2014-11-23 Goodbye to the Everglades, and a visit to Big Cypress National Refuge

Leaving Everglades National Park, we stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and walked the short but amazing Anhinga Trail. We stopped in here years ago when passing through on a trip to Key West - and I remain convinced...if you have time for nothing more than a quick stop in the everglades, this is the place to stop!  It is just 4 miles after the entrance to Everglades National Park and when it comes to seeing wildlife, this path is rich, plus you get a good taste of a sawgrass marsh and the vast "river of grass". Birds, fish, turtles, and many many alligators can be seen on this short, very easy, paved and boardwalk path.

The Anhinga bird seems plentiful in south Florida

big softshell turtle

That's just a little guy...sometimes you can spot a dozen gators or more at once in this spot

Great Blue Heron

Florida Gar

After the brief stop at Royal Palm, we hopped on the Tamiami Trail across south Florida from Miami on the east to Naples on the west, cutting through the everglades and Big Cypress National Refuge. The rangers at Big Cypress had told us we could drop our rig in their parking lot to drive the Loop Road. This was quick way to see a bit of the preserve without adding a lot of miles to our trip. Turns out, the loop road was quite easy and could have been driven with the RV in tow. The scenery is similar to what you are already seeing on the highway, but the small Loop Road allows you to take your time, pull over and admire the serenity and beauty of the cypress swamp.
The Florida National Scenic Trail actually has its southern terminus here in the preserve - the southern most 28 miles goes through pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and cypress swamp (sometimes waist deep). I think it would really be fun to do the 6-mile stretch between the Tamiami Trail and Loop Road, but you need to have the right gear - this is not for the casual hiker! Plus we were heading to our overnight spot closer to Fort Myers to explore Sanibel area the next day, so no time for hiking.
This was a "small world" day. Not only did we run into a friend from Jolly Roger in the morning as we were leaving Flamingo campground in the everglades; now after our scenic drive through Big Cypress, we returned to the visitor center to hook up the rig and found a note from another Jolly Roger friend who had been passing by and saw our rig there.

The gators are everywhere along Tamiami Trail

Cypress swamps are magical in their stillness

The water is so clear and lovely...care to sit on the edge and dangle our feet?

below, a mirror - and above, cypress filled with bromeliads

Pather Crossing signs line the highway; many are struck and killed each year

2014-11-22 Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail - paddling is the "must-do" in the everglades

Our last day in the everglades, we were very lucky to go out on the free ranger-lead canoe trip at Nine Mile Pond. Despite intermittent pouring rain, it was a lot of fun. Paddled through mangrove tunnels, sawgrass prairie, and several ponds. At the end of the trail, we saw one really big alligator, but did not see the 13-foot crocodile who resides in that pond. Great experience and would love to do more!

The waiting vultures - the ranger warned us all to move our vehicles out of the Nine Mile Pond parking lot onto the main road - apparently the vultures will have a hayday stripping all the rubber from your windows, but they leave the cars on the roadway alone.

Getting ready to launch

Through the mangroves - the largest continuous system of mangroves in the world

The ranger pointed out plant and animal species along the way

listening intently

Through sawgrass prairie - the "River of Grass"

Paddling through the thicker grasses was like riding your bicycle with the brakes on

Pouring rain

It poured intermittently through about half our paddle

2014-11-19 Goodbye to the keys! To Flamingo Campground in Florida Everglades National Park

We finally are going to stay in this national park...four nights at Flamingo Campground. The Florida Everglades have been designated a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. This park is incredibly vast and unique, and a home to many endangered species that are found nowhere else.

For our visit, we were very lucky to have a cold front and wet weather, instead of the opposite. The rangers told us the bugs were not nearly as bad as usual. I was being very careful too...

Still, I managed to get over a dozen mosquito bites on one foolish hike. Wore a long-sleeve shirt and heavy blue jeans, and thought I was adequately sprayed; got no bites on my hands, face, and neck but...I failed to spray my SHIRT, and they bit right through it, all over my arms. Cursed little blood suckers. Avoid grassy trails in the keys!

We took the inflatable kayak out on Florida Bay, attended a couple of very informative ranger talks, and also did a free ranger-lead canoe trip (they provide the canoes - what a deal) which was the highlight of our visit. Amazingly, did not have mosquito problems when paddling - between the wind, rain, mosquito fish, and lovely bladder wort, the mosquitos are minimal out on the water.

Ran into another Jolly Roger friend the morning we were pulling out of Flamingo. He was on his way into the keys and we were on our way out!

our camp site at Flamingo - practically had the place to ourselves

Between Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, the Flamingo Lodge and cabins are gone; the park is still repairing other damage as well

Paddling out of the marina, lots of bird life in Florida Bay

A night heron and, on the left - a Roseate Spoonbill

The Roseate Spoonbills seemed shy - it was difficult to get a good shot of them!

Ibis and Spoonbill together

Trying to get a flying shot, as their wings really show the pink!

Beginning of the manmade Buttonwood Canal at Flamingo Marina, leading to Coot Bay and eventually to Whitewater Bay and 10,000 islands, paddling trails all the way up to Everglades City

Osprey are everywhere - a master bird of prey!

Done paddling for the day

And here's where I went wrong...big mistake...HUGE

short grassy trail around a pond

walkiing in the grass kicks up the mosquitos and they are HUNGRY!

I calculate I got at least 3 mosquito bites for each picture....

Not really worth the price

Much better trail - paved from the campground to the visitor center, along the waterfront

Osprey surveying its territory from the nest

the ever-present vultures, and some brave tent campers (couldn't pay me enough to tent camp here, on the grass...not a chance)

Our last 2 nights in the keys further south - Sunshine Key near Bahia Honda SP

For our last 2 nights in the keys, we headed further south to Sunshine Key. It was hot and muggy our first day; we spent the morning at Bahia Honda and saw dozens of rays and sharks in the water - they were huge! We also stopped in to visit friends from the summer in Maine, Donny and Pat, and Bob and Donna, who are wintering at Sugarloaf KOA. They were building decking around the rental airstreams - really cute! Also, the pool / hot tub area with bar / restaurant were really nice... Bob and Donna were having a soak after a long day working. :-)

On the way home, having past by many times and never stopped (because we always were on our way to Key West), we finally spent some time in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. We stopped at Blue Hole where a rock quarry has filled with fresh water to create a very rare fresh water pond (salt water down low, fresh water on top); there are two alligators (another rarity in the keys!) who live there - in this environment which I thought might be too hot for alligators! (In general, Florida Everglades is the furthest south you would find alligators, and also the furthest north you would find crocodiles. I wondered if they placed the gators here, but the lady at the visitor center said no, they got here on their own. As evening approached, the "friendly" Key Deer were everywhere; sometimes called "toy deer", they are small and delicate, average height only 24 - 32". At one time, they numbered less than 50 - they have rebounded due to protection and the creation of the refuge; now there are estimated to be 600 to 800. Now they'll have to find a way to control the population?

Second day, a major cold front had moved in...it was cold, windy, and rainy. We spent the day hanging around Sunshine Key, which was actually much nicer than we expected. Our spot was just one row behind waterfront; also, I found that I prefer the sand / crushed shell surface instead of grass - it seems to be less buggy.  The waterfront sites are HUGE, the size of 3 sites at most parks, and there are lots of seasonals with big thatchroof cabanas and tiki bars, really nice little community. We would most definitely stay here again! Only thing missing is a hot tub...

Our spot at Sunshine Key - water view for half price, not bad!

across from our site at Sunshine Key

The bridge from Ohio Key to Missouri Key

Bahia Honda State Park is the next key down from Ohio Key (where Sunshine Key RV Resort is)

Looking down at the channel from the old rail bridge, Bahia Honda

One of dozens of rays we watched from the bridge

This ray was huge, at least 5-6' wingspan

The water was so clear, these folks in the kayaks had to be seeing a lot - what a blast!

We were seeing dozens of sharks also - some looked like 10 footers!

At Sugarloaf, the "southernmost" KOA, about 20 miles before Key West

Blue Hole in the Key Deer Refuge

Alligator in the keys!

on the viewing platform at Blue Hole

Sunset on Big Pine Key

Key Deer

Catching the last of sunset, back at Sunshine Key

This park has water on 3 sides

Look at the size of these waterfront sites!

Good time to stay out of the water - Portuguese Man o War Jellyfish

windy stormy rainy day