Sunday, April 12, Sean, my parents, and I woke up at 6am at our hotel in Homestead. We wanted to get an early start to be able to see much along Everglades National Park’s scenic drive before we had to be in Flamingo for our 11am backcountry boat tour. Our first stop that morning would be Anhinga Trail, not far from the Park entrance in a section of the Park that had been a Florida State Park before the National Park was established. The trail was highly recommended by my Openlands coworker and friend, Linda, as well as by various guides.
With four of us sharing one bathroom, it took a bit of time for everyone to be ready. We breakfasted in the hotel bistro before checking out.
While we finished our breakfasts, Sean and I were introduced to Zelda, a stray cat who caught mice in exchange for leftovers.
Soon we were packed up and on our way back to the Everglades. It was a brilliant, bright morning with swiftly moving, non-threatening clouds.
When we arrived at the parking lot for Royal Palm Visitor Center adjacent to Anhinga Trail at about 8:30am, we had it nearly to ourselves. Both Linda and the guide books had warned that Black Vultures at the Anhinga Trail parking lot liked to peel and/or eat the rubber on cars, particularly new cars. One theory was that it was mostly immature vultures who were compelled to practice tearing and peeling as they would on a carcass.
Whatever the behavioral cause, the problem is bad enough that the Park Service provides tarps and bungees so that people can cover their cars.
At first we didn’t cover the rented VW because Dad, whose knee was acting up, had decided to sit this walk out. He said he’d keep an eye on the car. We tried to convince him to come, but didn’t want to press.
Mother, Sean and I strolled out to the pond where the trail began.
Anhinga Trail is a 0.8 mile out-and-back with a loop trail. It is a combination of paved trail and boardwalk and is wheelchair accessible. It heads east from Royal Palm Hammock, an “island” that is just slightly higher elevation than its surrounding sawgrass prairie. The trail passes into Taylor Slough, which in the wet season is a slow-moving river of shallow water in the prairie. Now at the very end of the dry season, it was a pocket of deeper water attractive to animals and birds, similar to the Tamiami Canal at Big Cypress National Preserve.
It was alligator breeding season, and throughout the area we could hear their libidinal growlings as they searched for mates. Then a large Alligator near the trail began its growl. It was so loud and so close that my heart started thumping in my chest. The three of us stood there, amazed, as the mud around the alligator churned and water jumped off its back. Its body acts like a bellows, the vibrations of which cause the excitement of the mud and water.
Video: Brandon Hayes
It was answered by another alligator in the willow thicket behind us across the trail. Mother declared it “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” At Lake Ashton, we’d seen plenty of alligators and heard their growling, but we’d never seen it up close.
We continued on and came upon an Anhinga near the trail. They hunt by diving for fish, which is why they’re attracted to this deeper area of remaining water. They have no oils on their feathers (as ducks do), which allows them to dive deeper and faster, but it also means that they must sit and dry themselves after their dives.
At the end of the paved section of the trail, we came upon an easterly facing overlook with a panorama of Everglades wildlife and habitat.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Turning around, we saw Dad hurrying to catch up with us. He’d decided that he didn’t want to miss this trail, so he had covered the car with a tarp and set out to catch up with us. We were thrilled to have him along.
We continued onto the elevated boardwalk loop section of Anhinga Trail.
Around about this time Dad got chatting with a man in his fifties who was cycling in the Park that morning. We walked along together for a while exploring and looking and hopefully seeing.
Air plants, mostly bromeliads, grew on the pond apple trees along the boardwalk.
From the boardwalk, Royal Palm Hammock does indeed appear to be an island in a sea of grass.
Back at the visitor center, Dad sat in the shade while Mother, Sean, and I ventured a short way down Gumbo Limbo Trail into the dense hardwood forest.
Our destination was the Gumbo Limbo grove. It’s a tropical tree, known colloquially as the “tourist tree” because of its red, peeling bark. In the continental United States it only grows here at the southern tip of Florida.
We noticed that one had toppled over, exposing its roots, which were extremely shadow in the relatively thin soil above limestone bedrock.
The parking lot was getting a bit busier, including a troupe of cyclists who rolled in as we were preparing to leave. It was about ten to ten, and we wanted not to be late for our boat tour. So we decided that we would stop briefly at one more point on the road and save other planned stops for the drive out in the early afternoon.