After leaving Naples (well, both times actually) we/I stopped off along the way heading from west to east in the amazing natural phenomenon that is the Everglades and surrounding area. Before reaching the Everglades National Park, we reached Big Cyprus National Preserve, where we stopped to gather some info and lucked into a ranger talk about manatees. The ranger showed some manatee skulls and told us that they continue to grow new teeth because they wear down their molars so quickly eating over 100 pounds of plants per day. I wish my body did that! I’d be like, sorry dentist, see you never. But alas. We saw a manatee here, too, which was cool, plus got a lot of information about the native species. Special thanks to Kevin for drawing my attention to a creature called a pig frog. Who knew that two such wonderful creatures could be combined like this.

Maybe half a mile down the road lies the smallest post office in America. The smallest! In America! And they’re not kidding- this is a shack that sells post cards and takes mail. I think they have a few boxes inside for locals to pick up mail, but seems pretty teensy weensy and of course I mailed a bunch of cards from here and took pics. If you are one of the lucky ones who received a post card with the Ochopee postmark, you’re welcome.

Determined to take an airboat ride, which apparently they don’t run inside Everglades Park itself, we stopped off at a pretty obvious tourist trap place called Gator Park, which for all it’s being obviously a money grab was also pretty fun. We went on an airboat through the wetlands (or maybe swamp? I’m still confused where one ends near Big Cyprus and the other begins with more nutrients and diversity in the Everglades) and saw a few alligators, birds, and the sea of grass. It was loud and beautiful, and our boat tour was followed by a reptile show where a dude showed us some baby gators, fed some full grown ones, frightened a lady half to death by making her pretend to kiss a poisonous toad, and attempted to get everyone to pay to take a photo holding an alligator. No thanks, but fun times.

Again, skipping ahead out of order a bit but following the map more, I stopped by myself after leaving Naples the 2nd time at the Shark Valley Visitor Center and took a tram tour of their paved loop, which stops at an observation tower. Had I a full day to do it I would have just walked the 15 mile loop but between not really having the time and wanting to get the ranger led experience, I opted for the tram tour. It was about 2 hours and totally worth it in my opinion. The ranger who led us had been there for many years and was a great guide, full of fun facts and info which (forgive my lack of continuity) was new to me despite having been through other park exhibits, talks and tours. We saw so many alligators, some baby gator nests, a variety pack of herons, storks, egrets, ibis, even roseate spoonbills from afar (my personal goal). Pretty cool stuff.

A bit further south near the town of Homestead lies the main visitor entrance to the park, at least in my opinion given where most of the land lies. I camped here close to the entrance once with Kevin and later on for a night by myself. This area is rich with palms, trees, sawgrass, and cyprus trees. It also happened to be undergoing a controlled/prescribed burn, so was on fire a little (which is a weird theme for us- thanks, Glacier). I may have misread the sign that said “caution: smoke on the road ahead” as “snake on the road” and was severely disappointed.

We camped at the Long Pine campground, and attended a ranger led talk at the amphitheater about the perception of the Everglades and depiction in popular culture- basically it’s not as scary or dangerous as movies make it sound. We learned about how invasive Burmese Pythons are eating all the native mammals, and that there are very few unprovoked alligator attacks/fatalities annually. I guess my “Florida Man Throws Gator Through Drive-Through Window” counts as provoked (side note, please open another window and google your birthday day and month with the tern ‘Florida Man’ and see what you get. Mine is pretty sweet. Thanks, Kevin’s friend Burrito, for this game).

Not far down the road we also stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center to walk the Gumbo-Limbo (best tree name award) trail and the Anhinga Trail at sunset. The birds and frogs definitely played it up for us, and it was memorable to say the least. I had no idea the Everglades could be as gorgeous as it is in real life. If you doubt or haven’t experienced, really anywhere at sunset or sunrise will do the trick. I later went back to this same trail for a starlight walk where the alligators were more active, but there were so many people and bugs it ruined the moment and I should have stuck with my first outing as my final memory of this spot.

On my solo trip I had time to join a ranger led Slough Slog, also called a wet walk by some, which was a pretty amazing experience. In a smallish group a ranger leads you through a section of the wetlands with just walking sticks, a net or two for observation, and his/her knowledge. We trekked through water above the knee at times, and this was in the dry season, and stopped every so often to take it all in and discuss. This section we were in that day is also frequently used for field trips so the gators prefer to stay away from that noise most of the time. Seeing the sun glistening off the water on the bald cyprus tree trunks covered in epiphytes and surrounded by wild orchids was pretty unforgettable. I may have tossed my already breaking hiking shoes afterward, but so worth it.

Further south we stopped off at some ponds where we spotted large gators sunning themselves and not caring one bit (that we could tell) that anyone was there snapping photos. Rest assured, we waited until some slower older people came by and left uneaten before getting closer than 20 ft away. We walked a few trails, like the Mahogony Hammock, where someone spotted a cool snake and we got to see some huge old trees and I squealed in delight at the hundredth lizard sighting.

At the end of the road, at the pretty much most south-central point in mainland Florida, is the Flamingo Visitor Center, where I camped one night and we took a boat tour another day. We had heard from someone that you could camp right by the bay here when we were at Long Pine, but sadly when I had time to go back and stay it had stormed recently and the waterfront sites were mainly still mud pits. It was still beautiful… but the mosquitoes. Oh the mosquitoes, So many bug bites. So many moths and bugs had a bad night by choosing to fly into my camp stove. So many gross bloody spots found on my blanket in the morning from smacking and rolling over the ones eating me all night. I’ll take fewer bugs and less pretty next time for sure.

Flamingo operates boat excursions like canoe and kayak rentals, day and sunset boat tours, and even house boats for rent. Kevin and I did a boat tour through the canals and waterways, which eventually could lead all the way to the gulf if you kept going or followed some of the many canoe ‘paths’. I kind of wish we’d done a kayak adventure but I admit I’d never have noticed or learned half the things the operators told us. This particular area has American crocodiles which we spotted a few of on the boat, and they blend so well with the tree limbs it took me a while to find them. I spotted a bunch of manatees (baked potato of the sea!) in the marina, and there is an osprey nest with chick there, too. I had lunch one day at a picnic table and these very confident birds tried to steal my Wawa sandwich! If you know me, you know I chased them off like crazy because I’m not losing my Wawa.

Well, sorry for the excessively long post, but so much to say and over several days! There was such variety offered throughout the park and I tried to take advantage of every tour opportunity I could find in my time here, and was rarely let down. A spectacular experience overall!

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