Our journey to Everglades National Park began on Saturday, April 11 at Lake Ashton, the retirement community my parents were renting a house in for March and April. Sean and I had flown from Chicago after work on Thursday. Friday evening we’d spent packing for the Everglades and preparing a picnic lunch for Saturday afternoon.
Our first destination was Big Cypress National Preserve, which protects 729,000 acres of the northwestern section of the Everglades ecosystem. Because of the habitat diversity in the Preserve, it is critical for the endangered Florida Panther. Some 30-40 panthers live in the Preserve, compared with 8-10 in Everglades National Park. Although it was part of the original proposal for the National Park, the Big Cypress Swamp was ultimately not included in the Park when it was established in 1947. Two major east-west thoroughfares bisect the Preserve, I-75 (nicknamed Alligator Alley) and US 41 Tamiami Trail.
In the decade after Everglades National Park was established, developers from booming Miami proposed and began building the world’s largest jetport on Tamiami Trail near the center of the swamp. The developers had not anticipated the evolution in public understanding of the importance of protecting open space, wildlife, and water in south Florida. The outcry from conservationists and the general public was intense, leading to the cancellation of the jetport and the creation of the nation’s first National Preserve.
As compromise, the Preserve allows many activities that are illegal in National Parks, among them hunting, all-terrain vehicles, cattle grazing, and oil and gas exploration. Still, Big Cypress National Preserve is a vital section of the quilt of protected lands in the larger Everglades ecosystem.
We departed Lake Ashton about 9:30am on Saturday morning. Our overnight bags and picnic packed into the Volkswagen hatchback Sean and I had rented at Tampa International.
Our route took us on highways 27 and 29 from Lake Wales down the agricultural spine of central Florida.
We crossed the Caloosahatchee River, entering the greater Everglades ecosystem, and stopped to use the restroom at a McDonalds in LaBelle.
Continuing south the flora subtly became more tropical and sub-tropical until we reached the first big pieces of protected land, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the west of highway 29 and Big Cypress to the east. We continued south, crossing I-75. Big Cypress remained to the west of the road, while now a patchwork of private property and state parkland was to the east.
When we reached Tamiami Trail, we turned east and entered Big Cypress National Preserve.
Our first stop was the handsome Welcome Center, situated near the intersection of the Tamiami Canal, which borders the highway on its north, and a short connector canal which runs south to Halfway Creek, through Everglades National Park, and into the Gulf of Mexico. It had taken us just under three hours to drive from Lake Ashton to the Welcome Center. We went inside to stamp our National Parks Passports and to look at some of the interpretive displays.
Behind the Welcome Center, a boardwalk runs along the canal, allowing for easy wildlife watching.
As we wandered out to the boardwalk, a ranger was giving a short interpretive talk, pointing out that the jumping fish we were seeing were mullet and that the plants lining the canal were red mangroves. He explained what an estuary was (the intermingling of fresh and saltwater) to a little boy (and the surrounding adults).
After looking at the canal, we gathered our picnic foods from the car and settled in at a table in the picnic area adjacent to the Welcome Center.
After lunch, I ducked back into the Welcome Center to get a black-bar brochure. While I was in there, a ranger came in and announced that there was a manatee in the canal. I grabbed my parents and we joined the group going out to have a look. But we couldn’t find Sean.
The ranger was surprised that there was a manatee this far from the Gulf this late in the season, but it was our good luck to see it. There was an alligator nearby, and the ranger explained that the manatee was far too large for the alligator to bother with. He also pointed out the scars on the manatee’s back, likely from a run-in with boat propellors.
As the group broke up, my Mother found Sean, and he came out on the boardwalk to have a look at what he calls “the gentle sea cow of the sea.”
Dad got talking to a ranger, who mentioned that there were thirty-four alligators currently visible from the boardwalk at the Oasis Visitor Center farther east on Tamiami Trail. Our original intention had been to bypass this visitor center and take the Preserve’s half-paved scenic loop road, but the draw of the alligators and the considerations of time (our boat tour many miles away began at 6pm), led us to the Visitor Center.
It was the right choice.
Oasis Visitor Center sits at the site of the aborted jetport. In fact, in an absolutely delicious twist, the Visitor Center and Preserve Headquarters occupy what had been the jetport’s terminal. A piece of brash, destructive development now bears the National Park Service arrowhead.
In the Tamiami Canal adjacent to the center were the mentioned thirty-four alligators of various sizes, lounging in the midday sun. They were accompanied by an array of fish and at least one turtle.
As we viewed the alligators in the sunshine, we noticed the afternoon thunderstorm moving toward us from the southwest.
Inside the Visitor Center, Dad asked a ranger the question that had been on all our minds: Why were there so many alligators concentrated here? The answer was that at this time of year at the end of the dry season, one of the only remaining bodies of deep standing water is the canal. Hence the concentration of alligators here in April. As soon as the rains come, they will disperse throughout the swamp.
We continued due east on Tamiami Trail toward Miami and had only been back in the car a few minutes when the thunderstorm caught up with us, throwing rain down in billowing sheets. But it passed soon enough.
Eventually we exited Big Cypress National Preserve, crossed some Native American lands, and then came upon a long stretch where Tamiami Trail comprises the northern border of Everglades National Park. The other side of the road is the ironically named Water Conservation District. Rarely, if ever, has the difference between National Park on one side of the road and disrupted land on the other side been so jarring.
Some hour and a half after leaving Oasis Visitor Center we arrived at our hotel in Homestead, southwest of Miami. We checked in, took our bags to our room, and prepped for the twenty-minute drive to the east entrance of Everglades National Park.