on September 24, 2009
The Everglades National Park, located in southwest Florida, is one of the largest national parks in the US. Each year, over a million people visit the Everglades to witness one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. The Everglades is under attack from human and environmental factors and although Congress has passed legislation to protect it, there is still plenty of work to be done. UNESCO has included the park on its list of endangered sites. There are over thirty endangered or threatened species that live in the park which include the Florida Panther, American Crocodile, and the West Indian Manatee. Due to the park’s enormous size, you should allow yourself two to three days to view it all. There are four different visitor’s centers located around the park. We left Miami on US Route 41 also known as the Tamiami Trail. We made our first stop at the Shark Valley Visitor’s Center. We paid our entrance fee of $10 which is good for 7 consecutive days at any of the visitor’s centers. The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center gave us our first up close encounter with the American Crocodile. As we were walking to the visitor’s center, I noticed two beady looking eyes staring at me from a small stream next to the building. I looked a little closer and noticed its scaly backside. I was a little mesmerized seeing how I have never seen an alligator in the wild and being so close that I could touch it. A park ranger walked over to us and began telling us that this particular alligator just likes to be lazy and drift up and down the river. There is no barrier separating the visitors and the alligators which just adds to the excitement. The park ranger informed us that alligator attacks are rare and that although they live in the wild, the alligators are pretty tame. We decided to pass on the Tram tour which is about the only thing unique to do here and instead opt to grab a few brochures and proceed to our next stop. Our next stop was the Big Cypress National Preserve. A swamp which covers 720,000 acres, it is an essential lifeline of the Everglades as the freshwater helps feed the marine estuaries along the coast. Although it is closely associated with the Everglades National Park, it is its own separate national park. The similarities between the two parks are obvious, but there are unique differences. The Indians have the right to occupy the land unlike in the Everglades and businesses and homes can be located within the park’s boundary. We stopped in at the visitor center to see what there is to do in the park. Unless you plan to hike or go four-wheeling, there is not much else to do other than a couple of scenic drives. There is a 27 mile and a 17 mile loop that encompasses the park. There is no fee to visit the park. After doing some more alligator watching outside the visitor’s center, we decided to go get lunch. On US 41 near the town of Ochopee, I noticed a small white building with a US flag outside and a blue mailbox outside. Upon closer inspection, there was a sign outside touting the fact that this is the smallest post office in the world. The building is just big enough to accommodate one worker and one customer. The post office actually serves mail to about 300 Indians who live within a three county area. Most people stop in to buy postcards and have them sent with the Ochopee postmark. There isn’t even a bathroom and if the worker needs to go, the post office closes up and he heads to a service station down the road. We turned onto Florida Route 29 and drove to Everglades City, which is about the biggest city in the northern part of the Everglades. We stopped in at the Seafood Depot where we nibbled on alligator bites and grabbed a burger before heading to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. This visitor’s center is the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands. The Ten Thousands Islands are a collection of islands and mangrove islets along the coast. The name is sort of misleading as the islands only number in the hundreds. Most of them are uninhabitable, but some have been designated as camp sites. The unique activity here is taking a boat ride through the islands to the Gulf of Mexico. The cost is about $10 a person and it lasts about an hour. Dolphins will usually swim with the boat and showing off as they leap out of the water. Consider yourself lucky if you catch a glimpse of a Manatee. On the way back into the docks, our skipper pointed out a single runway airport, the Everglades Airport. It gained notoriety in the early 80’s when planes landed here bringing drugs into the US. Today, it is barely used except for a handful of private aircraft. After three visitor’s centers, lunch, and the world’s smallest post office, it was time to call it a day and head back to Miami. We headed north on Route 29, where we went through a Panther preservation area. We picked up Interstate 75 or commonly known as Alligator Alley, as alligators like to rest on the side of the road. It is a toll road only if you are heading westbound. An hour later we were back in Miami to plan the next day. The other two visitor’s centers are in the southern part of the Everglades. As we drove back from Key West to Miami, we stopped at the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center. This visitor’s center has some educational displays and some short films on the Everglades. Other than some short walking trails, there is not a lot to do. The last visitor’s center is the Flamingo Visitor’s Center. We were unable to make it to this one because of time. The Ernest Coe and the Flamingo Visitor’s Centers are on the same road with 38 miles separating the two. It takes about an hour to get to Flamingo from the Ernest Coe. Flamingo is the southernmost headquarters of the Everglades. This is a great place for hikers and those wanting to backpack through the Everglades. The Everglades National Park is an endangered park and without extensive preservation efforts, the park may not be around forever. Volunteer opportunities are available and donations are welcome to assist in those restoration efforts. No trip to Southern Florida would be complete without a visit to the Everglades National Park.
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