If you’re going to a National Park, chances are you know that it is going to be an incredible experience. There are only 58 National Parks in the country, and they protect incredible land like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and so many more unfathomably beautiful stretches of earth. The reputation of land named under the title, National Park, proceeds itself. We knew this going into the Everglades. Of course it was going to be incredible. But when you drive through the long 50 mile road that gets you from the park entrance to the Flamingo visitors center and campground, the place feels understated. You drive past miles and miles of coastal prairie. Stunted cypress forests form tight clusters and spot the savannah-like land. Herron and crane rise from the grass and into the air when you drive past. It is beautiful, and natural, feeling far removed from the touch of humanity- save the road you drive on. But the nature of the long road and its small pitstops make you think, foolishly, that after you’ve driven down and back… you’ve seen most of what there is to see in the Everglades.
This was our conclusion when we took a quick afternoon drive, 50 miles through the Everglades, to the Flamingo visitors center and campground. It was beautiful… sure. But was there really that much to see that we had not seen on the drive? Alas, one week later, we were leaving left Key West reservation-less, with no where else to go. Turns out, our quick afternoon spent in the Everglades had intrigued us enough to set our destination back to Flamingo. But our expectations were nearly non-existent. Maybe we would catch a few sunsets, and rent a canoe. It sounded fun, but not especially exciting. Plus, we were tired and burned out from our time in Miami and Key West. We saw the Flamingo campground as a chance to spend a few days somewhere cool while also being hooked up to electric and able to catch back up on life. Little did we know, we would end up rearranging our January plans to spend ten whole days getting lost in the wild marshland that makes up–save the Keys– the Southernmost tip of Florida.
There are two ways to get through the Everglades. There is a road that cuts through the top of the Everglades and connects Naples to Miami. And then there is the road that begins in Homestead and goes directly down to the tip of Florida, where the dated and defunct Flamingo Visitors Center and neighboring campground sits. That is the way we went. The Flamingo campground is huge, though the majority of it was closed due to damage from Hurricane Irma. Still, the loop that was open was large enough that there were at least ten hook-up spots available on the Tuesday evening we arrived. There were twice as many dry camping spots, but since we had full service (amazingly) at the campground, we wanted to live life a little extra… meaning the ability to keep up with Warrior’s games, Top Chef, air conditioning and dehumidifying the RV. It’s the little things, you know. This turned out the be a smart choice.
We left Key West exhausted and overstimulated. We had spent our first two weeks in Florida trying to see everything we could see, and we had been living in tightly packed RV parks for way longer than we would have liked. I had absolutely no qualms with our plan to drive an hour and twenty minutes away from civilization. Once we got off the Keys and back into Homestead, we stopped and did a huge grocery shop & gas up, as we knew we were heading over an hour away from those amenities. We finally rolled through the Everglades as the sun was setting, got to the Flamingo campground at dusk and drove around once or twice to find the perfect spot. We stopped, watched the sunset, made an easy dinner and were probably asleep within the next hour.
The first thing you notice about Flamingo is the smell: the funk of mud and ever-present perfume one finds at the lowest of tides. This does not go away. You are surrounded by coastal prairie, and a stones throw from the waters of the gulf. This is the tip of Florida, surpassed only by the Keys. I come from a watery, marshy place…and the stink of exposed loam at low tide smells like home to me. But I could not get used to the smell of the Flamingo campground, and the constant hue of decaying ocean-life. We were immediately grateful we had our AC and dehumidifier and wouldn’t need to open the windows. It’s the little things.
The second thing you’ll notice, is the mosquitos. Really, you notice these things almost simultaneously. You step outside, you smell decay and shallow water, and then you feel the pinch—the swarm— and within minutes any exposed piece of skin you have will have been tasted by a mosquito. I often forget how spoiled we are in California. My California boy learned this the hard way, and returned from a quick walk with the dogs (who are heart-wormed) covered with bites. This led to a few restless nights with extremely itchy legs… but we learned the unspoken rule of Flamingo within those fatal minutes it took Jordan to walk the dogs around the campground: wear bug spray; don’t leave your skin exposed. These small issues sound less than ideal, but the truth is that once we adjusted to the rules of the land, we were really happy with the place. We wore light layers and bug-spray whenever we left the RV, and while you never quite get used to the smell… it sure does set the mood of the place.
Our first several days in Flamingo were scattered with thunderstorms. This made us extremely happy. Let’s just say, after our intense first two weeks in Florida… we were ready for some rainy days to excuse ourselves from the outside world. Through our front windows, we had an exceptional view of the storms that rolled through, and we were content cozying up, getting work done and being homebodies for a few days. This time passed rather quickly, and by the third or fourth day we were ready to do some serious exploration. There are quite a few trails in the Everglades. The first one we tried was the Coastal Trail that feeds from the bottom of the Flamingo Campground. Jordan had explored the trail by himself already, and we decided to bike down before sunset.
To get there, you have to ride through the part of the campground that is closed due to hurricane damage. The trail itself looks closed, and that entire area of the Everglades still bares the mark of strong winds and rising tides. In fact, there had hardly been any work done to repair the campground from damage sustained in August— they had only just started doing minor work on the major destruction. But then, the pace makes sense. In this southern tip of Florida, you can see how there may be hesitation in excessive effort, as the next Hurricane season looms a mere half year away. But we found the trail, and I was trepidatious— it looked wild, daunting, wet and inaccessible—but Jordan insisted it was worth it. So we grabbed the bikes and took off. The trail led through a fantastically brown and puke-green swampland, before opening up to an amazing stretch of trees, then, the most beautiful span of coastal prairie, cast in the golden rays of the day’s last light.
The trail was wet and muddy and seriously tested me. The smell of dead fish was almost nauseating. But it was so rewarding. And that is the moment when the Everglades clicked for me. It was a land that seemed separate and inaccessible but with a huge amount of effort on my part—a commitment to go deeper into land that seemed impassible— it allowed me to be there. The prairie rewarding me with sights, sounds… silence, all the while increasing the faith I had in my self. This was just the first test the Everglades had for me, and we road out as the sun was setting, covered in mud and bearing huge grins on our faces. We were further blessed by a streak of rainbow and the pink hues of sunset. The rustle of birds overhead marked the final gasp of day, and we coasted back into our campsite right before the misquotes barraged the night.
This was just the first of many expeditions deeper into the land. I had a visceral reaction to the Everglades. Everything we did there was thwarted in some way. Every trail halted us, at some point, with impassible water. We biked through puddles so deep there were literally little fish swimming beside us. I was so distracted by the minnows that I bailed out into swamp and road home with wet shoes. Everything was muddy and smelly and daunting, and every experience we had challenged us in a very real way. But there was something so beautiful in this give and take. We knew with every expedition into the wild, we would not comeback unscathed.
After five nights in the Flamingo campground, we were ready to move on, but not ready to leave the Everglades just yet. We drove forty-five minutes back towards the park entrance and found the Lone Pine Key campground, tucked in forest of beautiful scrub pines. Although this campground is only ten minutes or so from the park entrance, it had zero service and we were dry camping, so it felt even more remote than Flamingo. The Lone Pine Key Campground was incredible. It was as though we had paid our dues in our first four days in the sparse and smelly Flamingo Campground, as the Lone Pine Key campground was clean, filled with grass and jungle-y forest. The mosquito’s weren’t bad at all, and we found an amazing site that felt really private and gave us a green view of forest out our front window. It felt amazing to dry camp again, and losing cell service always feels like a huge gift as I find myself spending way too much of my time on my phone.
We fell so deeply in love with this forested campground that we knew immediately that we had to extend our stay. So we moved back our next reservation so that we could spend four more nights in the Everglades. We were closer to civilization at Lone Pine, so we took advantage of that fact and drove the twenty minutes to get back into Homestead so we could bring the dogs to the park. National Parks are not very dog friendly–they are only allowed on paved roads– and the dogs were beginning to get a little restless. We also stocked up on groceries… and… we rented a canoe! We were able to get an overnight canoe rental which would give us two whole days to explore the Everglades the right way… on the water.
We brought the sleepy dogs home and set off, back down to the Flamingo visitors center (and attached marina), with plans to canoe to a land-able key just off the bottom of the Everglades. We got there around three-thirty, as we were hoping to catch the sunset on our way home. I was a bit nervous, as it had been ages since I have canoed. The Everglades was testing my moral again. But any nervousness dissipated as soon as we got the boat into the water and paddled a few strokes. Being on the water is one of my favorite things, and this area of the Everglades was teeming with life. We snaked around the bottom of the park, and cut over to an island where we found the spit of beach that we could land on.
There was a primitive campsite on the island, and it had me wishing we were dog free, just for a night, so we could have done the same trip except packed with a tent and supplies for an overnight on our own private island. We explored the tiny spit of land for about an hour before we had to get back to the boat. The sun was hovering just above the horizon… and we wanted to get back to the marina before it was too dark. We paddled home as the sun was fading, and watched many different kinds of birds settling around the area before darkness fell. The air was loud with bird calls and it was so peaceful.
As we were paddling back into the harbor entrance, we passed a medium sized crocodile floating about four feet away from us. We could only see a patch of its spiny back and the crown of its face. It slipped under the water, heading away from us, and we slid back into shore. This was pretty exciting, because it was the first we had seen since we got to Florida. It was time to head home, as we had the dogs to get back to, so we loaded up the canoe and drove the forty-five minutes back to the RV in the dark.
The next day we woke up early with plans to canoe the Nine-Mile Pond canoe trail, a five hour trail (that can be shortened to 3) that winds around mangroves— numbered posts guiding you through the maze of a trail. It was serene and beautiful, but had far less wildlife than our trip in the Gulf the day before. The mangroves were gorgeous, but we weren’t entirely impressed as it all began to look the same after the first hour. So we decided to take the short cut, and as we paddled into the second to last pond, we were lamenting that we hadn’t even seen a gator. And then, just as we were about to leave the pond, I turned to my right and saw the most massive creature pulled up onto the bank of the pond. It was hard to tell what it was from a distant… but still, I knew immediately. It was like gazing at a dinosaur, and except for the experience of seeing whales, I have never been quite so moved at the sight of an animal. He was the king of the pond, a twelve foot long crocodile (or alligator- but we are pretty sure he was a croc). The wind was blowing pretty heavily at this point, urging us out of the pond. But we knew that we had to turn around to get a better shot of this guy. It was a terrifying of a task–note the open mouth and teeth the size of fingers– but we careened around and paddled towards the croc, careful not to get too close. I don’t think I’ve ever loved my zoom lens more, and I quickly snapped a few shots before grabbing the Gopro to try to get some video. With our mischief managed, we sped away breathless and thrilled by the entire experience.
As we loaded the canoe onto the roof of the Saab for the last time, we knew our trip in the Everglades had just about come to a close. We felt so grateful for everything we had seen and experienced there… but also some regret. In our final stretch of days at Lone Pine, we had learned about the true way to experience the Everglades: through its backcountry. Most of the Everglades is composed of backcountry, and there are extensive canoe trails and “chickies”– platforms that rise up from the swamp, where you tie up your canoe and make camp. You could spend days, even weeks, exploring the true Everglades, that which is far removed and seemingly inaccessible. Here we were, thinking we had conquered the place… only to find out that we had hardly touched the surface.
But a backcountry trip was not in the cards for us. We can’t shed the dogs, the cats, or the RV. And thus, our first trip to the Everglades was determined by those factors. But we left the place with a dream to go back though. The thought of a backcountry canoe trip through the Thousand Island section of the western side of the park has shimmied its way high up our bucket list. Sometimes this is what traveling does. You get to just barely experience a place… enough to know that you need to go back. And thus the cycle begins. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.