I’ve started to see why people visit Florida for spring break, and why snowbirds GTFO of Florida in the summer…. it’s only early May and I don’t know if I’ve ever sweat more. And that’s saying a hell of a lot since I’m a sweat monster.
Despite all this, Mike and I continued our journey to south Florida to visit the three national parks in this state. (Spoiler alert – we only made it to this one before I called it quits. There are other reasons too. More on that in a bit.) Since it was about to be Cinco de Mayo, we decided to avoid the Miami and other large cities. We’ve finally put ourselves on a budget for “fun money” and considering we both love parties, and I love tequila, that would have been bad news bears.
So, we made it to the Everglades. Even with the excessive heat and mosquitos, I loved this place. This park is the largest wilderness in the Eastern U.S. and it did not disappoint. It is still recovering from Hurricane Irma from a couple years ago but was still wonderful.
We began at the Coe Visitor Center and talked to the ranger about what we should do – he started to say what is the best if we only have a few hours When we said we were staying as long as we wanted, he was real excited. It’s pretty disappointing to know that most people only stay a half day here – some things we did during our visit were pretty redundant, so you can condense it into two days, but anything less would be a disservice to the park, and yourself!
The park is set up similar to the Smokies – a long road that you can drive with overlooks/short trails. We started with Anhinga Trail which was definitely the best for wildlife. I started poking Mike, shouting “gator!” every minute… I’m sure he loved it. I was worried that during this visit I’d get unexcited about seeing them – kind of like I did in Hawaii with waterfalls – but it never happened. I shouted excitedly about every single gator I saw. And I easily saw over a hundred in our short time. Along this Anhinga Trail, we also saw turtles, gar fish, and anhinga birds which are neat enough to pique the interest of these non-bird lovers.
Per the rangers recommendations, we also stopped at all the other overlooks and short trails that are off the main road; Long Pine Key, Pinelands, Pa-hay-okee, Mahogany Hammock, West Lake, and Eco Pond. They’re all boardwalks with varying trees. Neat, but got a little underwhelming after awhile. But, some good informational signs along the way, and nice to stretch your legs, if you’re not rushing.
After watching a gorgeous sunset at one of the ponds, we went back to Anhinga Trail when it was dark. Whoa. It was crazy to see these gators, who had been so docile during the day, getting real feisty after dark. Just like college! We didn’t have the best headlamps with us – if you go, bring a flashlight with a crap load of lumens. Cell phones and normal headlamps won’t cut it. But we still got to see them – just flashing a light across the water would highlight dozens of gator eyes watching you! And you could hear them non-stop feeding on fish and fighting with each other.
The next day, we headed back to the southern area Flamingo Visitor Center to inquire about renting a canoe or kayak. They didn’t recommend it because of a “storm” coming (it was nothing) and the water levels but… we lucked out. The main reason I wanted to do this was to see manatees and crocodiles. This area is where the fresh water meets the salt water so it’s the best chance to see crocodiles. And we got to see both in the bay area by the visitor center! The manatees were suckling on the algae on the docks so they were right under our feet. THEN, a park maintenance staff shouted at us to come over to a different dock where a crocodile was sunning himself. It. Was. Awesome. There was also a bigger croc leisurely swimming into the bay, and then I got a quick glimpse at the mamma croc who apparently loves the marina and is over 14 foot long! Soooo, I didn’t feel too bad not spending money on a boat to go see all the critters that I got to see in 30 minutes for free. Highly recommend getting lucky like we did.
The next day we visited the least visited parts of the park in the north. The Shark Valley area has a tram and bicycle rentals which is neat. I rented the worst bike in the world and Mike cruised next to me. It was pretty similar to what we had already seen so if you don’t have time, you can skip it. However, it was really fun to bike next to gators! But for real… worst bike ever. It was completely flat, but right in the sun and the oldest Walmart bike you could imagine. I struggled every mile. Take your time and bring a lot of water if you attempt this area. Or just take the tram.
We then drove through the Big Cypress National Preserve park on Loop Road which is the scenic drive the Ranger recommended – this area is protected because this eco system is the water the feeds into the Everglades. It has over 5 different habitats and is extremely beautiful. I wish they would have had some more signs describing what this road was like though. They had speed limit signs of 30mph which was a joke because you can’t drive more than 10mph unless you want to eff up your car. At least it as pretty and you could see gators along the way.
We did skip the next Everglades area – the ranger even suggested skipping it unless you planned on paddling. At the Gulf Coast area is the Ten Thousand Islands which I’m sure was beautiful – but with the bugs, heat, and water levels… I was ready to get the hell out of dodge.
However, we have to come back to Florida to get my junior ranger badges for the other two National Parks; Dry Tortugas and Biscayne. Biscayne is an island right across from Miami and Dry Tortugas is about 70 miles off the coast of Key West. It’s nickname is the “Rich Person’s National Park.” Definitely not a joke. The cheapest option we could find to get there, without having your own boat (which means you’re not poor anyway so shut it…and please hit me up so I can hitch a ride) was the ferry… which is still $165 per person for less than 5 hours on the island. That wouldn’t include the parking, and the dog sitting fees we’d have to find and pay for. And van camping is illegal on all the keys. Oh, and the ferry was booked out until September. So basically, I really recommend planning this one in advance. Not conducive to spontaneous van lifers, that’s for sure. We also really want to camp on the island – because, lets be honest, how often will you have the chance to be that removed from anything and anyone? Sooooo… we’re coming back to these later.
For now, peace out Florida!