Touring the Everglades: From Homestead to Pa-hay-okee

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on March 18, 2007

There are three roads into or along the Everglades: I only had time for the route through Homestead along Highway 9336, the park’s longest—a 38-mile drive to Flamingo on the edge of Florida Bay. Just inside the park is Coe Visitor Center, the principal center for the park. Stopping here for an orientation is a must: you won’t find anything comparable inside the park. The ranger recommended visiting the interpretive trails along the road for a day’s introduction to the Everglades, so that became my plan.

I stopped next at Royal Palm for the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails, two very different experiences within 50 yards of each other —a quick hint at just how varied this place is. (Royal Palm also houses restrooms, which can be few and far between.) Anhinga is one of the park’s great highlights, and I did both short trails before heading down the road. Four miles later, Long Pine Key Trail cuts through the Pinelands, an unexpectedly large stand of pines stretching below the road for several miles. I was starting to realize that the watery environment of the Anhinga Trail wasn’t all there was to the Everglades. Unfortunately, I was also realizing that failing to get gas outside the park obligated me to drive to Flamingo, so I decided to save some of these stops for the return trip, time permitting.
The Pinelands gave way to a large arc of Cypress forest, a great illustration of how seemingly minor changes in the environment make life possible for a very different set of species. Minor depressions from the usual elevation collect enough water to produce ‘Cypress domes’. The tallest trees grow in the deepest part, which is nearly always wet; trees on the slopes of the depression are watered less frequently, and thus don’t grow as tall. The result is a dome shape, with the tree height providing a mirror image of the hole in which they grow: short on the edges, and deep in the center.

After passing through Rock Reef Pass (elevation: 4’) you soon arrive at Pa-hay-okee Overlook. Although located amid cypresses, a short walk and modest climb up the observation tower gives a long, long view over the Shark River Slough, the miles-wide swath of fresh water slowly moving through sawgrass that prompted Marjory Stoneham Douglas to name the Everglades the ‘River of Grass’. I shared the view with a young couple from Germany who were resting on the bench. It was peaceful and perfectly quiet, with a few herons slowly taking their large steps through the grass. It lacked the drama provided by the two-dozen alligators I saw on the Anhinga. The natural response was to climb down and start exploring the prairie, but given its watery makeup, it’s just not that easy. In the end, I settled for a calming period of not-quite-solitude, watching the clouds move slowly over the landscape; then I left the place in the hands of the German slumberers.

Everglades National Park
Various Visitor Centers
Everglades National Park, Florida
(305) 242-7700

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