The Everglades: One watery wonderland

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Glenda C. Booth

A sheet of water once flowed from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes near Orlando to Lake Okeechobee and then across the southern tip of Florida through ponds, sloughs, wetlands, hummocks and forests.

Once covering almost 3 million acres, the Everglades was perceived by many during Florida’s early boom years as a worthless swamp interfering with agriculture and other development.

So, human engineering was brought to bear, “improving” south Florida with canals, dams and elaborate drainage systems that severely interrupted and diverted the historic flow of water.

In large part thanks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist and tireless conservation advocate during the 1900s, the Everglades are now viewed as a national natural treasure.

In 2000, Congress approved a 30-year plan to restore some of the original Everglades. Today, the ecosystem encompasses 1.3 million acres of sawgrass prairie stretching across South Florida.

The largest subtropical ecosystem in the U.S., it now boasts 350 species of birds, 300 of fish, 40 of mammals, 50 of reptiles, 17 of amphibians and 1,000 of plants. This is also the only place where alligators and crocodiles co-exist.

Who’s watching whom?

On a recent visit to Everglades National Park, as I walked just a few inches above water level along the Anhinga Trail boardwalk, I stopped to study a hunched-over greenback heron.

I suddenly realized that I was also being watched. In the grayish-brown muck five feet away, a dark leathery crown barely poked out, and two large, half-emerged shiny orbs just above the waterline were eyeing me.

The “keeper of the Everglades,” a Florida alligator, was lurking, camouflaged in the shallows. Once endangered, “today they are too numerous to count,” Christiana Admiral, a National Park Service interpreter told me later.

The typical male is seven feet long. To casual observers, alligators seem lethargic, but they can move fast both in water and on land. In the visitor center’s “Gators in Motion” video, I had learned that during courtship males bellow, nuzzle females, and then both submerge to mate. Recalling that we had also been cautioned that “they eat anything,” I didn’t linger.

Ambling on, I spotted a big brown bird with wings splayed apart, seemingly frozen in time. It was an anhinga, and except for an occasional blink of the eye, it was sitting perfectly still on a branch drying its wings. Known as “snakebirds,” anhingas swim underwater, spear fish and perch to dry out, an iconic pose in these wetlands.

Moving further, I spotted a thin white “tube” reaching upward amid the millions of sawgrass blades. It was a great egret awaiting its prey.

Around the bend, a great blue heron crouched silently, transfixed on the water. These bluish-gray, 46-inch wading birds patiently stand motionless for a long time waiting for a snack to zip by.

The Everglades, North America’s unique “river of grass,” is deceptive. At first glance, all seems quiet, at rest. But it’s not. It is a mesmerizing liquid land where you should slowly imbibe the serenity and study subtle movements and gentle nuances, from the microscopic to the menacing.

Tony Iallonardo, a resident of Arlington, Va., described his October visit like this: “I was told not to expect grand vistas like the Tetons or Yosemite. The Everglades require you to move slowly and look closely. Then the beauty opens itself up to you.

“What’s most special is the abundance of wildlife. It’s all around you all the time — under your feet, above your head and everywhere in between.

“Alligators, diamondback rattlers, other snakes, lizards, a bear cub and hundreds of egrets and herons. We had many moments when we were all alone with the wildlife and our beautiful surroundings.”

Multiple entrances and paths

There are three entrances to Everglades National Park: the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center near Homestead on the southeast, Shark Valley at the northeast corner, and Everglades City at the northwest corner.

Driving to the Coe entrance, 35 miles south of Miami, and from there along the 37-mile road to Flamingo, Fla., is an excellent one or two-day introduction to all that is the Everglades.

Off this road are several easy trails where you can get close-up looks at wood storks, ibises and turtles. Unusual plants, like mangroves and moonvines that bloom at night, also abound.

On the Gumbo Limbo Trail, I explored a typical hardwood hummock, lush with subtropical plants, including orchids and bromeliads, and secretive animals, such as the Florida tree snail and the Key Largo wood rat. (The gumbo limbo tree is known as the tourist tree because its bark peels like the sunburned skin of a tourist.)

The Pa-hay-okee Overlook’s one-quarter mile boardwalk took me to an observation tower for a panoramic view. On the West Lake Trail, a half-mile loop, I watched birds flit around in a forest of salt-tolerant mangrove trees perched on their above-water roots arched like a birdcage.

On my drive to Flamingo, I sampled most of the park’s ecosystems — freshwater sloughs, marl prairies, cypress and mangrove forests and marine estuaries. During low tide, the mud flats host throngs of birds, including pelicans, cormorants, herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, mangrove cuckoos and black skimmers.

At the road’s end, I had hoped for sightings of a saltwater crocodile or manatee, both of which rangers say are common, but they were not visible on the drizzly day of my visit. Crocodile numbers have rebounded to around 1,500, according to park authorities.

Flamingo has boat, kayak and canoe rentals, snacks, an informative visitor center and free ranger-guided programs. 

Taking another approach, from the Shark Valley entrance off the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, there’s a two-hour, open-air tram tour led by naturalists to a 50-foot observation tower. Or you can rent a bike to explore the 15-mile trail or walk several trails from the visitor center.

Alternatively, at the Everglades City entrance, 78 miles west of Miami, the National Park Service rents kayaks, canoes and camping equipment. Many visitors go there for canoe or boat trips in the maze of mangroves and waterways through the Ten Thousand Islands.

Some say Everglades City, a fishing town, is reminiscent of “old Florida” — pre-Disney World, strip malls and condos.

In the U.S., if you say Florida, many Americans think “Miami Vice,” Disney World or the Daytona 500. A Dutch visitor told me, “In the Netherlands, if you say ‘Florida,’ people think ‘Everglades.’” You will, too, after your immersion into this watery wonderland.

Planning your trip

Before you go, look at the National Park Service’s website www.nps.gov/ever and talk to staff (call (305) 242-7700), especially if you plan to paddle or camp. Thoroughly research your options ahead of time so you can take into consideration weather, tides, mosquitoes (very pesky in summer), water levels and other factors. Even a one-day visit walking the trails is well worth it.

Besides the park, there are touristy, kitschy amusements nearby like alligator and snake shows and airboat rides. Be forewarned: Airboats with their jet engines are very noisy and scare wildlife away, but it is a common way to get out on the water. Everglades Wilderness Charters offers guided fishing and camping trips (www.evergladeswildernesscharters.com).

En route to the Coe entrance, don’t miss Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, a cornucopia of tropical fruits, jams, milkshakes and Key lime pies. For 38 years, visitors have stopped for the Key lime milkshakes.

There is no lodging in the park itself. A new lodge will open in Flamingo in 2013. There are several campgrounds. Study the Everglades website for services and rules.

Homestead, 15 minutes from the Coe Visitor Center, has many motels listed with the Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce at www.chamberinaction.com.

For a taste of old Florida, try the Grove Inn Country Guesthouse in Redlands, five minutes north of Homestead. I felt like I was on the set of The Night of the Iguana, listening to subtropical critters in the lush garden of bromeliads and lemon trees buffering a central courtyard. The inn houses refugees during hurricanes because of its solid, 1950s concrete construction. Check www.groveinn.com or call 1-877-247-6572.

When to visit

When is the best time to go? There is no easy answer.

June to October brings heat, storms, mosquitoes galore and fewer visitors than other times. You may see colorful lubber grasshoppers, female alligators building nests, and loggerhead turtles laying eggs. Birds like white-crowned pigeons, black-whiskered vireos and gray kingbirds migrate from the tropics to nest in the summer. Wet areas are flooded and the cypress trees green up.

The young hatch by September. Fall brings bird migration, including thousands of barn swallows, bobolinks, warblers and peregrine falcons. Alligator hatchlings scramble about.

December to April, the dry season, is the most popular, but it is often crowded. “It’s almost like going through the zoo,” Hayley Crowell, a National Park Service ranger, told me.

The crocs are easier to see, there are more ranger-led walks, and there are fewer mosquitoes. As some of the Everglades’ watery environs evaporate, wading birds gather around alligator holes where fish congregate. Wood storks nest and their young fledge in February or March.

Flying to Miami is the fastest way to access the Everglades. American Airlines has flights in mid-January from Baltimore-Washington and National Airports for around $189 roundtrip. Once there, you’ll need to rent a car at the airport.

Glenda C. Booth is a travel writer based in Alexandria, Va.