Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for January, 2005

south Florida
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunning SiblingsWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the Shark Valley area, which consists of a loop road leading to an observation tower through a freshwater slough ecosystem.

BEAUTY (8/10)
A freshwater slough ecosystem is, at its essence, a wide slow moving river. It looks like a flat, wet prairie with its tall grass, tree outcroppings and big blue sky. However, it is a River, its widest girth measuring 60 miles. This freshwater wetland environment attracts the usual suspects: American alligator, egrets, anhinga, herons, storks and moorhens. They are all here in healthy numbers just a few feet from the loop road.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

Green HeronCROWDS (4/10)
Because of its easy accessibility, large crowds flock to Shark Valley. The Park’s website recommends reserving your place on the hourly tram tours. We secured last minute spots during trips in both April and January but overflowing crowds prevented us from entering the Park during the week between Christmas and New Years; at noon a Ranger told us that no parking spaces would be opening in the next hour and that the day’s tram tours were all full.

The large crowds prevent any in-depth discussions with the Tour Guides. If you end up on the wrong side of the tram, the five-wide seating prevents opposite side viewing. The most important thing to know about the tram tour is to SIT ON THE LEFT SIDE. If you don’t you will curse the people to your left.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located a few hundred yards south of Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. It is 24 miles west of Miami and Route 821, the Florida Turnpike. The 15-mile loop route to the observation tower and back is fully paved and accessible via tram tour, bicycles or foot.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
Not much here, save the laminated pictures of birds and wildlife of the Everglades. The small gift store next to the bike rental booth is chintzy but fun. Check out the alligator head hats.

Big Sky Florida StyleCOSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $10 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. Tram tour rides are expensive, running $13.25 per person. Bike rentals run $5.75 an hour. The loop road is 15 miles round trip. Bringing your own bicycle(s) might make the day more affordable.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
We saw no Rangers in the Shark Valley Visitor Center area. Two volunteers staffed the Visitor Center and could not help us with camping information regarding other parts of Everglades NP. Private tour guides, not Rangers, lead the popular tram tours. With at least one hundred tourists per one guide, it is difficult for your questions to receive individual attention, especially if you are seated in the second tram.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
The Shark Valley Tram Tour, while not affiliated with the National Parks Service, is a terrific, but expensive introduction to the Everglades. It is like an Everglades 101 class with its large crowds and basic information. We loved the tour a few years ago when we knew nothing about South Florida and bird watching but felt a little bored this time around.

There are a few Park-related exhibits in the tiny Shark Valley Visitor Center but do not expect quiet learning in the walk-in closet sized space. There is no space for an introductory film. This heavily visited Site deserves a larger and better Museum. As it stands, the National Park Service has outsourced the learning experience in the most easily accessible portion of one of its flagship Parks.

FUN (8/10)
Why oh why didn’t we remember to sit on the left side of the tram? We had obstructed views but still enjoyed the ride. The tour guide will point out all the birds flying, feeding and nesting along the way. Gators are too numerous to count – they get saved for last. We heard some of the same stories as we did the first time we took the tour, like the Italian mom who jumped in the canal and saved her son from a gator’s grasp. The punch line is still funny.

Need Shoes?WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Walk along the boardwalk trail or just behind the VC to get your first (and best) glimpses of gators, herons of all sizes and colors and maybe even a purple gallinule. A bike ride or tram tour is not prerequisite for excellent photo opportunities. Much of the wildlife congregates right there along the “Gallery.” We overheard one British tourist exclaim that he had come hoping to see anything; he had no idea these beautiful species would all be at arm’s length just a few yards from the parking lot.

On that note, you might want to keep an eye on any small children. We think Shark Valley is an ideal place to take kids. Just make sure they don’t stray too far – there are no protective barriers between you and nature’s most efficient predator, the American alligator.

The tram tour is something the entire family can enjoy; nothing strenuous about hopping on and taking a ride through this river of grass. Shark Valley is an easy day trip from Miami, or even Naples. Don’t’ forget your camera or your binoculars; both will get used frequently.

TOTAL 46/80

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

near Florida City, Fla.
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Struggling AnglerWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the areas of the park accessible through its main entrance located just outside Florida City, Fla. This stretch of road passes through numerous ecosystems, traveling 38 miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center, located on the Florida Bay.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The section of the Everglades from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the most beautiful area of the Park because it is the most diverse. A few inches’ change in altitude dramatically alters the landscape. Along the 38-mile drive, you travel through a pineland forest, hardwood hammocks, cypress trees, a freshwater prairie, a mangrove wilderness, a hurricane-created coastal marsh and finally a coastal prairie. Every change is clear and breathtaking. The sunsets are spectacular whether they overlook the pastel horizon of the sandy Florida Bay keys or are through the vertical wonder of Florida pines.

The wildlife is abundant and includes many endangered species. We were lucky enough to see the rare American crocodile but did not see either the manatee or the limpkin. The Everglades are the only place in the world where saltwater crocodiles live side by side with alligators.

The Everglades are an American original. Many of the trails feel more like a zoo than a National Park. The birds, fish and massive reptiles are so close that they seem to mingle with the tourists in such a great number that you are guaranteed to see all but the rarest species.

American CrocodileHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

CROWDS (3/10)
Our crowd interaction at Everglades NP ranged wildly from good to our worst National Park experience yet. First, for chronologies sake, the bad times.

Keep away from the Flamingo campground if you spend the night in the Everglades. We found the campground overrun with rowdy boaters eager to set off the next morning from the nearby marina. Quiet hours were ignored, the vodka poured freely and the overheard conversations were so loud, aggressive and offensive that we feared for our safety.

Lowlights included one group showering expletives upon Park Rangers. The reason: they dared to penalize the man for drunk boating and illegal fishing. Another nearby group collected and chopped down wood (illegal) twice, once at seven and once at midnight while using their idling pickup truck as a spotter. Their massive bonfire party began at 8 p.m. and lasted well past 2 a.m.

We have run into obnoxious and dangerous boaters at every National Park that allows motorboats. Our experience tells us that our Flamingo incident was all too common especially since we encountered no roaming campground hosts and no patrolling Park security, a first in well over 50 National Park campgrounds. Our sleepless, fear-ridden night nearly ruined our trip to the Everglades.

Roseate Spoonbill OverheadLuckily, our spirits were lifted at 8:00 a.m. around Eco Pond. We happened upon a Ranger-led bird walk and were greeted with an advanced lesson from both Ranger and fellow bird-watchers. Everybody had high-powered individual binoculars and one couple brought a portable spotting telescope that they happily shared. We spotted over 50 species of birds in our meandering two-hour walk. The perfect way to learn about birds is to go with people who know what they are doing. Other than the Ranger, we were the youngest in the group by at least twenty-five years.

Our walks around the Anhinga Trail, near the main entrance, were wonderful and representative of the classic National Parks visit. The boardwalks were crowded with tourists amazed and enchanted at the exotic floral and fauna they were seeing. So much excitement and so many happy kids.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Everglades NP Main Entrance is located 45 miles from Miami and 11 miles from Homestead. The Florida Turnpike, Route 821, ends at Homestead. From there, Florida Route 9336 weaves its way through Florida City and into the Everglades. The road continues 38 miles to the southern tip of mainland Florida, the site of the Flamingo Visitor Center.

There are six fully accessible self-guided interpretive trails along the road through the Park. They take the visitor through six dramatically different ecosystems. The trails allow anyone to amble through the forbidding mangroves, an incredible feat in itself. All the trails are completely flat and make for easy walking. Just don’t forget to bring insect repellent, the mosquitoes are always out in full force.

Glistening Red Mangroves

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The brightly-lit gift store in the Ernest Coe VC at the Main Entrance followed the same design as bookstores in many of the destination parks – lots of coffee table photography books, key chains, magnets, generic National Park guides and gear. The only exception to the rule was the extensive stock of books for birders.

Flamingo had both an upscale gift store operated by an independent concessionaire and a grocer/convenience store at the marina, but we couldn’t find an actual NPS bookstore in the area. Be sure to get your reading material before you start down the 38-mile road.

COSTS (3/5)
Entrance to the Park is $10 per car. A tent spot at the Flamingo or the Long Pine Key campground is $14.

Like the Gulf Coast portion of the park, much of the Everglades NP serviced by the Flamingo VC is in the water. Canoes, kayaks and fishing skiffs can be rented hourly or by the day. Prices range from $8 an hour for a 2-person canoe to $155 for a 19-foot fishing skiff. Fishing poles and ice chests can also be rented as needed.

The canoe rental fees at Gulf Coast were much more affordable. There were many more motorized boats leaving the Flamingo marina than from their Gulf Coast counterpart. A canoe excursion from the northwest might be more peaceful and definitely cheaper.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
The Flamingo Campground, the setting for our horrendous first night, would have been much better with a Ranger patrolling the grounds once or twice. In fact, this is the first NPS campground we have used where we haven’t had an evening visit from an NPS employee, if only to tell us about the evening slide program at the amphitheatre.

The Rangers leading the birders walk and the talk which turned into a walk at the Anhinga Trail were both excellent. Young and enthusiastic, they knew their stuff and both stayed with us long past the anticipated end of the lesson.

Stay at Home DadTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The NPS runs an interesting array of activities from both the Flamingo (the south) and Royal Palm (near the main entrance in the northeast) areas. The Rangers are the centerpiece of the Park’s highly enjoyable educational experience.

Both areas offer $15, three-hour long, walks through the swamp. Four Ranger-led slogs through the wet leave the south every week while Royal Palm offers the difficult hike every day. Space fills up well in advance.

The Bird Walk around Eco Pond happens from Thursday through Sunday only in the South. The wonderful Ranger who led on the birding excursion also handles many of the swamp walks. She knew every bird, butterfly, tree, spider and flower. Flamingo also offers a daily Ranger-led $20 four and a half hour morning canoe trip. These tours also fill up well in advance.

Royal Palm offers a daily $15 Ranger-led bike hike through the landscape of the north. Simple auditorium-based Ranger talks also take place daily in both areas.

The Park’s Visitor Center Museum is large, confusing and not nearly as helpful as the Rangers. The recent remodeling includes a new and outsourced film. A Discovery Channel logo proves very distracting while it constantly rotates in the lower right corner. The film relies on sped-up camera tricks and nice pictures and fails to scratch the surface of the Everglades’ complex ecosystems and the man-made problems that threaten them.

If the Ranger programs are not enough, two hour long private boat tours leave 8 times a day into both the mangroves and Florida Bay from the Flamingo Marina. Adult costs range from $12 to $18. They are narrated by a professional guide. There is a lot to do in the Everglades.

Drying AnhingaFUN (8/10)

The Anhinga Trail near the Park Entrance deservedly enjoys its world-class reputation for wildlife spotting. It is as much fun as you can have on a National Parks boardwalk. And believe what the Rangers say, come back and walk the trail at night. The sounds are amplified, the walk is safe and the atmosphere is enjoyably spooky. The twin beady eyes of the alligator will appear fluorescent red if you shine a flashlight from your eye level into the water. Their silent motion is interrupted only when they creep up on other gators and thrash their tails through the water in territorial battles.

The moon and the stars were so bright that we did not need a flashlight; although a squawking Great Blue Heron did shock us when we unknowingly crept only a few inches in front of his perch. Our terrific time at Everglades NP was dampened only by our night spent in the Flamingo campground with very little sleep.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Our two-day visit took us from one extreme to the other – in emotions as well as natural settings. We happened upon two stellar Ranger-led events at either end of the Park without even trying.

If Shark Valley VC offers the visitor an Everglades 101 course, traveling from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the next level. If you go to Shark Valley, you pay your money, get on the tram, and are sure to see just about everything that ecosystem, a freshwater slough, has to offer.

The road on the east side of the park is long and winds through more landscapes than one should expect to see in a day, let alone along a single 38-mile stretch. Your visit here will be more self-directed; there are no guarantees and the Main Entrance is not as accessible as its name might imply. Your trip here will be more difficult than Shark Valley but could prove to be more rewarding.

TOTAL 52/80

Read Full Post »

near Everglades City, Fla.
Visited: January 4, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Porpoises

WHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the northwestern portion of the Park; the area serviced by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

BEAUTY (8/10)
There are two routes through the northwestern Everglades: 1) a narrow inland waterway that winds through the impenetrable mangroves and 2) one that skirts the mangroves and follows Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The inland route is mangrove monotony. The dirty brackish water never raises to levels more than five feet and the horizon stays perpetually level. Ospreys hover and shriek at every turn, wood storks fly overhead and egrets patrol the ground. We expected to paddle next to alligators but left disappointed; none appeared during our three-day canoe trip.

The coastal keys are tiny, white sand, prototypical deserted islands noted by gargantuan and intricate seashells, resourceful raccoons and porpoises diving their way through the gentle waves. We enjoyed a perfect pastel-colored Florida sunset while flocks of white ibises flew in a V-shaped formation overhead.

The route from the Keys through the Ten Thousand Islands and back to Everglades City is like being in a giant maze. The “Islands” are indistinguishable mangrove entities. Tides change the shallow waters’ navigability and create patterns and channels that differ from the published charts. Even with a map, navigation is impossible; everything looks the same. We managed to find our way home but not before paddling within yards of a perched bald eagle.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

CROWDS (7/10)
Backcountry permits are issued up to 24 hours before departure. Rangers recommend getting to the permit desk early since all sites are first come, first served and can fill quickly. Backcountry campsites are limited, but there were still several options available when we inquired.

We had planned for excess people because of the holiday season and even some gators since we are in the Everglades, but we had no idea raccoons and water rats were considerations when preparing for our canoe trip. When we returned to the VC a few days later with our newly purchased hard-sided container and duct tape, we had even less of a problem securing the campsites we wanted.

Where We SleptFour other campers shared the chickee where we camped the first night. Space was tight on the two raised wooden platforms, but our fellow paddlers were pleasant and seemed as equally vexed by the winds, tide charts and sameness of the landscape as we were. We liked them.

Four other couples pitched their tents at Pavilion Key on day two. The stretch of sandy beach was long enough to leave ample room between all of us, giving us some privacy in an otherwise exposed environment. The noises we heard at night and the footprints we spied in the morning made us thankful we took an extra day to raccoon-proof our belongings.

Canoes and kayaks share the waterways with fishermen and motorboats at Everglades NP. Unlike our time at Voyageurs NP, where we were certain our canoe would tip with each speeding sportsman, fellow boaters at the Everglades seem to move at a slower, friendlier pace and didn’t affect our experience at all.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
This portion of the Everglades is completely water-based. You cannot go out there without a boat. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent. Boat tours leave often from the Visitor Center dock. The Visitor Center is about 40 miles east of Naples in Everglades City. Everglades City is located on Florida Route 29 about eight miles south of the Tamiami Trail.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Consisting of two shelves opposite the backcountry permit desk, the bookstore is small but we couldn’t think of what else we might need. If you skip the boat tour and decide to venture into the Everglades on your own, do not leave without purchasing the water resistant Everglades nautical map. Souvenir items, postcards and some resort-priced beverages are available at the small gift shop/convenience store downstairs.

ShellsCOSTS (1/5)
There is no park entry collected at the Gulf Coast VC. This portion of the Park is water-based so you need to bring a boat, rent a boat or pay for a boat tour.

Do it yourself charges are as follows:

$5 for 7-day boat launch fee (motorized)
$3 for 7-day boat launch fee (non-motorized)
$10 for backcountry permit processing fee
$2 per person per night backcountry camping fee
canoe rentals range anywhere from $25 -$40 per day
$19.88 (tax incl.) for Everglades nautical map

An independent concessionaire located on the first floor of the Visitor Center runs two boat tours that leave the docks hourly:

Ten Thousand Islands Tour – $21 per adult, $11 per child, One hour 30 minutes in length
Mangrove Wilderness Tour – $35 per adult, $17.50 per child, One hour 45 minutes in length

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
e entered the VC on three different occasions and met with at least four different Rangers. One was even willing to answer a question while on his way to the bathroom. Michael says thanks and sorry.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Gulf Coast VC is small, existing more for issuing permits than exhibit-based education. Nonetheless, a great many panels are stuffed in the small area. A touch me table shows you the immensity of manatee ribs.

Rangers give a half hour talk everyday at 1:00 and give 4-hour long canoe explorations three days a week. Bring your own canoe or rent one.

We did not purchase a Boat Tour. That would have been a bit redundant. We saw a few leave. They looked crowded despite their amazing frequency.

FUN (7/10)
Our time in the Gulf Coast portion of Everglades NP was challenging. Vexing tide charts, shallow water, unpredictable offshore winds, pesky thieving raccoons, water rat prints in the morning right next to our tent (aaaaaah!) and 13 miles a day of paddling through repetitive landscape. We argued a lot.

The lows were balanced by amazing highs. Once we stopped paddling, our prospects improved immeasurably. The Everglades wilderness is a mysterious and wonderful place. We camped along a Gulf Coast beach, watched the sunset by ourselves and collected shells unlike any we had ever seen along any shore. Once the sun went down the absolute blackness was interrupted only by droning wave crashes and snorting porpoises.
Our night spent in the mangroves was even better, the sounds completely unknown. We camped at the Sunday Bay chickee; a raised wooden platform tucked into a small mangrove inlet. We sat up in our tent for hours trying to figure out the impossible things occurring in the near vicinity. Herons squawked and mullets jumped endlessly but other things we could not figure out.

We know this. Something definitely died. We heard water splash, high-pitched shrieks, wings flapping, and some deep growls. Was it an alligator (do they growl) or maybe a bobcat or Florida panther (how would they get into and around the mangroves)? We asked a Ranger what it was. “Could have been anything. It is the Everglades.”

SunsetWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
It is true, we did argue a lot out on the water. We were disappointed by our alligator count: 0 and a little unnerved by evening marauders on the beach. Paddling is tiring and it took about a day to lose our sea legs and feelings of slight nausea. So those are the negatives.

The plusses: spending the night on a chickee is a very neat experience, as is camping on what feels like your own island. We lost count of egrets, herons, storks, pelicans and porpoises. There is a reason why thousands of amateur artists and photographers (ourselves included) try to capture the pinks, oranges and pastels of the Florida sun.

There are other options, other than a 3-day independent journey into the maze of mangroves. Those options are affordable and frequent. A Ranger leads at least one boat trip each day. If water-bound vessels aren’t your thing, the Gulf Coast VC might feel a little limiting. Don’t worry, there are more terrestrial activities further down the road at the Shark Valley VC.

TOTAL 49/80

Read Full Post »

southern Florida
Visited: January 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 132 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunset View Over the Lake

WHAT IS IT?
729,000 acres consisting primarily of cypress forests. This large expanse of land serves as a watershed to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress N PRES’ neighbor to the south.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The wild beauty of lurking American alligators dominates the Park’s murky canal water. These magnificent ancient beasts are everywhere. The surrounding bald cypress forests teem with sunning anhinga and every native North American wading bird. Even the wretchedly ugly and endangered wood stork soars above. The wet prairie landscapes are uneventful but therapeutically calming after time spent driving through Miami.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Big Cypress swamp’s primary role, both ecologically and as a National Park Unit is to be an unspoiled source of water into the Everglades. It was designated a Park Unit in 1974 shortly after an explosion of land development, oil speculation and economic exploitation severely threatened Big Cypress and in return, the health of the Everglades.

Since then, the Park has been the main location of the Florida Panther’s rise from near extinction. Dozens of Panthers now roam the Preserve.

Hello FriendCROWDS (8/10)
We always feel giddy while driving on the Tamiami Trail through the Preserve. Anglers and giggly tourists line the canal. Gators and wading birds are everywhere. There is a constant air of enjoyment. Nearly everyone driving the route stops at the Visitor Center asks questions about wildlife and wonders about the mysterious Florida Panther. We found the VC as crowded as any park we have been to.

The nearby Monument Lake campground, however, was not crowded at all, amazing given that the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park campground was full and cramped to Andersonville-esque proportions. We had a lovely time at Monument Lake. Campsites along a paved road circle a modestly sized, gator-infested lake. Once the sun starts sinking, the entire campground starts walking around the road, which at this point resembles a giant running track. Smiles and light conversation abound. This was the most pleasant and friendliest campground yet.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Park is simultaneously very accessible and uniquely prohibitive. South Florida’s two primary east-west routes pass through Big Cypress N PRES.

Interstate 75 (a/k/a the Everglades Parkway c/k/a Alligator Alley) passes through the Park’s northern section but offers no access to the Preserve. It is a toll road, no exits are allowed and tall barbed wire fences prevent any spur of the moment excursions.

If you want to enter the Park, you must take the southern route, U.S. 41 (a/k/a the Tamiami Trail). The Visitor Center stands at the road’s halfway point, 50 miles east of Naples and 50 miles west of Miami. You can hike the Florida Trail from the VC to both the north and south. Ask ahead about how much water covers the Trail.

The Tamiami Canal parallels the two-lane Tamiami Trail through the length of the Park. The Canal provides visitors with constant bird watching, fishing and alligator spotting. A few unpaved roads provide access to more remote section of the Preserve. ORV use is allowed in parts and is the primary vehicle used for people who choose to hunt in the Park.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)

Conveniently separated into three main shelves: flora, fauna and history and children’s. Birders and those in search of wildlife get primary attention here. Big Cypress knows its audience. Also among the selection are River of Grass and Voice of the River, tributes to Florida’s wilderness written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Relaxing by the LakeCOSTS (4/5)

The Site is free.

Sites at the lovely Monument Lake campsite cost $16 per night. The campground is 8 miles west of the Visitor Center and only a few hundred yards north of the Tamiami Trail.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)

During our half dozen or so trips into the Visitor Center, there have always been at least two volunteers and one Ranger on duty. Often two and even three Rangers have been there to help out and answer questions. The most interesting staff member posted behind the desk was a firefighter taking a break from administering prescribed burns at the Park.

While we were stamping our National Park Passport Book, a staff member saw a Jimmy Carter NHS stamp and asked about that Site. We told the person how wonderful the Site was and how much respect we had for the president. Their response was, “well, I’m not supposed to tell you this but everyone seems to know anyway.” “What could it be,” we imagined. “President Carter is here today. He’s just a mile down the road at Clyde Butcher’s Gallery on vacation.” “Thanks.” we said as we rushed down the Tamiami Trail hoping to catch our second glimpse of Jimmy in two weeks.

But it was not to be. He was in the back having lunch. We asked the Secret Servicemen to tell the president how much we enjoyed his Sunday school lesson two weeks ago. We are sure they obliged.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
We enjoyed the 15-minute introductory video shown at the Visitor Center. The film packs a strong educational punch even though it must have been made just a short time after the Park’s opening in 1974. Charts explain the watershed and short clips identify many of the Site’s wildlife. The film tells you what you will see and shows you things you are hoping to see. Michael heard loud gasps from everyone in the theater, even his wife, when the legendary ghost orchid appeared on screen. Who knew it was such a big deal?

Frequent Camp VisitorWe have found that many of the older films, Big Cypress’ included, focus on educating the public. The newer films tend to be fancy public relations-oriented pieces short on information and long on pretty pictures.

While the older films stand the test of time, the older museum exhibits do not. Big Cypress is no exception. The Museum displays are woefully inadequate given the large amounts of tourists the Park receives. We had little room to move. The centerpiece display is a stuffed Florida Panther that was tragically killed along the Tamiami Trail by a speeding car.

Rangers give sporadic talks and walks during the season. The crowds at Big Cypress N PRES are mostly transient spur of the moment visitors. The Park is not a destination Site, more of a place to break up the drive from Miami to Naples. The lack of Ranger activities is not surprising.

FUN (9/10)
The drive through Big Cypress on the Tamiami Trail is one of our favorite things about Florida. Where else does a major highway take you straight through otherwise untouchable swamps and forests? Driving through Big Cypress N PRES reminds you that despite all the development and expanding civilization, at its heart, Florida is totally wild.

When we came to Florida a few years ago for a cousin’s wedding, we took this drive almost every day. We couldn’t stay away. Little has changed this time around.

Cold-BloodedWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
It is the middle of winter and gators and green vegetation are everywhere basking in the sun, as are we. Do you really need convincing? When you do come, be sure to drop into Clyde Butcher’s Photo Gallery and Shop located just a mile east of the Visitor Center. Known as the “Ansel Adams of the Swamp”, his black and white photos perfectly capture the many moods of south Florida’s wilderness. You will be following in the footsteps of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

TOTAL 57/80

Read Full Post »