On Monday, it was time to leave the expensive, but nice, Miami Everglades RV Resort and make up for it by staying in state parks and inexpensive Escapee park for our time up the west coast of Florida. State parks fill up quickly in Florida, but I had made these reservations back in December so was able to get reservations through February. Although we were going almost due west to the other side of Florida, we were going to stay close to the Everglades National Park. In fact, the drive down US 41, the Tamiami Trail, is the north boundary of the Everglades for most of the trip. The first part of the trip was actually within the Seminole Indian Reservation, so there were a number of small Indian villages and quite a few airboat ride outfits. This ended when we entered the Big Cypress National Preserve for over half of the trip. On the other side of the National Preserve, there is a State Preserve and State Forest, followed by the Collier-Seminole State Park, our destination for the next week. Therefore, there was very little development along the highway and we had the joy of looking at the Big Cypress Swamp and counting the alligators populating the man-made canal alongside the highway that was used for road building material. The Collier-Seminole State Park is close enough to the Gulf Coast that it is part of the extensive mangrove forest. The campgrounds are nice, although they are tight for a state park and full every day. All the sites are back-in with trees and other RVs in the way. To state that I am still a novice at backing this huge fifth wheel is an understatement! I managed to get the RV turned into the site and got it fairly straight on the first attempt, but we were too far from the electrical hookups. When I tried to move the RV a few feet, it was a disaster. Frustrated, Kal tried her hand for the first time with backing the RV after pulling out and circling the campground to try again. She did a fair job, but got it too close to the tree which would block the slideout. I then pulled it forward one more time and moved it over a few feet. It was still not straight in the site, but it was good enough!! It is definitely going to take some more practice. Collier-Semiole State Park maintains one of the original locations where Royal Palm grows naturally, which was very evident with the number of the majestic palm trees in the campgrounds. There were also a lot of birds in the surrounding woods. On a couple of mornings we had problems with a Cardinal, that was bound and determined to attack his rival inside our RV!! He would stand on the ladder and try to fly through the back window over and over again. We tried hanging colored yarn to no avail, so our only solution was to hang a towel over the window to hide his “rival”.
We were both excited about visiting the Big Cypress National Preserve on Tuesday, with the hope that we could sign up for another canoe trip. There are two visitor centers in the Preserve, one on the western boundary and one approximately the center of the Preserve on US 41. Stopping at the Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center on the western boundary we first checked on canoe trips. While they do have Ranger led canoe trips, they all fill up two weeks in advance this time of year. Disappointed that we would not be able to participate we set out to see what we could by foot. We also learned why this is a National Preserve instead of a National Park. Originally it was included in the proposal for the Everglades National Park back in the 1940s, however, the federal government was not able to purchase all the land from the many landowners, unlike the Everglades. However, in the 1960s when Miami began construction of a huge new International airport, the Seminole Indians, conservationists, hunters, and private landowners banded together to stop it. While it was a strange coalition, they all shared the desire not to have this habitat destroyed to create the airport and surrounding developments. However, they also had different traditional and historical uses for the land that they did not want to give up either. Thus, a new type of National Park was formed, the National Preserve, where there is a multi-use objective. In addition to the preservation and protection of the habitat and recreational use you find in a National Park, the National Preserve also allows for hunting, off road vehicles (swamp buggies), and even oil and gas exploration and extraction.
Since the only access to the Big Cypress National Preserve without a canoe, kayak, or swamp buggy is US 41, the opportunities to see the Preserve are limited. There is the H.P. Williams Roadside Park that has a few picnic tables and a short boardwalk along the canal. The Kirby Storter Roadside Park is a short boardwalk through the dwarf cypress trees into a cypress dome. Walking along the boardwalk, you can easily tell the cypress trees get larger as you approach the center of the dome. This does not necessarily mean these larger trees are older, as those outside the dome could be older but limited in their growth due to the lower nutrient environment. There was a small pool in the center of the dome and since the boardwalk extended out into the pool, there was a good opportunity to get pictures of the wildlife. Along with the obligatory alligators, there was a tri-colored heron, wood stork and red shoulder hawk in the trees. These were both short walks, so we traveled on to the Oasis Visitor Center where we saw a very good movie about the history and natural environment in the Preserve before we ate lunch. Following lunch, we decided not to take advantage of the Ranger talk about alligators since we would not likely learn anything new after over a week in the Everglades. Instead we headed out on the Florida National Scenic Trail which has its southern terminus at the Visitor Center. The first half mile of the trail is along the small airstrip at the Visitor Center which was not that exciting. However, once you get past the air field the trail winds its way along a strip of relatively dry land (probably an old logging road) towards a hardwood hammock. We walked off the trail a number of times to get pictures of the Big Cypress Swamp with the dwarf cypress trees and sawgrass prairie. Unfortunately, the trail continued to deteriorate the further we went and after about another half mile we had enough since we did not want to get too muddy. We returned back to the Visitor Center and headed back to the state park.
We did not do laundry the previous week at the expensive resort, partly because we were pressed for time to see everything and partly because the washers and dryers were more expensive, as everything else was. Therefore, Wednesday was our day to catch up on the laundry and clean the RV.
On Thursday we headed back to the Everglades National Park, to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City. We were disappointed in the Visitor Center, since it has only a couple of small exhibits, no hiking trails, and is primarily a launch point for boats traveling out into the Ten Thousand Islands which are a huge number of mangrove islands in the Florida Bay. We did check on canoe trips without much hope after learning they were booked two weeks in advance in the Big Cypress National Preserve. To our surprise they have daily Ranger led canoe trips out into the Bay at 2:00 in the afternoon and there were only two other people signed up for that day. We gladly added our names to the list and headed back to the state park to change clothes.
Since we still had a couple of hours before needing to be back for the canoe trip, we stopped at the parking lot for the Ten Thousand Islands National Refuge right next to the State Park. Along with a number of canoe trails that take off from the parking lot, there is also an old logging road (called a tram) that headed south into the mangroves. The first part of the Marsh Trail is paved, which was a surprise, that led to an observation tower about 1/4 mile from the highway. The observation tower overlooks a borrow pit full of water, birds, and fish. With the added elevation we were able to look down into the water and had the greatest view of an Anhinga bird chasing a school of minnows around and around a small pond. You could actually watch him spear a minnow with his beak, surface, and then flip the minnow up and down head first into its mouth. Underwater he would work the school of minnows around trapping a few along the bank making them easy prey since they could swim faster than the Anhinga in open water. The tram continues for at least another couple of miles and we followed it until we ran out of time and had to get back to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
We arrived back at the Visitor Center with plenty of time to eat lunch and prepare ourselves for the canoe trip. Unlike last time when we did not take a camera and got no pictures of the trip, we decided to take a chance and carry my small camera in Kal’s small water bag she wears as a hip sack. We met our Ranger guide and fellow travelers at 2:00 to get our canoes, paddles, and life vests. We all had to wear life vests even though the water in the Bay, especially at low tide, is only a few feet deep. We had thought we would stay along the coast wandering in and out of the mangroves along the shore, however, our guide took us out into the Bay. The entire time the Ranger talked about the history of Everglades City, which is not a part of the National Park and would not be part of any established authority if they had their way. We noticed when we went to the local store earlier in the day, that the residents were not especially thrilled to have us in their store, although they were not rude just cold. The Ranger told a number of stories about the time before the Tamiaimi trail, when Everglades City was the only town in the region and could only be accessed by boat. It was a place definitely outside the law and had a number of colorful characters over the years. After at least a half hour of paddling across the Bay towards some of the mangrove islands, we were treated with the view of the inside of a rookery. We saw dozens of brown pelicans and some kind of white bird (I think they were herons) nesting in the mangrove trees that had created a nearly perfectly circle of small islands around the rookery. We kept our distance to not disturb them too much, but it was an amazing sight. We then paddled back across the Bay to the mouth of the river. While approaching the Visitor Center, one of the other canoes capsized suddenly dropping them into the water. The Ranger turned back to help them, although the water was less than 3 feet deep so they were in no trouble. I also turned around to see if I could help, however, it turned out to be easier to simple drag the canoe full of water back to shore before we turned it over. Once again we are convinced that having a canoe is best way to see the mangrove forests and wildlife, especially birds.
There was only one place left in the Everglades to visit and although it was much closer to our previous location at Homestead, we decided it was worth the 1.5 hour drive. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is just outside the eastern boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve along the Tamiaimi Trail, on the northern boundary of the Everglades National Park. Being closest to Miami, it has the highest use. Along with a couple of short trails leading out from the Visitor Center, there is a 15 mile paved road that loops through the sawgrass prairie with a 45 foot observation tower at the furthest point. We had planned on renting bicycles at the Visitor Center rather than taking the Tram ride, since they no longer allow cars on the loop road. However, when we found out that it would cost us $9/hour to rent a bike and assuming it would take 3 hours ride the loop, it was cheaper to buy tickets for the tram. While you would need reservations for the tram on the weekends, it was no problem getting tickets for the 10:00 tram since we got there soon after they opened in the morning. The tram ride was certainly worth it, since you get a knowledgeable guide and driver that can spot and identify all the wildlife on the trip, which there was a lot. While on the tram we saw a female alligator nurturing two very young alligators and an immature Anhinga bird, too large for the nest, but not yet flying or living on their own. They also pointed out wood storks, three species of herons, vultures, turtles, and ducks. It turns out that the canal next to the road near the Visitor Center is a mecca for birds during the winter that are used to humans. It was possible to get close to a lot of different birds, turtles, and alligators within a few hundred yards of the Visitor Center. The observation tower at the end was very impressive, rising 45 feet above the prairie in a small hardwood hammock. It was built at the site of an old oil rig which accounts for the straight road leading from the Visitor Center. The view from the observation tower made the trip worthwhile all by itself!! You could see miles out into the Everglades and get a true sense of the sea of grass. From an ecological standpoint, it is unfortunate that so much of the sawgrass prairie is now lost to farms and fields to the north since it historically extended all the way to Lake Okeechobee and is now reduced to only 20% of its original extent.
Following lunch sitting on a bench at the Visitor Center where we met another couple that are also full timing in an RV doing exactly the same thing we are doing. However, they travel a lot more. It was nothing to them to travel all the way to Alaska for the summer a few years ago and they have traveled across the US and Canada more than once. I am not sure we will ever want to make the trip all the way to Alaska. After lunch we took in the Bobcat Boardwalk which is a short boardwalk through a bayhead, which was a different environment then we had seen. Dominated by red bay and willow trees instead of cypress, the bayhead is a different example of the wetland environment that can be found in the Everglades when there is occasional fire during the winter. There is also the Otter Cave trail that is a one mile round trip from the Visitor Center if you include the hike up the tram road to the beginning of the actual trail. This trail is in a subtropical hardwood hammock, where you can see some impressive seep holes in the limestone. You certainly have to watch your step to keep from stumbling into these holes, some of which were quite large. Thus ended our time in the Everglades, which we enjoyed immensely. I would be interested in seeing the Everglades in the summer to better understand what it looks like during the rainy season. However, I don’t think I would enjoy the heat, humidity, and insects, so I don’t see it ever happening.
On Saturday, it was time to explore something different outside the National Park System. We read about the James Scenic Drive in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, just to the west of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The drive was suppose to be an 11 mile dirt road with many opportunities for hiking. The Scenic Drive started off an a well maintained dirt road that was the main tram into the area for the harvesting of cypress trees in the 1940s and 1950s. We stopped at the first side tram we came to for a hike. We hiked back into the forest for about a mile or so before the trail became too overgrown to continue without a lot of effort. We then continued on down the road to another tram which was a “jeep” trail maintained for some hunting camps. It was a more pleasant walk then the overgrown trail. Along the trail we saw the remains of a railcart for transporting logs and a short stretch of orange trees that were probably the remains of a small orchard maintained by the Seminole Indians at one time. We tried one of the oranges but found it to be so sour that there was no way either of us could eat it!! We ran into a Park Ranger once we exited the trail who told us he harvests the oranges every year to make orangeade. I was also surprised to see a number of young royal palm trees growing in the forest, as I was under the impression they were only grown in nurseries locally. I later found out that this strand is one of only three locations in Florida where they reproduce naturally, competing with the cypress trees along the strand. By this point the Scenic Drive was down to a single lane dirt road that was still passable, but with few if any places we could turn this huge pickup truck around. We ran into the Park Ranger again down the road where some volunteers were working on clearing the brush back from the road. This made it difficult to get by since the road was not really wide enough. We asked him about turning around and he told us of another tram branching off further down the road where we would have enough room. Unfortunately, there was another family eating lunch at this tram and took up the entire parking area. So we continued on down the road, which by now was full of deep mud holes and getting much rougher and narrower. I was certainly getting nervous, but Kal seemed to remember from the maps that this road intersected with another one that should give us the chance to turn around, so we continued. We eventually left the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve without any further sign that we were getting into anything but more trouble. We were also not the only vehicle making the trip as we had seen at least two other cars traveling in this direction with nobody going the other direction.
After about 1/4 mile after exiting the Strand there was a sign for the Picayune Strand State Forest and luckily a pull out spot with a single picnic table. Thank goodness we could now get turned around, so we stopped for lunch before heading back. There was also a posted map of the State Forest on a bulletin board, which made no sense at all. It showed residential streets with names and canals between the streets!! We could certainly not see anything that looked like a residential area anywhere around this wilderness and why would it be a State Forest? Luckily another visitor drove up in their car while we were looking at the map and we asked them about it. It turns out this State Forest is a failed residential land scheme dating back to the 1960s, named the Golden Gate Estates. Over 17,000 investors were scammed into buying an average of 2.5 acres of land that was to be developed into America’s largest residential community. Potential investors were flown over the area during the dry winter months and shown videos of other residential communities developed by the company. However, after years of laying out the streets, building massive canals to drain the water, and paving the major roads, it became obvious this swamp could never be developed and the company went bankrupt. Thus one of the original “swamp lands in Florida” land scams of the 1970s. We had to check it out!! So we drove on down the road into this “residential” communities where some of the paving on the roads can still be seen, straight streets cleared of trees in between huge canals and bridges. It was truly an amazing sight in the middle of this wilderness. After driving around a little bit we headed back out along the James Scenic Drive and headed home.
Sunday we spent relaxing in the State Park and considered attending the Blue Grass Festival they had that weekend. We were surprised that we could not hear the music, which was unfortunate since they had the access to the hiking trails blocked off. However, the entrance fee was more than we wanted to spend, so we just took it easy while I worked on the blog and Kal read her Kindle.