The Everglades is huge. I mean, I knew that from looking at the maps (1.5 million acres), but it didn’t really sink in until I drove to the park entrance and the ranger said, “Welcome to the Everglades. Your campground is straight ahead on this road forty miles down.” Ten minutes later, my cell phone coverage went out, and didn’t return until two days later when I left. So it’s huge, it’s remote, and in a world that feels mostly tamed, it’s definitely still wild. It’s also incredibly beautiful.
I stayed at the far end of the park at the Flamingo Campground, which is quite spacious by campground standards, especially in the trailer loop. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes that serves as the official welcoming committee for this part of the park. They are brutal and I quickly became a bit of a celebrity when I put on my head covering mosquito net that was purchased for $2.45 at the visitor’s center and had rapidly become my most prized possession. I probably could have sold those for $5 out of my backpack all day long (hmmm…..). I arrived late and tucked in for the night, somehow managing to sleep through a massive lightning storm that was the talk of the campground in the morning. The storm also brought in a cold front that lowered the temperature down into the 70’s (lower at night) for the remainder of my visit. Dry, cool weather is not the norm in the Everglades, so I got very lucky!
I greeted the lovely, cool morning with my body fully protected against the tiny biting tormentors, hopped on my bike and set out to explore the area around the Flamingo campground. Within about three minutes, I was treated to a beautiful sunrise, and a fantastic peek at an Osprey nest, with two juvenile birds in residence. I had never seen these birds of prey before, and they’re quite impressive with a perpetual look of disapproval on their face. I was both in awe and amused at the same time.
I headed over to the nearby Eco Pond next, because I had read it was a good spot for bird watching. I didn’t have much luck with the birds, but the air was quite heavy with a scent suggesting “Eco Pond” meant “sewage percolating center” (this has to happen somewhere, and it made sense that was next to the campgrounds). I thought about walking the path around the pond to see if I could find any wildlife, but then stopped to consider if I really wanted to surprise any Everglades wildlife with my presence that early in the day, alone. Nope.
After my morning bike ride, I headed over to the marina where visitors have the option to rent a kayak or canoe and head up the Wilderness Waterway to explore at their own pace. There was also this lovely crocodile (I named him Smog) in the same water I would be expected to plop my kayak into, so I decided that forging out on my own was not my best option.
Instead, I bought a ticket for the inland boat tour. The tour makes its way up the waterway into Whitewater Bay and on to Oyster Bay. The boat captain did a great job of pointing out the various types of mangrove trees (white, red, black) and stopped to show us a really interesting tree with fruit that is called the Manzanilla de la muerte (apple of death), also known as Hippomane mancinella . The leaves of this tree are so toxic that brushing up against it will result in severe burns. It produces a small apple that tastes sweet when eaten, but then the fruit will burn through your esophagus on the way down your throat and kill you. After that, I was feeling super smart about staying off the strange path that morning, and made a mental note not to touch anything until I’m out of Florida. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife on the tour, but it was a nice way to see the vegetation. After the boat ride, I headed up to Paurotis Pond (more birds), then up to the Pa-Hay-okee Overlook, where I was able to get a really good look at the Freshwater Marl Prairie. This was a really great place to stop and get a sense for the “River of Grass”. The Everglades is one of only three wetlands in the world deemed of international importance and looking out across the wet prairie, you can start to get a sense for the scope of things.
From there, I headed over to the Royal Palm Visitors center and walked the Anhinga Trail. The trail is an easy walk (mostly elevated board walk) that gets you up close to alligators, birds, turtles, fish and more interesting plants. If you are only coming to the Everglades for a day, and don’t have time for any other tours, this is the one stop I would suggest you definitely make.
Later in the afternoon, I headed back to the Flamingo Visitor Center and then walked over to the marina for another boat tour, this time out into the bay where there were several Osprey nests, and more birds. I went on this tour at high tide, and was told there are far more birds to see if you can time it so that you are out at low tide. It was still a nice ride
out on the water towards the end of the day, and the boat captain had a lot of information to share about the park and the keys, so still well worth it. I was sitting next to the captain for the entire ride and asking him all sorts of questions, which he was happy to answer, and then he told me about how a few nights ago he was driving out of the park at night and accidentally ran over a large snake, which he thought was probably a python. The burmese pythons are an invasive species in the Everglades and highly problematic, so much so that anyone who brings one in receives a $25 bounty. So,as this man was telling me about how he got out of his truck, in the Everglades (where all sorts of things can definitely kill you) to go look for a python that may or may not have been dead, in order to bring it in for his $25 bounty, all I could think of was, “Dude, there no freakin’ way I would even think about it.” We certainly all live different kinds of lives, with a whole host of daily experiences.
That was a very full day of exploring, and I headed back to my camper to get ready for the next stop on my trip: Key West.
Overall impression: This was the place I was most apprehensive about visiting, mostly because I’m afraid of snakes. I didn’t see a single snake while I was there. What I did see were beautiful birds, sweeping vistas of sawgrass prairies and shorelines. I watched the alligators and crocodiles from a safe distance and they paid very little attention to me. I stayed for two nights, and if I’m able to visit again I probably would add one more night to the experience.
Campground: $30 per night for a spot with electric hookups. Water hookups are not available, but there is a dump station.
Meals: I mostly ate at my camper and packed my lunches, but I did have dinner one night at the rustic Buttonwood Cafe, located by the Flamingo Visitors Center, which had a grouper sandwich and salad for about $18, including tip. It was surprisingly good. The park service recommends you bring your own food and drinks into the park, because food vending is not always available.
Entrance Fees: There is a $25 charge per vehicle for entrance into the park. I have a annual pass for the National Parks, so my entry fee was already covered.
Boat Tours: Both the Back Country and the Florida Gulf tour were $38, each (not including tour guide tips, which are always appreciated.) I thought they were both well worth it, as the captain and guides did a great job of pointing out things that I wouldn’t notice otherwise, and had a wealth of information to share.