Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is the only sub-tropical wilderness in the United States. It contains 1.5 million acres of wetlands, but despite its immense size, the park only protects 20% of the entire Everglades ecosystem which runs over 100 miles south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.  Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called this 60 mile wide slow moving river the "River of Grass," and it, along with a complex ecosystem of sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, estuarine mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands comprises the Everglades, of which the national park is a small segment.

There are three entrances to the park, none of which are connected.  The Everglades City entrance provides water access from the northwest. The Shark Valley entrance off Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) offers a 15 mile paved loop open to bicycles and provides a tram ride. The main entrance is via Homestead and offers the most recreational opportunities, including hiking, biking, and two campgrounds. Here's the park map. All three entrances have visitor centers.

The park is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve. and a Wetland of International Importance. It is one of only three sites in the world to have all three designations.

The park is a breeding ground for tropical wading birds, has the largest mangrove system in the western hemisphere, is home to 36 threatened or protected species, supports 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammals, and 50 species of reptiles. The largest reptiles are alligators and crocodiles, and south Florida is the only place in the world where both species co-exist. Below is one alligator photo I shot alongside the Shark Valley bike trail, but in my numerous bike rides there, I've seen hundreds of gators.

Crocodiles are less prevalent, and here are two I've spotted around the Flamingo area of the national park.

Other wildlife I've photographed in Everglades National Park are here.

And I videoed a Great Blue Heron catch and swallow a fish here.

One of the few areas you can bike and hike in the park is the Shark Valley loop. Halfway around the 15 mile paved loop is this 65 foot tall observation tower which provides panoramic views of the northern part of the park as well as gators that often sun themselves on the grass around the tower.

The other biking venue is the Long Pine Key Trail, which is an old rough roadbed open to mountain biking. It is located at the Long Pine Key Campground area just inside the Homestead entrance.

After dozens of driving trips to the Rocky Mountains and seeing the elevation signs on mountain pass roads, this sign in Everglades National Park always tickles my funny bone...

The Flamingo area is at the end of the 38 mile long Homestead entrance road. You'll know you've arrived when you reach the pink buildings! This is the southernmost part of continental USA. (The Florida keys all the way to Key West are islands, of course.)

The only lodging is at the campground. In 2005, two hurricanes struck the area in August and again in September, destroying the old lodge and cottages, restaurant, and gift shop. A makeshift restaurant with outdoor, screened eating and a trailer for cooking offer limited fare now.

On the drive to Flamingo, you'll see the Dwarf Forest or Skeleton Forest on both sides of the road, with at least one boardwalk out into the forest...

The campground at Flamingo is one of the rare places where you can enjoy both sunrises and sunsets over the ocean...

The Coastal Prairie Trail starts at Loop C of the Flamingo campground and runs 7.5 miles west. While maintaining the trail a few years ago, I nearly stepped on this pygmy rattlesnake that was enjoying his red salamander lunch...

Road Scholar (Elderhostel) has a biking program in the Everglades area, and here are photos and videos of that program.