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August, 2006


by Valerie

One of my favorite travel destinations is the Everglades (the heart of which is Everglades National Park). I've canoed in the mangroves, camped amid hoards of hungry mosquitoes and flies, and hiked on numerous trails during visits that began in 1961, with the most recent being in 2005. In spite of all the aspects that make the River of Grass inhospitable, it is still a fascinating place at any time of year.

Val with newly planted palms in Flamingo, 1961
Although the Everglades covers a huge area of Florida, there are only a few places where people can actually easily glimpse the wilderness. In the far northwest corner, Collier-Seminole State Park offers trails and a boat ramp. Along the northern part, 50 miles of the Tamiami Trail cuts through the swamp, with several places for public access. The most popular part of the 'Glades, though, is the road down to Flamingo.

Wildlife tops the list of attractions. Alligators, deer, birds, snakes, fish, and small mammals are surprisingly approachable from the few boardwalks and short trails off the paved roads. For those taking a closer look, the plants and invertebrate fauna can be equally interesting.

Beyond the details, the vistas in the Everglades are unlike anyplace else in the U.S. Dwarf cypress forest, sawgrass prairie, open lakes and ponds, mangroves, and hardwood hammocks offer landscapes that are both exotic and intriguing. The skies over the area seem to always have rapidly changing clouds that produce an endless variety of lighting conditions.

nonchalant young alligator

Here are some of my favorite places, all easily reached by car off the main roads:

1. Big Cypress Bend in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. This is a short trail and boardwalk in the extreme northwest part of the Everglades, just off Highway 41 (the Tamiami Trail). Each visit has offered close-up views of otter, wading birds, hawks, fish, and baby alligators. The trail ends at a small pond teeming with activity. There are rarely very many people at this park.

2. Kirby Storter Roadside Park, in the Big Cypress National Preserve. A lengthy boardwalk winds through low cypress and grass swamp, past gardens of epiphytes, or air plants, and on to more mature cypress swamp. It's a great place to see alligators, birds, and snakes.

caterpillar of the Faithful Beauty moth
3. Shark Valley in the Everglades. This is the only major destination in the northern end of the national park, and features a 14.5 mile paved hairpin-shaped bike trail, with a lookout tower at the far end. Because the landscape is totally flat, biking is easy and the slightly elevated road offers good views. Birds, including the endangered Everglades kite, are often abundant, and there is no dearth of alligators. A short trail near the observation tower allows very close views of snakes (often on the path), birds fishing, and alligators (also often on the path).

4. Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm. The first of several boardwalks/trails along the road down to Flamingo, the Anhinga Trail is extremely popular and also includes an interpretive center. From the parking lot, which frequently hosts crows raiding convertibles with the tops down and motorcycle storage compartments, to the alligators basking below roosts of myriad water birds along the end of the boardwalk, there is enough activity to keep anyone entertained for hours. Although photographers and birdwatchers might gather in large numbers, the boardwalks are long enough that there is room for everyone and the only problem is how to see all that is going on at any given time. One other challenge is pulling oneself away in order to move on to other points within the park.

anhinga drying its wings

5. The Pa-hay-okee Overlook. Although this short boardwalk doesn't often have the dense populations of wildlife found at other locations, the views from the elevated tower at the end are worth the short hike.

6. Mahogany Hammock. One of the few boardwalks into thick woods, this trail offers a shady view of palmettos and hardwood trees. Lizards, snakes, and birds are usually seen, including owls and other deep forest dwellers.

There are many more vantage points along the main roads, and just about any parking place will offer opportunities to see wildlife and enchanting vistas. The visitor centers at the park entrance and Flamingo provide more information, and there is much more to do than can be accomplished in a day or two. The Everglades is certainly a destination worthy of repeat trips.

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