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Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Sunset69-year old Presidents who give two-and-a-half hour inaugural speeches don’t represent all the National Parks that can be sick. Not at all. Some Parks are sick themselves and need help. Case in point: the Everglades.

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.

What can you do to learn more? Picking up Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s ecology classic The Everglades: River of Grass would be a good start or you could surf over to the website of the organization she began: the Friends of the Everglades. There are plenty more links there where you can learn about what you can do to save an American treasure.

Click Here to Read More about Everglades National Park.

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Anhinga and Friend

The Everglades National Park was the first place where we felt like honest-to-goodness birders. We walked around book in hand, binoculars on point, ears wide open. Our heightened senses weren’t necessary; birds are everywhere! The Park’s famed Anhinga Trail follows a boardwalk through a densely inhabited landscape. The birds (and the alligators) seem too content with their lives to even move. Wood storks, anhingas, herons, egrets and purple gallinules sit relaxed to your right and left welcoming you to their paradise.

Eco Pond, located near the Park’s southern tip, offers a look at even more species. We were lucky enough to hop onto an 8:00 a.m. Ranger-led bird walk and were greeted with an advanced lesson from both Ranger and fellow bird-watchers. “There’s a eastern phoebe” someone whispered. “Where,” we whispered back. “Look into that tree, third branch from the bottom on the left.” Dozens of high-powered binoculars moved in unison. This pattern of spotting, confirmation, and full group turn continued for two hours and over 50 species of birds. It was the perfect way to learn.

It was also wonderful to be accepted into this roving band of bird lovers. We were the youngest (by far), the most inexperienced (by far), and the most excited (OK, that’s a lie. Everyone was equally excited). We asked our Ranger if every bird walk was full of knowledgeable enthusiasts. “Of course,” she responded, “how do you think I’ve learned so much? Visitors have taught me sounds to listen for and places to look. Everyday I learn and see something new. This is a wonderful place to live, work and be.” Click Here to Read More.

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near Jacksonville, Fla.
Visited: February 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 140 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Kingsley PlantationWHAT IS IT?
46,000 acres existing mostly of salt marshes that border the slow urban sprawl of greater Jacksonville. The historical part of the preserve consists of a Sea Island cotton plantation and scattered Timucuan Indian ruins.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Preserve is that garbled part of your northeastern Florida map where the Atlantic Ocean meets the fresh water of the St. John’s River. The terrain is mostly flat marshland, palms trees and many shades of green. The plantation home is stately, white and inaccessible to visitors because of structural damage. The slave quarter ruins reveal buildings constructed of tabby (oyster shells).

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
The Site’s historical presentation is a sprawling, jumbled confusing mess made even more vexing by its lack of Park Rangers, interpretive or otherwise. The Preserve covers at least four completely separate peoples and periods of history: pre-Columbian Timucuan Indians, 16th-century French Huguenots, 19th-century Sea Island slaves, and 1920’s socialites.

Many of the stories are fascinating but are told on neighboring exhibit panels and easy to mix up. The Preserve Museum and the Fort Caroline N MEM are one in the same. We found it difficult to get our heads around who, what, where and when. With Ranger assistance and clearer historical delineations, this site could be a trove of historical gems.

We believe we learned that the Timucuan were giant men averaging over 6’6” in height and that the Kingsley Plantation was run by a freed slave who was an African princess. She married Mr. Kingsley and they sold the Plantation after Florida became a part of the United States. The racial climate among slaves and owners in New Spain differed greatly than the “intolerant prejudice” found in the new American nation.

We wish it had been easier to learn more about this area’s intriguing past.

CROWDS (5/10)
Two vanloads of students proved more than the Plantation’s tiny Visitor Center/Bookstore could handle. Space restrictions have dictated the bookshelves’ place directly next to the entrance door. As a result, we struggled to get into the building and out of the rain; a dozen plus students were browsing the titles and blocked our way in. The volunteer on duty struggled to make sense of the chaotic scene around her while answering numerous questions. We came back later once the crowd had dispersed.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Without a sea kayak, 75% of the Park is inaccessible. The Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center is located at the Fort Caroline N MEM, which exists only as an adjunct to the Preserve. There are a few hiking trails scattered throughout the Park.


Welcome to Jacksonville
The Site’s historical centerpiece is the Kingsley Plantation, located on Fort George Island. A wide range of publications, including the USA Today, recommended the Plantation as a nice excursion during Jacksonville’s Super Bowl week festivities. The publicity has not warranted a paved road to the Plantation. It is a two-mile journey north from Route 105 down a single lane road reminiscent of a jeep trail seen in Jurassic Park.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Bookstores at Fort Caroline N MEM and Kingsley Plantation have little in common although they service the same Ecological and Historical Preserve. A few books on people known as the Timucua can be found among the Fort Caroline histories. Some Florida-specific titles are among ubiquitous bird and nature guides. Looking through the store, there is little to explain what is special about the area or why is celebrated with a unique NPS designation.

Kingsley Plantation offers familiar essays and books by African American authors and a few site-specific gems like the collection of Zephaniah Kingsley’s writings entitled, Balancing Evils Judiciously where he elaborates his pro-slavery, pro-black views. Slave narratives and modern accounts of African American life in Jacksonville give this bookstore more focus and substance than its counterpart a Fort Caroline.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free, but it does not really get you much. You cannot go into the Kingsley Plantation.

Three Florida State Parks border the Timucuan Preserve. They all charge admission fees.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
No Rangers at the Timucuan Visitor Center (Fort Caroline N MEM) or the Plantation. And it was Super Bowl week.

The Fort Caroline N MEM volunteer did not place historical value in the Plantation as she curtly disparaged the freed African slave woman who ran the farm. At the Plantation, we found only a frazzled but helpful volunteer.

TOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
There is no video at either Visitor Center. No Ranger-led activities. A black and white pamphlet and a photocopied piece of paper were all we had to guide us around Kingsley Plantation. Even those were absent at Fort Caroline.

Exhibits in the Fort Caroline Visitor Center are pleasing to the eye, but difficult to follow. Low ceilings and bad acoustics don’t help.

RuinsFUN (3/10)
What little fun we derived from the day came at the expense of Jacksonville, which became the punch line for most of our jokes.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10)
Not in its present state. The Kingsley Plantation was especially disappointing. Nothing about this sea island location was familiar to us. We drove down its dirt road and felt transported to another era, a place whose history we have never learned or properly understood. At Kingsley, we found the physical historical resources but none of the necessary interpretive help. We hope that this will change.

TOTAL 29/80

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Part of Timucuan Ecological and Historical PreserveJacksonville, Fla.
Visited: February 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 139 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Welcome to JacksonvilleWHAT IS IT?
Reconstructed 16th-century fort that marks the brief Protestant French (Huguenot) presence along the southern Atlantic coast.

BEAUTY (2/10)
We asked the Ranger at Castillo de San Marcos NM why did the French sail to St. Augustine instead of waiting for the Spanish from their reinforced fortress. His response, “Have you been to Fort Caroline yet? Then you’ll know” And we did. Even though Fort Caroline N MEM is a 1/3-sized reconstruction, its historical smallness and flimsy walls were apparent. It is not much of a fort, more like a triangular shaped enclosure with thin walls overlooking the wide, deep St. Johns River.

We arrived in Jacksonville on a dreary, cold, rainy day. Massive barges floated down the river while steam and smoke bellowed from the many factories. Had it not been for the million dollar houses on the River’s far side, the vista might have been mistaken for Industrial Revolution-era London. Who would build a house overlooking this disgusting river span? Maybe Charles Dickens.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault sailed to the mouth of the St. Johns River hoping to find a suitable area to be a refuge for the persecuted Protestant French. Two years later the fort was built and a 200-person colony was established. The colony would double its size in under a year but saw its end by 1565 at the hands of the Spanish. See our Fort Matanzas review for more background.

In September of 1565 after receiving military reinforcements, the Huguenots launched a preemptive attack on the new Spanish colony of St. Augustine located 20 miles to the south. They picked the wrong month. Once out on the water, the weather changed rapidly and the French found themselves sailing into a hurricane. The violent winds tossed and wrecked their ships far to the south of St. Augustine.

The Spanish learned of the Huguenots terrible luck and sent soldiers to take the sparsely protected Fort Caroline. After swiftly reappropriating the fort and massacring some 250 settlers, the Spanish went looking for the accursed French. They found the exhausted Huguenots south of St. Augustine and slaughtered all but 16 of the 350. The French presence in the region was officially over.

Coastal ViewCROWDS (4/10)
This Site cannot handle crowds well. Not really a problem in our case because there was only one other couple there. Unbelievable since it was Super Bowl week, the biggest thing that has happened to Jacksonville since the Huguenots. Still, the museums ceilings are low and loudly echoed the couple’s conversation with the only person on duty, a talkative and opinionated volunteer. We could not concentrate enough to read the exhibits’ small print text.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Fort Caroline is 13 miles east of downtown Jacksonville. The road that hugs the St. Johns River from Florida 9A (Jacksonville’s beltway) to the Site is fittingly named Fort Caroline Road.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
At least it’s unique. We haven’t seen a pine needle basket craft kit or a fluffy hand puppet in the shape of a clam at other Sites. If only you didn’t have to face the very chatty volunteer to get to the books, several of which are specific to Fort Caroline. Did we mention the clam puppet makes noises?

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
No Rangers, just one volunteer. She shocked us when she explained that the Park’s Ranger generally does not do a good job.

New FranceTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
There are no Ranger programs. We heard rumors that there are monthly living history reenactments. Hopefully they are not battle reenactments because they would not take long to finish. The newly refurbished Visitor Center museum is nice and provides a good introduction to the Timucuan Indians who inhabited the area for thousands of years before the Frenchmen’s fleeting inhabitation.

FUN (3/10)
The most fun the Site offered was a close-up view of a Carnival Cruise Line ship making its way into Jacksonville to provide much needed Super Bowl hotel rooms.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10)
We cannot see much reason to travel to Fort Caroline N MEM. The fort’s story is told in depth elsewhere – by Rangers at Fort Matanzas NM – and the industrial scenery is dismal at best. The reconstructed fort offers no exploration possibilities. It is just an enclosed yard.

TOTAL 30/80

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south of St. Augustine, Fla.
Visited: February 1, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 137 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Nearing the FortWHAT IS IT?
A Spanish stone masonry fortification finished in 1742 whose purpose was to guard the mouth of the Matanzas River, a back door channel into the important colonial city, Saint Augustine.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Fort Matanzas stands on Rattlesnake Island, a small piece of land that bisects the mouth of the Matanzas River. The surrounding waters are much calmer than the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

The fort sits around estuarine marshlands and enjoys a typical Florida coastal feel. The building, itself, is very small. Only seven soldiers lived here at its most crowded. Five cannons point upstream from the deck-like perch. These soldiers lived in a narrow one-room deck level enclosure, while the officers lived directly above.

The Fort has a functional charm. There are no wasted bricks and no superfluous space.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10)
The Spanish built Fort Matanzas because of its strategic defensive position. The Fort faced its first test in 1742, while it neared completion. James Oglethorpe, Governor of the British colony of Georgia, led 12 ships into the Inlet, in an effort to attack St. Augustine from the rear. Fort Matanzas’ cannons repelled the attack and never saw battle again.

As a fort, this Site has limited historical significance. However, nearly 200 years before Fort Matanzas’ construction, another more important historical event occurred on these lands; an event that solidified Spain’s 200-year colonial rule over Florida and ensured the safety of their trade routes.

In 1565, the Spanish looting of South America was in full swing. Boat after treasure-filled boat sailed from Cartagena, Columbia or Vera Cruz, Mexico on to the Spanish capital city, Havana, Cuba up the Gulf Stream and over to Spain. These treasure ships passed close to the shores of present-day Florida.

In 1564, Protestant French (Huguenots) built Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville and began to raid the Spanish galleons for their treasure. The devoutly Catholic Spanish resented the French infidels’ religious choice and their brazen theft. In August 1565, the Spanish founded the town of St. Augustine to subdue the French and protect their ships.

In September, after receiving reinforcements, the French decided to attack St. Augustine en masse leaving Fort Caroline virtual defenseless. Instead of a swift victory, their ships were caught in a hurricane that wrecked the boats and swept the men far south of the new Spanish city. The Spanish caught up with the Huguenots at the mouth of the soon-to-be named Matanzas River.

After the unarmed and exhausted French surrendered, the Spanish bound and then killed all but 16 of the 350 Huguenots. Matanzas is the Spanish word for slaughter. St. Augustine flourished and the French never again gained a foothold in this area of North America.

Soldiers’ QuartersCROWDS (5/10)
We shivered alongside more tourists than we had expected. Our layered clothing, wool hats and gloves spoke the same question: Didn’t we all leave the northern winter to avoid this?

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is located just a few miles east of Interstate 95 on the Florida A1A, 14 miles south of St. Augustine. A ferry to the Fort site departs from the Visitor Center hourly on the half hour. The ferry is free and reliable. We arrived on an unseasonably cold and windy day but unlike the violent Atlantic Ocean, the Matanzas River Inlet was calm. Wind whipped against our faces but the ride was short and sweet.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
We would have appreciated a larger bookstore to browse as we waited for the next ferry. Space is tight, especially if more than one person is perusing the shelves. Titles like A Taste of St. Augustine and Famous Florida Recipes, although not directly related to the site, add flavor to the small selection. Books on famous Florida ship wrecks and the Spanish treasure fleets were more appropriate reading companions to a visit to Fort Matanzas. Samples of coquina, one of the materials used to build the Fort, are scattered around the little shop.

COSTS (5/5)
The Site, ferry ride and the tour of the Fort are all free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
We encountered a plethora of Rangers. Three Rangers and two volunteers accompanied our group on the ferry to the Fort site. No one could have any excuse for leaving the Site with an unanswered question.

TOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
All boat trips to Rattlesnake Island include a 25-minute long talk about the Fort. Because of the cold, the volunteer gave his entire talk in the long, narrow soldiers’ quarters. We were allowed to explore the other room, the deck and the roof when the talk ended. The lesson was informational and nice background to a tour of St. Augustine and its fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.

A tour of Fort Matanzas is an essential companion piece to a Fort Caroline NM visit. Fort Caroline NM has no Ranger talks and no interpretive panels. If you want an understanding of its historical role, you almost need to visit Fort Matanzas.

There are no Museum facilities at Fort Matanzas NM. If you arrive at 10:35 a.m., for example, you will have to deal with idle time. The short introductory video is dated and confusing and the mile long Nature Walk loop is under construction.

FUN (5/10)
We weren’t expecting a boat ride to be involved in our visit, which is what happens when you read a guidebook too quickly. The fact that it was free and left every 30 minutes warmed us to the idea. The Fort was charming; the ferry was fast.

A Ranger might have given a more extensive explanation of the events around the building and use of Fort Matanzas. But the volunteer who led our tour won us over with his Pittsburgh accent and the fact that he is the second person on our trip that recognized the B on Gab’s hat. Brownie points for that.

Overlooking the MarshWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
On a nice sunny day, we are sure the ferryboat trip to Fort Matanzas makes for a lovely day. However, it is not a big-ticket historical destination like nearby St. Augustine and the Fort is awful small. Our freezing bones are still screaming at us for leaving Miami. This Site is for history buffs and those eager to learn everything about Spanish colonial history. We are glad we traveled to Fort Matanzas NM prior to St. Augustine because it provided a good base of understanding for the intensive lesson the old city provides.

TOTAL 48/80

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St. Augustine, Fla.
Visited: February 1, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 138 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Protecting New SpainWHAT IS IT?
A massive stone masonry 17th-century Spanish fort built to protect the city of St. Augustine from British colonial invasion. The Castillo de San Marcos (St. Mark’s Castle) marked the northern-most settlement in Spain’s vast New World Empire.

BEAUTY (7/10)
We were immediately struck by the Castillo de San Marcos’ tremendous size. Four diamond-shaped bastions jut out from the corners of a square interior. A dry moat surrounds the light grey walls that were built with the fragile rock, coquina. In small quantities, coquina crumbles when handled, but when packed together, the rock withstands cannonballs by sucking them in upon impact.

From atop the Fort you can see the beautiful blue waters of Matanzas Bay, the subtle curves of the Three Lions Bridge and the Old City Gates of St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10)
Few American cities have as rich a history as St. Augustine, Florida. The Spanish founded the city in 1565 and it served as the capital of the Province of Florida for over 200 years. St. Augustine protected the Spanish trade routes and the flow of goods along the Gulf Stream and back to Spain. The city was Spain’s northernmost outpost in the New World.

Its frontier location necessitated the building of a great fort. Castillo de San Marcos began construction in 1672. In its lifetime, the Fort faced numerous attacks and sieges from the English. St. Augustine was burned a dozen times but the Spanish never lost the city due to the strength of the Castillo de San Marcos.

The Fort plays the starring role in stories told at other nearby National Park Sites: Fort Matanzas NM, Fort Caroline N MEM and to some extent Fort Frederica NM. St. Augustine was the center of life in the part of the world for nearly two centuries, Castillo de San Marcos was its protector.

CROWDS (7/10)
There were gobs and gobs of people at the Site even though, later that day, the narrow streets of St. Augustine did not seem crowded. Our guided tour included over 40 people who gravitated pre-tour to the Ranger while he answered one of our many questions. The large crowds did not hinder our visit; there are so many things to see.

On the RoofEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is located along the coast in the middle of old St. Augustine. It is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. You can’t miss it. There are approximately 30 free parking spaces on Site but they fill up quickly. You can also park across the street in the St. Augustine Visitor Center lot. We stayed downtown at a nearby hotel and walked everywhere.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
Miniature metal soldiers guard the door. Reproductions of colonial and old world maps line the walls. If you are looking for tiny replicas of cannons or ammunition, you can find them here too. The bookstore and Castillo de San Marcos had plenty of books arranged by topic and souvenirs with a Spanish colonial bent. There was no need to supplement the offerings with Jamestown glassware and pottery. Pretty, but why not let the beauty of St. Augustine shine? In general, a great store.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $6 per person or free with a National Parks Pass. Your ticket is good for an entire week, which is helpful given the Fort’s many nooks and crevices that beg for exploration.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
Jacksonville could learn from its southern neighbor. St. Augustine was well prepared and doubly staffed for any Super Bowl crowd that might find its way here. Castillo de San Marcos NM had volunteers around every corner, as well as regular Ranger talks. We accidentally began the 3 p.m. talk early when a crowd gathered to hear one Ranger answer our barrage of questions we had been collecting since Fort Matanzas. The Ranger happily obliged.

TOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The Park Service provides a 26-station self-guided walking trail through the fort’s extensive rooms and roofs. Many of these rooms also include exhibits that further detail their role. The amount of information is overwhelming.

Ranger-led talks are given hourly in the fort’s inner courtyard. The Ranger was near obsessive in his knowledge of Napoleonic warfare, the U.S. coastal defense system and colonial firearms. He was a welcome help in our attempt to understand and interrelate the five National Park Service forts along the Atlantic coast from Savannah, Georgia to St. Augustine. He helped cut through much of the confusion in ways that exhibit panels and timelines just do not.

On the weekends, the Rangers dress up in period costume and shoot cannons into the water four times a day. The Park Service offers many other interactive tours on site including a monthly torchlight tour, bird walks and reenactments.

FUN (8/10)
We arrived in St. Augustine late afternoon and were immediately drawn to the Castillo. Its size and elevation gave us a perfect vantage point to scope out the city and decide where we wanted to go next. Positioned on the waterfront at the end of a river walk, the Castillo caught the final rays of the sun that had finally decided to come out. We warmed ourselves on the bastions before ducking into the chilly hallways to check out the numerous displays.

The Ranger that led our talk kindly kept us in the sunny corner or the courtyard. Our knowledgeable guide spent equal time explaining the whys and whens of the French and Spanish incursions and dismissing the Hollywood versions of coastal battles. He conceded that Master and Commander was historically accurate with regards to warfare and it was one of the few movies to get it right.

He went on to explain that in the past, the Park Service caved in to the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood. An Errol Flynn movie featured a fort that looked just like Castillo de San Marcos except that its moat was filled with water. 600 pounds (yes pounds!) of mail found its way to the Park Service, demanding that the San Marcos moat be hydrated.

Historians knew that the St. Augustine fort had a dry moat, but did not have the final say. Their word was heeded in the early 90’s when the moat was finally drained. The requested water had led to serious structural damage. The fort had weathered 500 years, twelve British sieges and millions of tourists but was most damaged by an Errol Flynn movie.

We’re suckers for trivia.

Beautiful St. AugustineWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
The town of St. Augustine still seems more like a Spanish colonial outpost than an American town. Both the Park Service Rangers and the period costumed employees of the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum do a terrific job at perpetuating this feel. We loved the town’s Avenida de San Marcos, a pedestrian-only promenade, and its eclectic array of good restaurants. Comparable only to Williamsburg, Virginia, St. Augustine is a wonderful historical vacation spot. The stellar Castillo de San Marcos NM is large part of the town’s attractiveness.

TOTAL 61/80

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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

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