness area (1.2 million acres) east of the Rockies. The area that encompasses the Everglade system once spanned 10 million acres, but in the last 100 years 70% of that expanse has been lost to development. Perhaps you have read or heard that the Everglades are drying out, due to human infringements and construction. Fortunately, those effects are slowly being reversed and perhaps this unique environment will still be around for future generations to enjoy.
Throughout the Everglades large tree islands, called “tropical hardwood hammocks,” dot the open prairie. These hammocks grow on limestone ridges rising a few feet above the seasonally wet sawgrass prairie. These “hills” provide a flood-free area that can support a multitude of tropical and temperate trees, as well as serving as a dry refuge for deer, bobcat, and other mammals.
Riding the tram gave us the chance to see the broader picture of this land. Instead of small vignettes, we were afforded views that stretched farther, illustrating how life progresses out here.
With the sun dropping low and the landscape taking on a bronze tinge, the birds were heading in to their nightly nesting spots. It was a perfect ending to a very rewarding day (maybe for them too).
Melinda rose early the following morning, hoping to catch a sunrise over the Everglades landscape. Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled in and the sky was completely overcast. Driving down the highway in search of a scene, her efforts were rewarded. The watering hole she came across was obviously a popular hangout. The photo really sums up what this place is all about.
We pulled out a few hours later, leaving this pristine landscape behind, moving on west to other locations . . . different in nature, hopefully equally enriching.
From the Big Cypress Preserve . . . a great place to be,
Airstream Travelers, Chris and Melinda