Grassy Waters of Florida – The Everglades

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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.


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.


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 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!


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

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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!