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Everglades Holiday Trip

posted Jan 4, 2017, 7:40 AM by Justin P   [ updated Jan 30, 2017, 10:41 AM ]

Over the holidays, Sandy and I headed to sunny south Florida for a week in the Everglades.  We left RDU around 630 on Christmas and flew to Miami.  We arrived around 9 and stayed for the first night at an Extended Stay America next to the airport, not the greatest hotel, but good enough for just the evening.  Monday morning, we checked out and headed west along US-41, the Tamiami Trail.  Along the way, I was just amazed at the wildlife we saw in the canal running parallel to the highway – alligators, herons, kingfishers and our first anhinga sighting.

In about 20 miles, we turned into Shark Valley in Everglades National Park.  This is a really popular area of the park so we arrived a little early – around 830 to ensure a parking space and bike availability.  After getting our stuff together, we began bicycling the tram trail.  The loop is about 15 miles total, so a little long to hike in the Florida sun, but just right for bicycling.  But even on bicycles, the going was slow and certainly not because of rough terrain.  The trail was paved and as flat as could be, but we stopped so many times to see wildlife.

We saw lots of alligators, including some babies.  Besides being small, they are easily recognizable by their yellow stripes.  And where there are babies, the mom is nearby keeping an eye on them.

Alligators are one of the only reptile species where the mother watches over her young.  We also saw a large number of wading birds, including great blue herons, green herons, snowy egrets, tricolored herons and more.

In the dry season, the wildlife congregates around the remaining pools of water and makes watching them great.  At one such wet spot, there were a number of white ibises pecking around in the shallow water for prey.

At the half-way point on the tram trail, we parked our bikes and made a stop at the observation tower.

Near the restrooms, I spotted a huge banana spider or golden orb weaver.

A tram had stopped so the observation tower was a bit crowded, but the views from up here were great.  It’s no wonder why the Everglades is referred to as a “river of grass”.

Once we got some pictures, we headed back down and started to finish up the loop.  Along the way back, we spotted many more birds and alligators.  There were a few juvenile white ibises, who have brown instead of white feathers.

At another stop, we saw a number of wood storks.  A local guy who had stopped here said it was unusual to see so many storks at once.

Near the end, one alligator had his mouth wide open showing his teeth right along the trail.

Finishing up the loop, we returned the bicycles and then walked the short Bobcat Boardwalk trail.

Then we left Shark Valley and continued heading west on Tamiami Trail.  Our next stop was the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve.  The boardwalk in front of the visitor center was a great spot to see more alligators basking in the sun. 

At the far end of the boardwalk, a beautiful female anhinga was perched.

The Oasis center marks the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a more than 1000-mile trail running through the state. While we couldn’t hike it all, I wanted to hike a few miles on it while we were here.  We didn’t go far though as it got really overgrown and there were lots of bugs out.  We did see a few pretty butterflies though, bugs I don't mind.  The white peacock butterfly was really beautiful.

And the Gulf Fritillaries have a bright orange color.

Next, we headed to the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center for Big Cypress.  Here, we joined Ranger Lisa for a short talk about mangroves and manatees.  Then we drove the Turner River-Wagon Wheel loop scenic drive and again saw many birds and gators along the canals.  The Turner River runs along the canal and there were lots of birds, including gallinules and egrets.

Back on Tamiami Trail, we continued west to Everglades City and checked into our hotel – Ivey House.  We had dinner at Triad Seafood Market.  I had gator bites and Sandy had stone crab and we enjoyed our dinner outside and enjoyed the sunset views.

Then we retired for the evening, getting in one last shower at Ivey House.  Tuesday morning, we woke up and had a great breakfast at Ivey House before checking out.  It was just a short drive to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.  Here we met with Dave and the others in our camping group.  After getting our stuff safely in dry bags and packing the kayaks, we paddled out across Chokoloskee Bay.  Due to low tide, it was very mucky getting into the kayak.  Once across the bay, we started paddling out towards the Gulf of Mexico through Indian Key Pass.  This is also the route used by the tourist boats from Everglades City, so we had to stay to the side.  Dolphins like chasing the motor boats - kayaks are too slow for them - but we did see some chasing the boats.  Since the tide was coming in, paddling through Indian Key Pass was difficult.  We stopped for lunch on a shell mound and then made the last strenuous bit to get out to the Gulf of Mexico.  In the distance was One Tree Island.  Formerly connected to one of the Sand Key islands nearby, a hurricane had washed out the land between and now the island was so small, only a single tree grew here.  Getting out of the channel, it was a little easier and we paddled another mile or so to Picnic Key, our home for the next two nights.

Once on shore, we set up our tent on the beach a good ways back from the high tide line.  While we were swimming in the warm Gulf waters, Dave made a delicious dinner of stone crab, fried grouper, and salad.  I’m not a big fan of seafood, but it was very good.  Normally when camping, I eat Raman noodles or Beefaroni, so having real food was great.  After dinner, we relaxed on the beach and watched the sunset.

At about this time, the wind and waves calmed down and the bugs got pretty bad – lots of mosquitoes and no-see-ums.  Seeking shelter in our tent, we waited an hour or so and the bugs died down a bit and we went for a short walk.  It had been a long day and so we went to bed early.  Wednesday, we woke up around sunrise and the bugs were back.  Sandy and I stayed in our tent for a while and watched the raccoons out on the beach.  All food was safely stored in the kayaks, so the raccoons headed into the surf to look for crabs for breakfast.  Over our trip, we found a bunch of horseshoe crab shells, most being victims of hungry raccoons.  Since there’s no freshwater on the island, they would drink dew off leaves.

As the sun rose in the sky, the bugs died down and Dave made a great breakfast of eggs and bacon.  After eating, we started our paddling tour of the Ten Thousand Islands.  We first headed northwest to Round Key.  It was low tide so a sandbar was sticking out where a number of pelicans and gulls were resting.

After a short break, our next destination was Camp Lulu Key, where we would eat lunch.

Surprisingly, there was a building here.  Apparently, someone came out with a boat and built a house here.  The park service let him squat for a while before finally kicking him out.  The house was all boarded up, but the porch made a nice spot for lunch.  The beach was really pretty here, with one side facing the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the other looking deep into the Ten Thousand Islands.

After lunch, we continued our paddling.  Dave led us through a mangrove tunnel, hoping to find some roseate spoonbills, but no luck.  We spotted a manatee from a distance but too far for a picture.  We then continued back to Picnic Key.  While swimming off our beach, I saw a fish apparently jump really high in the air.  We had seen lots of jumping fish – mullets, I believe – but they only jumped a foot or two in the air.  This one must have been six to eight feet.  Just as he crashed back to the water, a dolphin popped out and ate him.  The fish hadn’t jumped that high – I think the dolphin knocked him out of the water.  For dinner, Dave made jambalaya with sausage and shrimp. Since the bugs were pretty bad the night before, we gathered some driftwood to make a bonfire, which helped quite a bit.

We enjoyed one last sunset from Picnic Key and stayed close to the bonfire to keep the bugs away.

Once they died down, we went for another evening walk on the beach.  With a new moon and no light pollution, the views of the stars were fantastic.  Then we headed to bed.  With the fire built below the high tide line, the waves washed all trace away.  Thursday morning, we woke up again before sunrise.  The views were beautiful, but the bugs were back.

Dave made another great breakfast of French toast and cinnamon buns and then we broke down camp.  At low tide, the water was too far out to easily get in our boats.  So we waited and enjoyed the beach for an hour or so.  As the tide came in, we started paddling back.  Dave took us a different way back and we spotted some dolphins and pelicans on the way.  We stopped at an island near the beginning of Indian Key Pass for lunch.  It would be a lot easier going back in as we would be going with the tide instead of against it.  And sure enough, we were back to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in no time.  We unpacked the kayaks and helped Dave load everything in his van and then said good-bye to our new friends.  Sandy and I headed back towards Miami on US-41 and then went south to Homestead, checking in to the Hampton Inn.  A shower felt so great after camping and swimming in salt water the past two nights.  Friday, we had planned to go snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  Due to unfavorable weather, the trip was cancelled so, we instead went back to Everglades, entering at the main entrance just west of Homestead.  We first stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, where a ranger suggested we head to Royal Palm.  Arriving here, all the cars were covered in tarps.

Apparently, the resident black vultures attack cars and try to remove windshield wipers and weather stripping.

There were no bungee cords left, but we were able to wrap the rental car with a tarp and close it in the car doors.  Once the car was secure, we started hiking the Anhinga Trail – a short boardwalk with lots of wildlife.  Anhingas, the trail’s namesake, are very interesting birds with a long pointed beak used to spear prey.

We spotted one anhinga with an impaled fish on his beak.  Now that he had caught his prey, he needed to get it off so he could eat it.  Near here was a beautiful strangler fig right along the trail.

Further along we spotted a number of alligators as well as cormorants, herons, and vultures.

The open views of the Taylor Slough were just beautiful.

After finishing the short boardwalk, we then hiked the Gumbo Limbo Trail.  Although both trail are right next to each other, they each explore a different landscape.  While the Anhinga Trail lead through an open swampy area, the Gumbo Limbo Trail was through a dense hardwood hammock.  There were several of the distinctive red-orange trees for which the trail is named.

Once we finished the trail, we headed back to the main road and continued towards Flamingo.  Our next stop was the Pinelands, another short interpretive trail that led through an “island” of pine forest.

We heard lots of birds in here, but the forest was too dense for a good view.  We also spotted some Bahama Senna blooming right along the trail.

Then we continued to Pay-Hay-Okee Overlook with great views of the River of Grass.

Pay-hay-okee is a Seminole word for "grassy waters" and we had a nice view of the Shark River Slough from the elevated observation tower.

On the short walk back, we passed through a cypress swamp.  It's just amazing how different ecosystems lie so close together.

By this time, it was getting later in the day and we were hungry so we continued to Flamingo and had lunch at Buttonwood Café.  It was damaged in a hurricane and there wasn’t a lot of seating, so we were seated with a German couple for lunch.  After lunch, we hiked the Guy Bradley Trail along Florida Bay to the campground.

Near the entrance to the campground was an impressive nest with two ospreys.

And a number of black vultures were drying their wings.

After some pictures, we made our way back and departed the Everglades.  We had dinner in Homestead at Sake Sushi and Thai and then got packed for a flight home in the morning.