We all know Florida's beaches and man-made attractions make for a great winter vacation, however most people may not realize just how much natural wilderness exists in the state, in and around the water. There's plenty of opportunities to enjoy warm weather kayaking / canoeing, snorkeling / diving, hiking, cycling and fishing - If you know where to look...
This is the final installment in the three part series exploring some of our favorite outdoor adventures in the “sunshine state”, which may actually be more aptly called “Water-Wonder-Land”…
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is the third largest park in the lower 48 states covering a million and a half acres (2,400 square miles) of natural biological diversity. Benefitting from its geographical location, the Everglades contain flora native to American temperate forests as well as the tropical Caribbean. The Park protects rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile and the elusive Florida panther, while it’s dominating characteristic is miles upon miles of sawgrass and mangroves.
The legendary ‘river of grass’ is the largest subtropical wilderness in the USA, and has been declared a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
There is a smorgasbord of outdoor activities to experience in this amazing habitat including canoeing / kayaking, hiking, biking, boating and fishing. If you’re brave enough, you can even wilderness camp just above the water in chickees or on more traditional ground and beach campsites.
There are three separate entrances (and main Visitor centers) to this massive Park accessed through different areas of south Florida: The Shark Valley entrance 25 miles (40km) west of Miami; the Gulf Coast entrance in Everglades City; and the Royal Palm entrance 15 miles (24km) south-west of Homestead. Most of the park is only accessible by water making boating a popular way to experience the wild wonders of the everglades. The Park offers many paddling opportunities to explore its natural beauty through freshwater marsh, mangrove forests, as well as the open waters of Florida Bay. Another great way to see the park is to walk the boardwalks and trails either on your own or joining Park Ranger led events where Naturalists give talks about the local flora and fauna.
At Shark Valley Visitor Center, you can join a 15 mile (24km) wildlife-viewing “gator trail” tram tour through sawgrass prairie which includes a stop at a 65-foot observation tower for a birds-eye view of the everglades. Alternatively, get some exercise by cycling on this car-free road – you’ll have a better chance of spotting alligators, wading birds and other freshwater wildlife.
At Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you can join a narrated boat tour that explores Ten Thousand Islands and the coastal mangrove. The adventurous can find solitude on a 7-10 day canoe-camping trip along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Paddling silently through the ‘glades’ gives you a unique and close-up vantage point on the wildlife and vegetation of the area. Of course, shorter water-way trails exist as well. You can also paddle into Chokoloskee Bay before low tide to witness large numbers of water birds feeding in the shallows and on mud flats.
At Royal Palm Visitor Center you can take a short walk on the Anhinga Trail to spot local wildlife including turtles, herons and alligators or you can choose to bicycle through the Pinelands. You can also kayak/canoe on Eco Pond to view alligators, wading birds and other freshwater wildlife. Alternatively, you can choose to paddle amongst the mangroves of the freshwater Nine-Mile Pond. Paddle or take a boat tour into Snake Bight before low tide to see the large numbers of water birds feeding in the shallows and mud flats. Florida Bay is a good place for a chance to glimpse a crocodile, manatee or dolphin. Watch as the sun sets over Flamingo, the southernmost point in mainland Florida. Here you can charter a boat for some saltwater or freshwater sport fishing. The really adventurous can canoe into Hell’s Bay for a backcountry chickee camping adventure. Chickees are partially sheltered camping platforms standing above the water.
The winter months are ideal for viewing wildlife in the Everglades as the low water levels result in animals congregating at central water locations. More than 40 mammal species inhabit the Everglades. With patience and luck you might get a glimpse of a river otter, deer, marsh rabbit (which can swim), tree climbing gray fox, black bear, bobcat or the most sought after residents – alligators.
There are, of course, plenty of rodents, reptiles and arachnoids (spiders and scorpions) in the park as well. There’s an abundance (in the hundreds of species) of flying or wading birds to also see. If the animals aren’t co-operating, there are close to 40 native orchid species that can be found in the park along with colourful bromeliads and approximately 750 other kinds of seed-bearing plants. For the fishermen, there’s nearly 300 different fish species in the freshwater marshes and marine coastline of Everglades Park.
For more information, visit https://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm
It's worth noting that other large Preserves and Sanctuaries are also located in southern Florida that offer a similar Florida Everglades experience. They include:
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Home to the largest stand of old-growth cypress trees on the planet. Some of these trees are over 135 feet (41m) tall and nearly 40 feet (12m) in circumference. A 2 mile (3.2km) long boardwalk provides visitors with an introduction to this unique wilderness.
Big Cypress National Preserve: Alligators line the canal banks of the Tamiami Trail in the 720,000-acre wilderness. Reptiles reign in the swamp, particularly along the 25-mile Loop Road that leads off the main highway into the deep Everglades.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: Home to the elusive Florida panther and black bear, as well as the famous ghost orchid (referenced in the best-selling book and movie “The Orchid Thief”)
The Florida Reef (Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects close to 3 thousand square nautical miles of waters surrounding the Florida Keys from south of Miami westward to encompass the Dry Tortugas (excluding Dry Tortugas National Park). The sanctuary contains the world’s third largest barrier reef, seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands and thousands of marine species living within an extremely diverse ecosystem.
Located in Key West, the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center contains 6,000 square feet of interactive and dynamic exhibits including: The Living Reef exhibit which has a large tank with living corals and tropical fish as well as a mock-up of Aquarius, the world's only underwater ocean laboratory. Take a tour to learn about the habitats and the native plants and animals of the Florida Keys, both on land and under the water. The center also plays a short film entitled “Reflections of the Florida Keys,” which captures the diverse ecosystem of the area.
That said, you’ll want to get more “hands on” and explore the Reef for real... and there’s plenty of outdoor recreational activities to do just that. These include diving, snorkeling, fishing and boating. Along with the corals there are shipwrecks forming artificial reefs - All waiting to be explored. You can witness a variety of plant and animal life including schools of grunts and yellowtails, as well as angelfish, parrotfish and many more. You could also see crawfish, five species of marine turtles, as well as a few varieties of jelly fish.
For more information, check out http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/welcome.html
I hope you've enjoyed our look at some of the locations and things to do that we believe makes Florida a great place to get outside and experience natural wilderness adventures!
One final note - When you’re outside enjoying your day in the sun, please remember to protect yourself from harmful UV rays – Beat the heat with an Urban Canairie hat that is made for people who enjoy the outdoors!