Category Archives: National Parks

Flamingo – Everglades National Park

“Progress came and took it’s toll – and in the name of flood control,

They made their plans and they drained the land – now the glades are going dry.”

John Anderson – Seminole Wind

Driving around the urban and agricultural areas of southeast Florida, it didn’t take long to realize that most of the land we were on was once part of the Everglades.  All of the farmland west of Miami was once part of the river of grass.  Even Miami International Airport was once home to gators, anhingas and sawgrass.  The maze of canals diverting the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee is staggering.  The Everglades we see today are but a small percentage of what existed prior to the 20th century….and the fresh water entering the current version of the glades is for the most part controlled by man.  Couple that with rising sea levels and salinity, it is easy to see that this fragile ecosystem is truly endangered.  Perhaps not ‘dry’, in the literal sense of the word, but certainly different from what it once was.

On the one hand, visiting the park left me with a sense of uneasiness for treading on the remaining portion of the Everglades.  But if you remember what I said about my preconceived notions regarding the ‘swamp’, I realize just how important it is for us to see this place firsthand.  On our trip into the lower glades to Flamingo on Sunday, it quickly became apparent that our visit to Shark Valley was merely an introduction to the novel that the Everglades truly is.

Entering the eastern side of the park from the city of Homestead, we stopped at the Coe Visitor Center.  Information on everything the National Park Service offers regarding the park is available there.  From Coe, we stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center.  This location is more about the attached trails than being a ‘visitor’ center, per se.

The first thing you notice are all these blue tarps on the cars.  It turns out that the vultures in the area have developed a taste for rubber windshield seals and wipers.

I pulled this photo from the web.  While we didn’t see any vultures munching on cars while we were there, we didn’t want to chance it.  We tarped the Ford.  🙂

The first of two paths we explored was the Anhinga Trail.

This beauty was poised along the side, smiling for the camera.  One interesting thing we found out about alligators is that while their bite can exert a tremendous amount of force, their muscles that open their jaws are quite weak.  Good to know if you ever find yourself in a wrestling match with one.  🙂


These bromeliad airplants were nestled in the branches of one of the trees along the trail. They are not attached to the tree; they merely use it for support.


Further down the path, I spotted this Morning Glory.


This Red-bellied turtle was checking out the tourists.


There were several Anhingas along the path.  This one was drying off after a morning swim.


A couple of birders we met identified this as an Eastern Phoebe.

The other trail in this area is the Gumbo-Limbo trail.


This stand of trees was decimated by Hurricane Andrew’s 150 mile per hour winds in 1994.  It has since rebounded nicely.


The path is named for the Gumbo-Limbo trees that grow here.  This unique tree is often referred to as the Tourist tree, as it sports a sunburned appearance.  It was used for a variety of purposes, from carousel horses to medicinal salves.

From Royal Palm, we drove 35 miles straight out to Flamingo.

This is where the river of grass meets Florida Bay.  There were thousands of birds on the tidal flats.


We spotted these American White Pelicans amongst the bunch.  These are some of the largest birds in North America, similar in size to Trumpeter Swans and California Condors.



There are several camping options available at Flamingo, including this nice trailer loop.  There is also a small visitor center.


This is a Swallow-tail Kite.  Tough photo to take, as they move really fast!

From Flamingo, we worked our way back, stopping at most of the overlooks and trails along the way.  We were hoping to see some Roseate Spoonbills…which we did not…but we did see plenty of other birds!


A Great White Egret, looking for something in the tall grass.


An Osprey hanging out in it’s nest.


I’m fairly sure this is a Raven and not a Crow. Definitely not a Patriot, Ram, Bronco … and certainly not a Lion.


A couple of Florida Vultures hanging around in the trees.

  A Great Egret in flight.

A big highlight of the day was Pay-Hay-Okee overlook.


The unusual name of this place means ‘grass river’…and what better place than this to view the endless miles of sawgrass.  I had difficulty photographing a blade of this unique plant, but here is an image from the web. 


It is triangular in structure, with upwards-facing serrations along it’s edges. Moisture is gathered in these serrations, thus feeding the plant.  Be careful…they are sharp!

As we walked down the ramp from the overlook, we heard an owl down in a thicket next to the structure.


We peered in and found this Barred Owl.


We showed it to other visitors on the deck, and everyone was really quiet and respectful of the bird’s space.

If you have never been to the Everglades, we hope you are able to see this fragile ecosystem in the near future.  The diversity of species here is astounding.  It’s amazing the Everglades still exist, with all that mankind has thrown at them in the past century.  Efforts are being made to restore a portion of the historic flow… but there are huge politics in play, so the outcome remains to be seen. We certainly hope the restoration happens.


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Shark Valley – Everglades National Park

NOTICE: November 2017:  Shark Valley is currently closed, due to high water from Hurricane Irma.  To see a current status, check this link.

Before we came to South Florida, we had the preconceived notion that Everglades National Park was a hot, mosquito infested swamp…somewhere that we would find difficult to visit.  Well, we were pleasantly surprised this last Friday when we visited Shark Valley, the northern portion of Everglades National Park.  As luck would have it, a cold front had swept through the area on Thursday and brought the region low humidity and temperatures in the high 60’s. Insects were few and far between. Perfect weather to go for a 14.7 mile bike ride into the heart of the glades!

The name ‘Shark Valley’ is somewhat deceiving.  There are no sharks in the freshwater of the Everglades; the name comes from the Shark River Slough, the large body of slow moving water coming down out of Lake Okeechobee.  The valley is all of 10 feet deeper than the Atlantic and Gulf ridges to the east and west.  The Everglades are not swampland, but rather a shallow river of clear, fresh water flowing over a limestone base from north to south.  While they were once much larger…extensive portions were drained and developed…they still are massive.  They are also quite diverse in their fauna, ranging from sawgrass to tall pine trees.  Surprisingly, there were very few palm trees.

The National Park Service operates a tram along the Shark Valley Tram Trail….a 15 mile asphalt loop road that runs south from US-41 into the middle of the park.  They also rent bicycles and allow walkers on the trail.  We decided to take advantage of the great weather and check it out with our TerraTrikes!  It is advised to arrive early, as we got there just after noon and were subject to a half hour ‘one car in/one car out’ wait.

Diana took the lead and kept an eye out for alligators.  It’s one thing to be standing up and looking down at them, but we were a lot closer to their level with our recumbents!

It wasn’t long before we saw the first one.  A ranger told us to never pass between their head and the water, as that is their escape.  He didn’t need to tell us twice.  🙂

We quickly started seeing other wildlife, such as this Great Blue Heron.  What appears to be grasslands from ground level is actually mostly water, which can be easily seen from the air.

We spotted this tortoise along the side of the trail.

Yet another gator laying in the grass.  At one point, I stopped to view a turtle, so Diana stopped and began pushing her trike back with her feet.  Her gears made a clicking sound that evidently scared a gator that was hiding in some tall grass, just out of our view.  It jumped into the water with a huge splash. That really got our heart rates going!

Diana spotted this colorful Bull thistle.  We saw several wildflowers in bloom throughout the trip.

Near the southern end of the trail, an observation tower rises above the Everglades.

As we approached, we had to go through a fair amount of water over the path.  This runoff was actually flowing across the road, as this part of Florida has had a lot of rain this year.

While parking the trikes, we noticed this big alligator sizing up all of the tourists.  :). Actually, only one person has been attacked by a gator in Shark Valley since it opened in the 1940’s…a young Brazilian boy who fell off his bike into the canal near the visitor’s center.  His mother jumped in and rescued him by prying the reptile’s mouth open.  While that was an unfortunate accident, we are continually amazed at how some people tempt fate by posing with creatures like this.

As we started up the tower, we noticed this American Crocodile.  Notice the narrower snout.  Alligators have a much wider spread between their nostrils. The Florida Everglades are the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist in the same habitat.  We were lucky to see this one, as they are endangered and it is rare to see them in the wild.

Here I am near the base of the tower.

The concrete structure rises above the valley and gives a great view of the surrounding landscape.  The upper portion is closed off, most likely for safety reasons.

Looking back north, you are able to see the road we had just biked on.


To the east, south and west, there is wilderness as far as the eye can see!  While most national parks showcase stunning geographical features, Everglades National Park was the first to be established to protect and display the vast ecosystem. It is the third largest park in the Lower 48, behind Yellowstone and Death Valley.

After we were done at the tower, we returned on the curvier eastern side of the loop road.

It wasn’t too long before this Great White Egret flew in front of us.

We passed this partially submerged gator.

Here is a White Ibis in flight.

We also saw plenty of hammocks, which appeared to be islands in the glades.  What we found out was that they are actually deeper water than the surrounding landscape.  When the Everglades dry up in the hot summer, these deeper areas are able to support tree growth.  A change of mere inches can cut short the life of a tree, as has happened to the trees in the foreground.

As we neared the end of the trail, this Anhinga stood by the side of the road, drying its wings.  He didn’t move at all as we slowly passed by.

If you ever get a chance to visit Shark Valley, be sure to do so.  It’s a great way to spend a day!

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St. Augustine

In northeast Florida lies the oldest continually occupied settlement in the United States, St. Augustine.  Founded in 1565 by Spain, this charming place has amassed a fair amount of history in the past 450 years.  Diana and I decided to check out this interesting community on February 10.

We had dinner at Harry’s Seafood, a suggestion that our friends Rod and Mary had given us. The food was good and we enjoyed the New Orleans ambiance.

The restaurant is directly across the street from the waterfront.

They have a charming outdoor patio with heaters; had it been a touch warmer, we would have eaten out there.

We spent the night at the Doubletree by Hilton, which we found to be a very nice hotel.  The staff went out of their way to be helpful, and our room was immaculate.  A special shout-out to our breakfast server Bill, who was very attentive and friendly.

After breakfast, we crossed the street and visited the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.  This 208 foot cross, the tallest in the world, marks the spot where Christianity was first proclaimed in what is now the United States.  The museum was interesting and the grounds were pretty.

The centerpiece of St. Augustine is the Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marcos.  The first version of the current masonry fort was constructed over 23 years, between 1672 and 1695.  There were many additions and improvements since then.  The key to the success of this fort is the unique masonry used in its construction; a locally quarried conglomerate known as coquina.  Translated in Spanish, the name means ‘small shells’….and that is exactly what it is….blocks of small sea shells bonded together over millienia.

Just using what they had on hand, the Spanish didn’t find out until the fort came under siege by the British in 1740 just how good the coquina was.  For two months, the British showered the fort with cannonballs, only to have them bounce off the walls.  It turns out the air pockets in the coquina acted like shock absorbers, and the cannon fire only resulted in small dents in the surface.  Eventually the British were trapped by Spanish reinforcements sent up from Havana, resulting in the Brits burning their ships and retreating to Carolina on foot.

This is an interpretive talk being given by a National Park ranger, explaining coquina’s superior properties to us.  On the wall behind her, what appears to be a second story is actually the upper window of each room. Every one of the chambers are constructed with arched ceilings, which support the weight of the deck and cannons above.

This photo shows the arched ceilings.  The legendary Seminole chief Osceola was held in this room in 1837, prior to being sent to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina where he died of what is believed to have been malaria.

The view of the harbor from the upper deck is breathtaking, to say the least!

Here is a selection of several of the different types of cannons used over the years by the various occupying armies.  The fort changed hands six times:  Spain (1672-1763), Great Britian (1763-1784), Spain (1784-1821), United States of America (1821-1861), Confederate States of America (1861-1862), and finally the United States of America (1862 – present).

We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the fort, and we will surely visit again in the future.

After the fort, we walked up St. George Street. There are many restaurants and shops along this pedestrian only road.  At the southern end, we visited the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine.

This building is an amazing example of Mediterranean archtecture.

The interior was gorgeous with its Spanish influence.


I especially liked the way the stained glass windows were framed.  🙂

There are many more places we didn’t have time to visit.  We will be sure to check them out when we return to the area. With that being said, we are heading out from Melbourne Beach. We will be more mobile and less stationary for the next two months. Stay tuned as we reveal our destinations as we go!

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