With the Florida Keys disappearing in our rearview mirror, we were forced to acclimate to a heavy dose of civilization. After two weeks away, taking in this commercialized scenery shocked our senses. Southeast Florida is one big megalopolis. Good bye, Island Time! Hello, built-up, busy world! After a stop to stock up on provisions, we hung a left, happily leaving the hustle-bustle behind us.
There are two ways to cross the bottom of the Florida peninsula—the fast four-lane Alligator Alley—aka I-75, or the more scenic and peaceful two-lane Tamiami Trail—aka Hwy. 41. The Trail stretches 264 miles from Tampa to Miami, but the section that runs in an east-west direction along the northern boundary of Everglades National Park takes you through a world apart. Carved out of the swamp in the early 20th century with dredges, it was a monumental effort that created this sublime drive hemmed in by towering pines and cypress trees.
In the early 20th century, effort was made to build a roadway across the vast expanse of Big Cypress and the Everglades that would connect the burgeoning cities of Miami and Naples. No sooner begun than it was ended due to the advent of World War One which necessitated road-building funds be utilized elsewhere. After the war, the state of Florida asked Barron Collier, a wealthy advertising entrepreneur and pioneer developer, to help fund and complete the building of the renamed Tamiami Trail. It was a monumental engineering feat to build the roadbed, but it was finally completed in 1928.
The story behind the road’s creation is a fascinating one that chronicles a grueling ordeal. Without going into details behind its construction (which you can read more about here), suffice it to say the Bay City Walking Dredge played a big role in the project. Operated 6 days a week in sweltering, mosquito-infested heat, the monster-like dredge slowly dug its way through the swamplands. The last of its kind in existence today, the Dredge is on display in the Collier-Seminole State Park located just to the east of Naples along the Tamiami Trail. In 1994 it was designated as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
It’s not a long drive at all to the boundary of Big Cypress National Preserve where we would have a short but sweet two-night stay in a very nice forest service campground. We like decompressing here, in the natural surroundings away from Florida folderol and Midway Campground is the place to set up. Encircling a small, elongated lake, the 26 nearly identical palm tree shaded sites have both water and electricity. The one head’s-up tip to be noted is that the campground is now on the reservation system—which caught us off guard and left us high-and-dry two years ago when we were turned away. Fortunately, there is another forest service campground, Monument Lake, a short distance west of Midway that doesn’t take reservations, but will fill up by the end of most days in prime season. Having no hookups, it has an equally pleasant setting with 26 sites encircling its own lake. We pulled in there and had a wonderful experience two years ago.
Set aside in 1974, Big Cypress Preserve protects over 700,000 acres of land and its watershed is essential to the health of the adjacent Everglades. It is a large expanse of cypress forests, swamps, marshes, and open prairies dotted with stands of hardwood hammocks.
Within the preserve are a couple of scenic drives that help to immerse you into the landscape. Off to yourself, you’ll have a better opportunity to view the wading birds, alligators and other native critters. The Kirby Storter Roadside Park provides a great opportunity to walk through an impressive cypress strand without getting your feet wet. Not as popular or well-known as the Everglades, chances are you’ll have most of these opportunities to yourself—interested tourists passing through generally stop at the Visitor’s Center, take in the adjacent boardwalk and then proceed on their way.
The Preserve has a decidedly brown look to it at this time of the year. Devoid of needles or leaves, the bald cypress is a deciduous conifer, meaning that it loses its needles at some point each year. This loss of needles occurs in the winter months in Florida, making the branches appear dead from November to April. In early spring, they come alive again with new bright green needles, just in time for the summer heat and humidity.
In past years, we have seen a lot more wading birds around the Preserve than we did this time. Asking a park ranger, we were informed that the unusually heavy amounts of rainfall Florida has been receiving the past few weeks, water holes and marshes were much more prevalent across the region. Instead of congregating in the popular watering spots nearby, the birds and alligators were scattered out in a variety of places. Good for the birds, I guess, but not so much for the viewers.
Nevertheless, we were holding out hope of finding more rewarding sightings at our highly anticipated planned activity the following day. Having done the Shark Valley Bike Trail twice before, we knew what to expect—easy riding, great wildlife viewing for photo ops, and perfect weather conditions to go with it!
Along the Tamiami Trail about 35 miles west of Miami is the only northern gateway into Everglades National Park—the entrance to Shark Valley.
Heading south, the 15-mile paved loop trail cuts into the heart of the Everglades. Following alongside a canal, there’s plenty of opportunities for bird sightings. Beginning in a thick understory of vegetation, the second half of the trail opens up—a vast sawgrass prairie spreads out to the horizon. The view is deceiving . . . underneath the grass flows a shallow, freshwater river. Flowing out of Lake Okeechobee and covering an area 50 miles wide but only a few inches deep, you can easily see why this part of the Everglades is often referred to as the river of grass.
While on the trail you WILL see alligators—no doubt about it. Often alone, basking in the sunshine, other times half in/half out of the water, and occasionally bunched up together in groups. It isn’t uncommon having to steer your bike around them. Many see it as a great chance for a prime photo op. Signs warn you to not approach!
Much more benign and attractive are all the wading birds around. Shark Valley has both birds and bird photographers in great abundance. The great thing about having a bike is the opportunity to leave the sightseers behind. Soon it’ll just be you and the great Everglades’ scenery.
That day concluded our brief Big Cypress interlude. Our foray into the Everglades assured we would end on an especially high note. Now we had other places waiting, more natural habitats to take in. “Florida, the way it used to be” is a slogan we hear a lot. Once again, Chris packed up the Airstream while I went searching for my sunrise-over-the-grasslands-and-cypress-trees shot.
We continued along the Tamiami Trail, heading west towards Naples, then swinging north. We landed just south of Fort Myers in the community of Estero. It was an ideal location having many venues that appealed to us—good eating, great shopping, nearby nature and bike trails, and did a mention a huge selection of restaurants? Once again, Koreshan State Historic Park would be where we set up camp. Having stayed here on our last trip, we knew it had a lot to offer (and the cost isn’t bad either). Besides the historical aspect—ranger-guided tours are offered twice daily through the former Koreshan settlement December through March—the campground has 60 nicely spaced sites with water and electricity (make reservations far in advance). Plenty to do and see in the area, as well as being very happy with our little piece of real estate, we settled in for 5 enjoyable days.
One of the special treats to camping at Koreshan is the proximity to Sanibel Island, an unique barrier island whose fortunate location enables it to capture some of the gulf’s most beautiful treasures. This pretty island has a well-deserved reputation as one of the seven best shelling beaches on the planet. And after a storm has moved through, any Sanibel beach will provide all the proof you need.
Shelling wasn’t on our minds when we made our visit there. Bringing our bikes along, we came to explore another one of Sanibel’s assets—Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It would make for a terrific biking excursion.
This 6,300-acre nature preserve is home to over 200 species of birds, in addition to myriad reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and plants, as well as preserving marshes and mangrove forests. Named for a Pulitzer prizewinning political cartoonist, Darling was an ardent conservationist before anyone ever heard the word “ecology.” Early in the 20th century he had the foresight to use his influence to make sure that the State of Florida didn’t sell the entire island off to developers. The refuge was established by Harry Truman in 1945 and was renamed in 1967 for Darling five years after his death. This mangrove wilderness at the southern end of the Atlantic flyway is a way station for migrating birds and winter is one of the best times to be here.
The Fort Myers/Bonita Beach region is a great area in which to pass some fine winter weeks. The climate is as good as any Florida location, the fish are fresh and produce abundant, and your choices of eating places is limited only by your preferences. Time spent touring Sanibel and Captiva Islands can be the icing on your winter hiatus cake. It is a prime example of why you’ve selected Florida for your winter getaway.
Our next destination was a new location for us, recommended by fellow campers, and we continued to follow the Tamiami Trail to get there. Then we left the gulf coast of Southwest Florida behind, and headed for the dark green live oak-forested land of inland Florida. Welcome to the real tropical wilderness!
Myakka River State Park lies about 8 miles east of I-75, between Sarasota and Venice, which lands you—as we Hoosiers tend to phrase it—out in the boonies. Consisting of 37,000 acres, this is one of Florida’s largest and oldest state parks. It is isolated and all about getting back to nature. Delineated in the 1930s, the CCC left its mark on the park, building substantial shelters and small cabins (the visitors center was originally the stables), as well as constructing the main road and backcountry trails. Prominent among the picturesque features here are two lakes and the extensive marshes between them. These lakes and marshes form an elongated basin through which the Myakka River flows. Being the centerpiece of the park, the river was designated as the state’s only “Wild and Scenic River” by the legislature in 1985.
One of the bonuses of this scenic state park are the miles of roads utilized more by bikes than cars. The towering, twisted live oaks whose moss-draped branches form a natural tunnel line the pavement, enticing you to take it. Let me assure you, there’s no better beginning to
your day than an early ride along this route. Even Chris felt compelled to express a little awe.
Acres of Florida vegetation, including several varieties of pines as well as the sabal palms (Florida’s state tree), cover miles of scenic beauty. Along the biking route you’ll suddenly break from that shaded forest into the bright sunlight of an open landscape. Florida dry prairies are flat, nearly treeless plains with a dense cover of grasses and saw palmetto interspersed with sabal palms. It is a typical natural setting of central Florida that is becoming increasingly rare to find.
Something else you’ll find rather rare here or anywhere else, is the Canopy Trail, and it’s quite the experience! With good reason it’s a very popular park attraction judging by the number of cars parked nearby, so we made it part of our morning ride and had the place all to ourselves. Just the way you’d want to enjoy a nature walk.
You’d think you were heading into the deep, dark wilderness of earlier times, except for the well-trod, wide pathway you’re taking. Walking through a hammock of large oaks and cabbage palms, the trees tower high above you. Encased in the landscape, with every footstep taken you feel more separated from civilization. Cool.
Then you see it straight ahead of you . . . an apparition not part of these natural surroundings. Here??? How could it be??? How was it done? But why question the technicalities—just accept and appreciate it for what it is. And then, go up and enjoy it! Literally, GO UP!
Modeled after towers used for rain forest research in South America, the Myakka Canopy Tower, built it 2000, stands 74 feet high. Used by scientists as well as the park visitors, it offers panoramic views of the treetops, wetlands, and the serpentine course of the Myakka River. It is a unique 360-degree perspective to experience. And one we were fortunate to have to ourselves.
Added to that, there’s a suspension bridge attached to the canopy tower, which is a whole different perspective to experience. Extending 85 feet to a second tower, you can walk through the treetops and know what it’s like to be a bird . . . or a monkey swinging through the Amazon forest! You are nose-to-nose with bromeliads and ferns growing on the trees. Super cool!
There’s another kind of boardwalk waiting up the road a few more miles. Stretching out over the lowlands and marshes, the birdwalk provides a totally different kind of scenery. From the end of its 400-foot length, a covered observation deck gives you the perfect place to be a part of another facet of this natural area. In all directions you look over the wetlands filled with wading birds and more than a few Florida alligators.
And early morning when sunlight casts its first golden glow over the water is the time to be out there.
It’ll just be you in the cool crisp morning air as hungry birds begin to make their appearance.
Myakka is the winter haven for hundreds of bird species, as well as a year-round resident population.
Yes, nature is the main attraction here at Myakka . . . but don’t expect cell phone coverage!
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built five palm log cabins along the Myakka River. Lovingly preserved and kept up, they welcome guests with exposed beams and stone fireplaces. If anything, these cabins are too nice, having full kitchens and air-conditioning.
There are three separately located campgrounds within the park, providing 48 sites. Big Flats and Old Prairie are the older ones, more rustic and tucked away in groves of trees. But they do have both power and water. Palmetto Ridge opened in the 2011-2012 season, has 42 more spacious sites with sewer hookups as well.
Despite being cut-off from the ‘outside’, our five days here offered everything we like. Away from the congestion of coastal towns and choked up interstates, we certainly felt “a world apart.” If you can relate and perhaps even seek out these natural places, then this place might be calling to you. And these photos might just seal the deal.
And when the sun drops low on the horizon, then you’ll know why it’s called the “magic hour”.
Leaving nature behind, we were headed back out into the “other” Florida. We braced ourselves.
Melinda and Chris