Our Top Seven Biking trails – 2nd Anniversary

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Continuing with our 2nd anniversary celebration posts, this time we share our top seven biking experiences during the period March 1, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2014.  Steve is always happy when he can unload our bikes so we can actually ride them, rather than just haul them around the country.  Our qualifications for these rides is the most points for: (1) the trail was nice to ride and well-maintained, and (2) the experience during the ride was memorable.  The list below continues the tradition I started with last year’s top seven. Continue reading

Our Top Ten Favorite Hikes – 2nd Anniversary

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Stone Mountain Trail

We have crossed another milestone.  Two years ago today, on March 1, 2012, we embarked on our new lifestyle of living on the road.  One of our many goals was to continue to exercise and be active.  Building on what I began last year, and to commemorate our 2nd year of full timing, I have compiled our new set of favorite hike/walk trails.  This top ten list covers the trails we explored between March 1, 2013 and Feb 28, 2014.  It does not include the dozens of beach walks we took while on the east coast.  Although we love long walks on the beach, they tend to be fairly similar and we decided not to try to rate them. Continue reading

Good Friends Gather Once More – Punta Gorda, FL

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We are continuing to meander up the southwest coast of Florida, on our slow northward migration.  Our next stop was in the city of Punta Gorda, spanish for “fat point”.  It sits at a point where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor.  On our way there we caught a glimpse of this interesting car.  Would you ride in this red wagon?  Steve said he would!

Immediately after settling in, we contacted our friends Dave and Sue, John and Pam, and Joe and Judy to make arrangements to get together one more time before we leave Florida.  Fortunately they were able to carve some time away from their “busy” retirement schedules to meet us for meals.  But more on that later, as Steve and I had some exploring to do around our new home base.

Harbor Bridges, Punta Gorda

Harbor Bridges Mural

During our walk along the Punta Gorda Harborwalk we discovered the cool Harbor Bridges Mural.  It depicts Theodore Roosevelt (who came to Punta Gorda in 1917) and his guide in the foreground with a Manta Ray they had beached.  The center of the mural shows Charlotte Harbor, and the sides show the old and new Harbor Bridges.  The arrow indicates the locations of Punta Gorda and Gasparilla Island, our points of interest while staying in the area.

Punta Gorda Harbor Walk

A section of the Harborwalk with the Harbor bridges (highway 41 north and south) in the background

Steve and I had been lamenting that our walks here in Florida lacked elevation.  The walking/hiking trails are almost completely flat, and we were hoping for some changes in elevation as we walked around scenic Charlotte Harbor.  The pathway is quite popular, well maintained and cuts through various city parks.

As we neared the east end of the pathway, it branched out.  One path went safely under the bridge and the other lead across it.  We followed the one onto the northbound US 41 bridge, and ahead of us was the steepest incline we have seen in months – the bridge itself.  Pitiful!

US41 bridge heading north

Hey, look at that hill!

Harbor Bridges

Twin bridges, US 41 Northbound and Southbound

Walking across bridges is obviously not our favorite way to exercise, what with the noise and car emissions.  But we walked both of them, and after adding that to our harbor walk we had covered several miles.

Harbor Bridges, Punta Gorda

The Harbor Bridges (also called the Highway 41 Twin Bridges) cross the Peace River and connect Punta Gorda to Port Charlotte to the north. Our efforts were rewarded with several wildlife sightings – dolphins, jellyfish, stingrays and other fish.  Not bad after all!

In another area we saw these feathered friends frolicking and scurrying for food in the the pond at nearby Fishermans Village.

On another day we hauled our bikes to Gasparilla Island, part of a chain of Gulf Coast barrier islands.  We paid the $6 causeway toll and a $3 parking fee before beginning our ride from the south end of the island where the restored 1890 lighthouse sits.

Boca Grande Lighthouse

A restored 1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse

From there we followed the Boca Grande bike path, a paved 6.5-mile trail which is credited as Florida’s first rail-trail.  It travels the length of the Gulf Coast barrier island. The northern section has a separate jogging/walking path that is privately maintained and beautifully landscaped.  We shared the bike path with an ocassional golf cart, which appear to be the preferred mode of local transportation in this upscale area.

Boca Grande Bike Path

Landscapde Boca Grande bike path

On our way back home we stumbled upon a Fishery Market and Restaurant in Placida. We saw fresh-caught fish being unloaded from a boat and taken directly to the market. I was so excited to see not only the various fish, but they also had blue crabs available when we stopped by.  I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity!  I got 5 crabs and 3 various kinds of fish for a measly $17!  After packing them into our trusty ice chest that never leaves the car, we proceeded to have a fabulous lunch at the Fishery Restaurant. Then we raced home so I could clean my yummy catch in time to have some more for dinner!

One day we hopped on a boat cruise that took us across Charlotte Harbor for Sunday brunch at a place called Burnt Store.  Legend says the Trading Post there was burned down by Billy Bowlegs, the leader of an Indian settlement who was pissed off when settlers invaded their territory.  The Trading Post was never rebuilt, and the name Burnt Store stuck.  The road leading to it – and the one on which we stayed at Gulf View RV Resort (see Steve’s review here) – is Burnt Store Road.  Although the boat cruise was relaxing, the brunch was not very good and there was nothing much else to see or do at Burnt Store.  However, we were happy to see the migrants just offshore, White Pelicans hanging out on a sandbar.  It’s hard to tell in the picture, but these guys are huge – much bigger than a typical brown pelican.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans migrants

The birthday boy, Steve, celebrated his birthday by going to the Muscle Car City Museum after reading Sue and Dave’s recent post about it. He discovered that the museum  was right up the street from our RV park.  It had an amazing collection of Corvettes, at least one from every year it has been produced.  He also salivated over the Camaros, Chevelles and El Caminos, all of which he had worked on and rebuilt in his earlier mechanical life.

Muscle Car City

Muscle Car City Museum

This guy bought a former Walmart store and filled it with classic cars – how cool is that?

Muscle Car City Museum

Steve had a good laugh at this sign in the restroom

Finally, the chance to gather with friends had arrived.  We first met up for lunch with Joe and Judy at Ft. Myers, a midway point between Bonita Springs and Punta Gorda. They were so kind to restock us with fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice from Sun Harvest.  After our BBQ meal we talked about where we might meet again and said our goodbyes.

Next we drove to Venice, Florida to meet up one more time with Sue and Dave of Belugas Excellent Adventure, and John and Pam of Oh the Places.  We had a delicious lunch at Sharkys by the Pier and then walked to the Venice pier and along the beach.  Sue introduced us to fossilized shark tooth hunting/collecting.

Sue told us that collecting prehistoric shark’s teeth has been a favorite pastime for visitors and residents of the Venice area for years.  They may be black, brown, or gray, depending on the minerals in the soil in which they have been buried.  They range in size from one eighth inch to three inches, and on rare occasions larger.  Collectors or enthusiasts bring their metal sifter, scoop up a bunch of sand, then dump it on the beach before sifting through for the teeth.

During subsequent walks I have collected some items, but I think only one of them might be a shark’s tooth.  Am I right Sue?

Fossilized Sharks Teeth

Fossilized Sharks Teeth?

After the beach adventure we followed our friends to Snook Haven, where the sign says it all:

Snook Haven

After enjoying a refreshment and more talk, the cool people had to split up and be on their way.  We vowed to meet again somewhere in this vast land of ours, perhaps this summer.  Thank you friends, for hanging out with us – and lets keep in touch!

Next up:  A 2nd Anniversary Post of our Top Ten Hikes

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Of Friends and Palm Trees

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Fiji Fan Palm Tree

On our way out of the Florida Keys, a funny thing happened as we were leaving the RV park.  It’s not often that we see another Winnebago Tour motorhome in an RV park – they are not nearly as common as the Tiffin Phaeton model.  But on this day as we were about to hook up our car, Steve pulled up next to another Winnebago Tour towing a Honda CR-V like ours.  And the other folks were also registered in South Dakota, using the same mail service we do!  We enjoyed talking with them for a few minutes before they pulled out just ahead of us, heading to Fort Lauderdale – just as we were!

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In addition to birds and beaches, palm trees dominate the scene in Florida, especially in the southern part of the state.  Here, palm trees adorn highways, line side streets and are used in landscaping for houses or just as centerpieces.  I didn’t pay much attention to these trees until my one time header, taken of a palm in Puerto Rico, got LuAnn’s (Paint Your Landscape) curiosity as to its name.

Her query  got me into “research mode”, and I began to focus my camera on palm trees so I could google them to learn more (as if learning about birds isn’t enough for me).  I couldn’t find that particular palm from Puerto Rico here in Florida, and as a last resort I contacted the hotel in San Juan to ask about it.  Incredibly, they got back to me with complete details about the Fiji Fan Palm Tree.  Isn’t it a beautiful one?

Fiji Fan Palm Tree

Fiji Fan Palm Tree

You may wonder why I went to such trouble?  Well, I was about to finally meet LuAnn. We had been hoping to meet since last year when we were both in Arizona, and again while we were in Ohio.  But our paths and schedules just never came together.  Fast forward to this winter in Florida, and our stars finally aligned.  She and Terry were parked just a few miles from us when we were in Davie, near Fort Lauderdale.

Happy hour at the Lowe's

Over wine, good food and LuAnn’s smooth and yummy chocolate pudding dessert, we had a great time talking with her and Terry.  This was our first time getting together, yet we felt like we had known each other for a long time and were just catching up.  We clicked right away, and there was such a positive vibe between us.  LuAnn is reserved, as I’d imagined her to be when reading her introspective posts.  She has one of the most well-written blogs encompassing not just their RV travels, but also musings about life, her beautiful poetry, great photography and yummy recipes.  Terry is ever the gentleman, outgoing and funny.  We all got along so well that we lost track of time!  We had a wonderful visit and vowed to meet up again, maybe even to travel together somewhere in the future.  They are a delight and we are so glad our paths finally crossed.

Paint your Landscape

Blogger gals rendezvous

It’s funny that we forgot to talk about the Fiji Fan Palm tree, as there were so many other interesting tales to share.  But here are some notable palm trees that I have encountered here in southern Florida.  These trees enjoy the warm, humid climate and sandy soils that Florida has to offer. There are thousands of palm tree types but these are the ones I thought worth showing.

Royal Palms

Royal Palms at Homestead

Fox Tail Palm Tree

Fox Tail Palms at Punta Gorda

Indian Date Palms at Ft. Myers

Bizmark Palm Trees

Bizmarck Palms along our route to Miami

Coconut Trees

Coconut Palms obscure a mansion in Miami

Indian Palm Tree

Dr. P. Frost’s (inventor of Viagra) mansion lined with exotic  Palm Trees in Miami

Palm Trees seen in Venice, FL

Palm Trees in Venice

Steve and I love all of these palm trees, they just put us in such a fun tropical mood. We’ll miss them and the ocean shoreline that we’ve enjoyed for the past several months, when we begin making our way inland in a few weeks.

Finally, a last look at the Miami skyline with windblown palm trees in the foreground.

Miami Skyline

I’m glad LuAnn sparked my interest and that I paid more attention to these beautiful trees.

Next up:  Punta Gorda, FL

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And then there’s Key West…

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At the very end of the Florida Keys, the last island on the Overseas Highway (US 1) is of course Key West.  It sits at the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and is surrounded by incredibly clear beautiful water.  As usual, a question crossed my mind as I wondered why is this island called Key West?  Why not Key South? There are lots of theories, but the plaque below that we saw upon our arrival explained it one way:

Caso Hueso

It was about a one-hour drive to Key West from our home base near Big Pine Key. Arriving fairly early, we immediately noticed the island was a tourist mecca buzzing with activity – not to mention heavy traffic – as we skirted around several road construction projects.  The streets were teeming with bicycles, scooters, cars and the obvious tourists. We learned during our previous visits to cities like Savannah and Charleston that taking a trolley tour is a good way to get your bearings around town, see the city highlights and learn along the way.  And so that’s what we did.

Cinema Tropics

During our 90-minute tour, we learned that Key West has known the best of times – being the richest city per capita in the mid 1800’s – mainly due to the business of salvaging ships that had crashed onto the nearby reef.  It’s also seen the worst of times, declaring bankruptcy in the 1930’s after the modernization of merchant vessels made salvaging operations no longer necessary.

The wreckers

“The Wreckers”, a sculpture that captures the spirit of Key West.  Wrecking (salvaging wrecked ships) was the island’s first economy that brought it a lot of wealth.

Bisecting the town is Duval Street, called the “longest main street” because it stretches from coast to coast – from the Atlantic ocean to the Gulf of Mexico 🙂  But here it is known more as party central, with its numerous and diverse bars, clubs and restaurants. However, it was still fairly early when we arrived so things hadn’t kicked into gear yet.

Duval Street, Key West

We hopped off the trolley to explore the area on foot.  This is when I started to look beyond the usual tourist trap stores selling T-shirts, trinkets and other stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with that) that I noticed whimsical sculptures scattered around town; Banyan and other exotic trees decorated streets and homes, and feral chickens roamed all around the island.

First, the sculpture pieces are life-size bronze statues, which are actually castings of living people, depicting them engaged in day-to-day activities.  These were all donated by J. Seward Johnson, and many of his works grace the Key West Lighthouse Museum grounds and other places on the island.

Key West Custom House

“Time for Fun” at Key West Museum of Art & History.  Some of the statues are obviously larger than life!

DayDream by Seward Johnson

“Daydream”

LunchBreak by Seward Johnson

What are you talking about?

Strolling around Key West, you can’t help but notice the chickens and roosters roaming everywhere.  I come from the Philippines, where chickens roaming around like this would be on the dinner table by sunset.  But not at Key West.  These guys are a popular, colorful sight around town, free to come and go as they please – and they are protected by law.  And yes, they seem to know it, strutting around everywhere while preening and annoying folks with the “little gifts” they leave behind.

The trolley tour guide told us the chickens were brought here by the Cubans when they fled their country in the 1950’s, as a result of the Revolution.  What we see today are the descendants of the birds that were turned loose in the 1970’s when cockfighting was outlawed.  Now they are here for the tourists to enjoy.

Chicken and chicks around Key West

Mother hen and her brood leisurely strolling through town.  Any red-tailed hawks around here?

Rooster crossing street

Why did the chicken cross the street?  This guy thinks he owns it!

Coconut and palm trees definitely bring a tropical vibe to the island.  Added to that mix are exotic mature trees dotting the area and adorning homes.  These trees help create a natural setting to homes and the island.  The building height restriction of 7 floors also keeps the town a bit more quaint.

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We thought these were the coolest!

And just like the other tourists, we walked down to the end of Whitehead street to pose at a landmark.  It looked like a giant buoy, but according to our tour guide it is actually a septic tank!  Phew!  But this colorful septic tank or giant buoy marks the southernmost point of the US.  It’s nothing fancy, yet many folks lined up for a picture with it and so did we.  We came across another landmark, “Mile 0” at the beginning of US 1 which runs along the east coast and ends all the way up in Maine.  I thought it was a cool landmark, so I posed again!

When our tummies told us it was time for lunch, we skipped the seafood this time and went to El Meson de Pepe, a family-owned and operated authentic Cuban Restaurant. And we weren’t disappointed.  Steve got the Cayo Hueso Cuban Mix, a traditional Cuban sandwich with trimmings – while I went with the Tostones Rellenos.  It was four stuffed green plantains, filled with roast pork, picadillo, ropa vieja, and seafood creole. The verdict?  Delicious!

And of course a visit to Key West would not be complete without a slice of Key Lime pie – a culinary staple for any visitor on the island.  Yum!

Key Lime Pie

To quench our thirst after walking all around the island, we stopped at the Southernmost Cafe and Bar for a refreshing Rum Runner.

All roads in Key West lead to Mallory Square, where crowds gather for the  sunset celebrations.  But it had already been a long day for us, and we knew the sunset shots at our nearby state park would be just as fabulous, and without the crowds.

Mallory Square

Our trip to the Keys was brief, but walking the island was the best way for us to see and experience it, and we covered it pretty well.  Now we can check that one off the list!

On Valentine’s day, Steve and I went back to Bahia Honda State Park for our last hike and last sunset.  But our day got exciting before we even left the RV park.  At the entrance we saw a vendor who sells fresh fish on Fridays, even calling her kiosk “Seafood Friday”.  It turned out the woman was from Ninilchik, Alaska, where she lives and fishes during the summer.  Then she brings down her awesome smoked products and winters in Florida, where she sells fresh local fish.  Folks coming down this way should try to stop at Sunshine Key RV Resort on a Friday, just to buy her extremely fresh and reasonably-priced fish.  Since we had been to Ninilchik, we stopped and chatted about her little town in Alaska.  And look what I bought for dinner!

Yellow Tail Snapper

Sporting my yellowtail snapper, soon to be dinner!

After our walk that afternoon, we got a quick visit from our new friends – Vic and Pam of Travelin’ in the Big EZ.  They happened to be just a few miles from us, staying across the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon.  It was a too-short hello, and I forgot to snap a picture posing with them.  Hopefully next time we’ll have a happy hour with them somewhere.

Finally, our last sunsets at the Keys.

Sunset at the Keys

Sunset at the Keys

And when we turned around to go back to the car, we got a moonrise too!

MoonriseIt was a perfect ending of our last night at the Keys.

Next up:  Friends and Palms

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Into the Keys, the Fabulous Florida Keys

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Just down the road from the Everglades is the island chain called the Florida Keys – also known as America’s tropical paradise.  Because there are so many islands (1,700 in all) within the Florida Keys, they are often divided into regions with each presenting its own version of island paradise.  On our way there, an obvious question was triggered, why is it called the Florida Keys?  We learned that the Spanish called these chains of islands “keys” from the Spanish word “cayos”, meaning “small islands.”   Today we know them as the Florida Keys and they are connected by 42 bridges.

The Florida Keys

Our scenic drive on the Overseas Highway (also known as US 1) combined multiple water views – Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west – and natural wonders with their history along the way.  We crossed the longest and most famous Seven-Mile Bridge, which is 35,716 feet long.

Seven Mile Bridge

Does this bridge (Seven Mile Bridge) remind you of scenes from True Lies, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Mission Impossible III?

Paralleling the Seven-Mile Bridge on our right was the previous automobile bridge, now a National Historic Site and being used as a fishing pier.

Old Seven Mile Bridge

Old Seven Mile Bridge

Our next stop was in the subgroup of islands called Lower Keys, which is anchored by Big Pine Key – our home base for a week.   Among the Keys, the Lower Keys is the largest.  It’s a laid-back area, perfect for viewing wildlife and a bit of history.  We checked out an area that showed extensive impact from the storm surge created by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.  That surge resulted in a widespread “salt-kill” of pine trees throughout Big Pine Key.

Big Pine Key

Storm surge killed all the pine trees at Big Pine Key

When driving there, we watched our speed as the limit is strictly enforced to protect the Key Deer. The Lower Keys area is the location of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, where these cute little guys are protected.

Key Deer warning

Speed is strictly enforced on this stretch, 45 mph during the day and 35 mph at night.

The Key Deer is the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer, standing only about 2 feet tall.    Their population is very low and under threat of extinction due to human interaction, which is why they are listed as endangered.  Folks around here take their Key Deer seriously!

Key Deer

A Key deer posed for me

Another nearby refuge was the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1938 to protect habitat for the Great White Heron and other migratory birds.  Lucky for me, it’s only here in the Florida Keys that you can find this beautiful white color-phase of Great Blue Herons, the Great White Heron.  At first I thought it was a Great Egret, but a closer look at its pale legs told me otherwise.  I’m sure all of my birding friends will be jealous of my only-in-the-Keys experience 🙂

Great White Heron

Great White Heron, note the pale legs compared to the black legs of a Great Egret

and for comparison I got a good shot of a Great Egret while at the Everglades.

Great Egret

Great Egret

With the continuing gorgeous – albeit a bit humid – weather, we planned our activities for this stop.  There was no shortage of things to do in this area.  The nearby Bahia Honda State Park has extensive sandy beaches and beautiful waters for snorkeling, plus unusual plants and history.  Riding our bikes and then walking through the park, we came across the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, which was originally part of the Overseas Railroad.  Also called the “railroad that went to the sea”, it was built at great expense by Henry Flagler and completed in 1912.  One of the connecting links which joined Key West to Miami, the over-the-sea railroad was short-lived as a category 5 hurricane wiped it out in 1935.  Only skeletal sections of it remain standing today.

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Originally a railroad bridge, an automotive road was later added to the top

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Old Bahia Honda Bridge on the left and the new one on the right

We followed a trail onto part of the bridge that is accessible from the park.  When we got there we were rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the islands and the state park.

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park, viewed from the top of the old bridge

With our history lesson concluded, we began to get more active.  We cruised along the state park’s 3.5 miles on our bikes, then added a few more miles as we rode along US 1 to and from our RV park.

Biking at Bahia Honda State ParkWhile in the state park, we also walked along the Silver Palm Trail.  It looped through a hammock, mangrove area and the beach, where a mosquito found and bit me.  I hate those pesky critters!  The park is home to one of the largest remaining stands of Silver Palms in the U.S.

Silver Palm

The increasingly rare Silver Palm, it is illegal to remove them from their natural habitat

We also enjoyed the colorful butterflies at the Wings and Waves Butterfly garden. But I failed to encounter the “Miami Blue,” described as a small brightly colored butterfly, which lives only in Florida 😦

In the park, we also walked on what is boasted to be one of the best beaches in the Keys. Well, the crystal blue waters were certainly inviting and the white sand was very soft to walk on, compared to many other beaches we have explored lately.

Bahia Honda Beach

Bahia Honda Beach

Among the water activities offered at the park, we chose snorkeling.  A boat trip to the reef for snorkeling at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary was available.  I wasn’t too nervous snorkeling this time, as I was in Barbados.  Our guide gave a brief refresher snorkeling course to a few of us, which elevated my confidence.  But unlike Steve, I stayed close to the boat and enjoyed viewing the nearby coral reef and many colorful fish.
Our home base here was not exactly paradise.  It was crowded, very noisy and tight.  But Sunshine Key RV Resort is located just a couple of miles from Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys.  When I made our reservations seven months ago, I wanted very much to stay at the state park but was unsuccessful in getting a site for Betsy.  Despite our dislike of the RV park, its proximity to fun things we wanted to do made up for it.
Sunshine RV Resort, Big Pine Key

Can you spot Betsy?

A few more pictures of our activities:

Barracudas

Barracudas brought in by local fishermen

Pelican

A pelican making his move – a fisherman shooed him away just in time!

Lastly, the Keys are known for spectacular sunsets.  So back to the state park I went, climbing to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge just to capture a gorgeous shot for my friends.  At first the clouds were covering the sun…
Sunset from Old Bahia Honda Bridge
…but 30 minutes later I was rewarded!
Sunset from Old Bahia Honda Bridge
Next up:  A long day at Key West

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Grassy Waters of Florida – The Everglades

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Anhiga

We were unsure what to expect of the Everglades before our visit here.  When I thought of the Everglades, scenes of Miami Vice or CSI Miami (to be a bit more current) on an airboat, or the terrible ValueJet Flight 592 crash that occurred here in 1996, came to mind.  My imagination was quickly corrected as we drove through Everglades National Park.  Defined by water and seemingly endless prairies, it is certainly not your “typical” park.  Consisting of grassy waters, the Everglades is extremely flat, as we saw at Shark Valley.  And although it doesn’t seem like this area is in a valley, it is.  An elevation change of just 1 ft here makes a huge difference in the ecosystem, and the changes were very obvious as we drove and rode along the roads.

Everglades

But first, why is this place called the Everglades? When early explorers first viewed the Everglades long ago, they saw large fields of grass.  So they began to call it the Ever-Glades: Ever from the word forever & Glades which is an old English word that means a grassy open place.

Since we had already seen a portion of Everglades National Park while biking at Shark Valley, we came to explore further its watery wilderness.

Everglades National Park

Map of the Everglades National Park showing the main park road

Planning to spend a day in the main park, our friend Judy had suggested that the best way to do so would be to drive all the way to the end of Park Road to Flamingo, 38 miles from the entrance gate.  By stopping there and getting familiar with the park along the way, we then had a plan for what we would explore on the way back out.  Good suggestion Judy, and also thanks for reminding us to bring our lunch along!  Although there is a small cafe that is sometimes open at the Flamingo Visitor Center, you will not find another speck of food anywhere else in this huge park.

Gumbo Limbo

Gumbo Limbo lined the parking lot at Flamingo area

Steve and I were wearing shorts and t-shirts, not realizing that recent rains had caused the normally manageable mosquito population to increase.  The park ranger warned us that all trails in the area were either “muddy or buggy”, but we followed Bear Lake Trail with the hope of seeing wading birds at the lake. No birds at the lake, and we were pretty much eaten alive by the mosquitoes for our effort.  It was an uncomfortable hike through Gumbo Limbo and mangrove trees.  The Gumbo Limbo tree is otherwise known as the “tourist tree”, since its peeling red bark looks a lot like a severe sunburn. The hard wood was once used to carve merry -go-round horses and the trees provided rot-proof living fences.

We finally saw a couple of American Crocodiles, and kept our distance from them as they basked in the sun.  Unlike alligators, who rarely attack humans and are considered relatively docile if left unprovoked, crocs are more aggressive and likely wouldn’t hesitate to have me for lunch!  Their color is lighter, more gray to green, and they have a narrow tapered snout and tend to live in saltier tropical coastal waters.  Another difference is that both the lower and upper teeth are visible on a crocodile when its mouth is closed; only the upper teeth are visible on alligators.  Alligators are freshwater animals, whereas crocodiles can be found in either fresh or salt water.  OK, science lesson complete!

American Crocodile

We stayed far away from these guys, the American Crocodile

The drive through the scenic park from the Flamingo area toward the entrance gate was quite interesting.  We noticed several changes between dense hardwood tropical forest and mangroves…

Main Park Road, Everglades

…to the Dwarf Cypress forests which displayed spindly white trees…

Dwarf Cypress Forest, Everglades

Dwarf Cypress Tress, Everglades

…to the subtropical Slash Pine forest which represented the remains of what once occupied 10 times more of this area.

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Following the Pineland Trail, we noticed several trees with odd-colored patches on their trunks.  These were lichens which consist of a fungus and an algae living together.  They don’t harm the tree, but rather provide a food source for Tree Snails (which were not present that day).

Lichens

Lichens on trees

A vast area of the Everglades could be seen from horizon to horizon from the Pa-Hay-okee Overlook.

Pa-hay-okee TrailThe Everglades is a wild place to explore and see amazing wildlife.  Visitors can camp, hike, take a canoe, boat or kayak trip in a slough, or walk with the park ranger on a birding trek to get a front-seat view of the assemblage of wading birds.  Coming here fairly unprepared, we were happy to follow the Anhinga Trail to view birds up close. Making our last stop at the Anhinga Trail (it is located near the entrance gate) gave us plenty of time to hang around and watch these birds doing their thing.

Anhiga Trail

The birds here are not shy!

And they were in abundance!

The trail’s namesake – the Anhinga – is a bird that can be seen fishing and sunning itself in the trees beside the trail.  There were hundreds of them here!

Breeding Little Blue Heron

Breeding Little Blue Heron

A visit to the Everglades would be incomplete without riding on an airboat, and this is how I had imagined checking out the area all along.  So my niece Lea E. – the ultimate hostess – made sure I got to ride on one.  We glided over the river of grass, which took us to an ancient Miccosukee Indian Camp.  In the 1800’s, when most of the Miccosukee tribe were removed from the west, a few never surrendered and hid in the Everglades. They kept to themselves there for about 100 years, resisting efforts to assimilated.  But after the Tamiami Trail highway was built in 1928, the tribe began to accept many New World concepts.

Micccosukee Indian Camp

Micccosukee Indian Camp

We witnessed a scary and crazy alligator demonstration at the Indian Village, watching in awe as a tribesman kissed, wrestled and taunted an alligator.  No volunteers from the audience for this one!

Alligator Demonstration, Miccosukee Indian

Kissing an alligator – one of the many antics demonstrated

Mobile Alligator

Alligator on the move!

Baby Alligator

And here is a crazy tourist with a baby alligator – I can’t believe I did this!

The Everglades, or the grassy waters, or the river of grass, is truly a unique place.  We looked very closely and saw thousands of naturally beautiful things that are there – other than the birds!  Having experienced and enjoyed the Everglades, I now have a new visual that no longer includes scenes from Miami Vice or CSI Miami.

Next up:  Going to the Keys, baby!

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A birthday celebration with Gators and Birds – Shark Valley, Everglades

Comments 35 Standard

Our January stay at Bonita Springs went by too quickly.  The next thing we knew the slides were coming in and the jacks were coming up, and off we went.  On the move again, we headed even further south to “The Glades”, the Everglades that is.  Shark Valley lies in the heart of the “True Everglades”, or river of grass, that stretches 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.  We were told that bicycling is a wonderful way to view the Everglades at our own pace.  And there is no better place to bike than at Shark Valley, which is part of Everglades National Park.

Bicycling at Shark Valley

The level, paved 15-mile path makes for easy riding – just watch out for the alligators!

Since wildlife abounds here, I thought it would be a great way to spend my birthday.  So we loaded up the bikes and headed out to Shark Valley bright and early, knowing it would be a hot day.  The 15-mile paved road was completely level and gave us a perfect opportunity to enjoy the wildlife.  I was excited to find out which animals or birds would turn out to greet me and wish me a happy birthday!

Alligator at Shark  Valley

You silly girl, stay away from me!

Great Egret

Take your picture before I fly away – Great Egret

American Alligator

Happy birthday, now get away from me

Ok, you won’t see any sharks here and I was not expecting to.  Shark Valley is in a very wide, very gradual, low-lying valley.  The shark reference comes from the Shark River. The mouth of this river is at the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shark River Slough is the main source of fresh water for this part of the Everglades.  If you were to venture along the river far enough toward the gulf, you would indeed encounter sharks – they just never make it up to the Everglades.  Instead, the alligators bask in the sun along the river, or at the bicycle parking, or near photographers.

Shark Valley, Everglades

Shark Valley Bicycling

Several fat alligators in the background – why are there lots of bikes but no people around?  Hmmm…

An observation tower at the halfway point provided panoramic views and we enjoyed the tranquil vistas of the Everglades, extending outward 20 miles in all directions.

Shark Valley, Everglades

The Everglades all the way to the horizon – it has its own kind of beauty

Along the route we met several trams – another way to enjoy the area.  The tram tour offers a two-hour open air guided commentary, and sightings from experts which gives folks the Everglades experience.

Shark Valley Tram Tour

Tramming it through the Everglades

Several wood storks can be seen along the route. These birds are listed as an endangered species, as its decline is the result of vast environmental threats that exist in the area.  The human disruption of the water cycles affects the crucial feeding and nesting conditions for wildlife.  When human water management upsets the natural wetlands cycles, wood storks fail to nest successfully.  There were 5000 nesting wood storks in the ’60’s, now only 500 remain.

Wood Storks

Wood storks hanging out

Some flowers thrive in these watery environments:

Besides the many alligators lining up along the trail to greet me, other wildlife also came out to say hello.

It took us about three hours to complete the loop as we made many stops to look around, and of course I took dozens of pictures of, you guessed it….birds!  And nature’s best birthday gift was the presence of the various species of Herons.  I could not have asked for more!

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

For those of you planning to come this way, be sure to stop by Shark Valley.  It’s a wonderful place to enjoy the Everglades and view wildlife in their natural habitat – this is not a zoo!

And to cap a wonderful day with nature, my niece Lea E. took us out for a fabulous dinner at Red Fish Grill Seafood Restaurant.  It was located inside Matheson Hammock Park, right on the coast.  With a unique setting amongst the coconut trees, it was a perfect ending to a perfect birthday.

Happy Birthday,MonaLiza

Thank you Lea E, for treating the birthday girl to a wonderful dinner!

The Lowe's RV Adventure

Such a happy birthday it was!

Next up:  More fun in the Everglades!

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