We’d heard that Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast section typically has fewer bugs than the Flamingo area and decided to head over there. We’d also heard good things about the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails in the park’s Royal Palm area and stopped in there on our way out. Here we found many more tourists taking advantage of the Anhinga Trail’s boardwalk into the “river of grass” and a large freshwater pond.
The boardwalk led past fish, turtles, alligators and a host of birds, such as this purple gallinule gingerly stepping its way from lily pad to lily pad. It was a delightful walk that gave us a better sense of the park’s diversity.
The adjacent Gumbo Limbo trail winding through tropical hardwood forest offered yet another glimpse of how vastly different habitats can exist right next to one another. Walking these trails was a peaceful way to break up our onward drive through the southern part of the Miami metro area and across Florida via the Tamiami Trail.
Also known as U.S. Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail is a 275-mile road connecting Tampa to Miami that follows a canal chock full of alligators and wading birds. Once completed in 1928, the road largely cut off the historic flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades. Efforts have been under way more recently to restore some of this important flow into estuaries to the south.
Bigfoot in Florida?
The two National Park-run campgrounds along the Tamiami Trail were full, and we began to worry about finding a place to stay here on a Saturday night. We pulled into a bizarre private campground set in the swamp that claimed to be “Skunkape Headquarters” (the skunkape being a mythical creature I’d never heard of, the Everglades equivalent of Bigfoot) with a gift shop full of animal parts and skunkape merchandise for sale. The guy at the front desk suggested we visit the attached zoo with pythons and screechy birds if we got bored. It was a little creepy, but the alternative would have been an expensive hotel room an hour away. Sold!
After a restful, mosquito-free night’s sleep, we took the Ten Thousand Islands boat trip the next day from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center out into the saltwater habitat of the Gulf of Mexico. On calm days — and with strong muscles or a motorized boat — it’s possible to paddle out among the Ten Thousand Islands and camp on elevated platforms known as chickees (the Seminole word for house). However, given the choppy conditions the day of our visit, the narrated tour allowed us to see more of this side of the Everglades than we could ever hope to reach on our own by kayak.
These islands were formed biologically (by an ocean buildup of corals, then oysters, then mangroves) rather than geologically (by volcanoes or tectonic movement). Some of the islands dotting the seascape and harboring an array of aquatic species are impossibly tiny. Although it wasn’t exactly a wildlife bonanza, we did see several dolphins and a host of seabirds such as pelicans, cormorants, anhingas, royal terns, laughing gulls, osprey and swallow-tailed kites. Not bad for a morning excursion, and not a bad way to end our time at Everglades National Park.
Despite its challenges, we found it an intriguing place of natural beauty and ecological importance. Everglades, Foreverglades!