The Water Parks of Florida; Biscayne, Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks
So far it feels just like a business trip; get to Sea-Tac Sunday night, arrive sleepy Monday morning, inhale breakfast at Starbucks and then rent a car – this time at Miami International Airport. I knew when I made reservations that nothing would normally take me to Florida City, a modest working class town in southern Florida. However, Tom’s and my quest to visit all 59 National Parks does. It’s literally the crossroads for all three National Parks in southern Florida, #36, 37 and 38 for us!
Temps are in the low 80’s, partly cloudy and a bit clammy – a big change from November in Seattle. Luckily, we get to check into the Best Western Gateway to the Keys early for some ZZZ’s, taking the edge off of the “red eye”. Later, we figure out our game plan for the next couple of days while visiting Biscayne and Everglades visitors’ centers and viewing the informative introductory movies.
Day Two – Everglades National Park
After a late start, we drive through the East entrance into Everglades National Park, and then across the Park to the Flamingo Visitor Center via the 38-mile scenic drive. The Flamingo area is noticeably run down. We learn that it was already deteriorating before it was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Once out of the car, we quickly experience the massive number of mosquitos even at the end of wet season (April-Nov). They are big and they bite hard even through our long sleeves and pants!
Flamingo is where one can get into the waterways on pontoon boats – we pick the Backcountry tour. (Kayaks seem too slow to escape the mosquitos.) Prior to boarding, we hear that there is a crocodile over by the canoes so we rush to see it before our trip begins. How cool – it’s just hanging out, with its mouth open wide! Someone also points out the manatees, large endangered mammals, swimming around the marina.
Once at our boat we meet our naturalist, Roulex, and head out. We immediately learn that we are navigating a three-mile-long channel dug in 1957 by the National Park Service (NPS) to get into the backcountry faster. Back then millions of birds were being poached for their feathers and the NPS needed to control the killing. Today only 10% of the white Ibis are left. Unfortunately, by digging the channel the NPS totally upset the ecosystem by removing the mangrove barrier, allowing fresh and saltwater to mix. So, in 1982 a cement “plug” was built which has restored the separation. (Mangroves (white, black and red) line the waterways protecting the area from storms with their unique root system.)
It’s such a relief to pass the no-wake zone and pick up speed creating a breeze which eliminates the harassing mosquitos. As we enter natural Coot bay, named after duck like birds, a juvenile osprey greets us. A bottle nose dolphin accompanies us as we navigate another channel to reach expansive Whitewater Bay, the heart of the Everglades backcountry and our destination.
Once we return to the marina, we realize that hiking won’t be on our itinerary this trip due to the mosquitos. We head back to Florida City through the Park. It’s amazing, that just a few feet of elevation gain change the vegetation from grassland to Pine and then to old growth Magnolia.
After exiting the Park, we explore all the goodies at “Robert is Here Fruit Stand and Farm”. We opt for dinner “in” with our goods since dining in Florida City is, shall we say, limited.
Day Three – Everglades National Park
Today we wake to sunshine, a little bit of wind and reduced humidity and head back into Everglades for our 10:30am Ranger led tour in the Royal Palm area hoping for fewer mosquitos.
The Ranger tells us that Everglades National Park covers an area 100 X 300 square miles but grasslands are only 1/3 the size of what they once were prior to development (especially Miami and agriculture). The river everyone references is really a large flow of fresh water out of Lake Okeechobee, in central Florida, south into Florida Bay through the lowland grassland creating the Everglades. Unfortunately, development has diverted much of this flow. It’s a sub-tropical environment where fresh and saltwater mingle, enabling over 400 species of tropical and more temperate species to live side by side. It’s the only place on the planet where the American crocodile and alligator exist together.
The walk itself takes us on the Anhinga Trail, a flat paved path and a new boardwalk, in and through the lush vegetation, waterways and wildlife – especially birds. The Park was created in 1947 to protect and restore this vast ecosystem as a wildlife habitat. On this short walk alone we see white Ibis, egrets, anhinga birds, an alligator, turtles and many other fish and birds.
Following the walk, we attempt a couple more hikes in the area but the mosquitos win. Nonetheless, we still leave enamored with the Everglades.
Biscayne National Park was created in the 60’s with the intent of protecting the area from development. Established as a National Park in 1980, it covers 180,000 acres, mostly underwater, and protects a portion of the third largest barrier reef in the world (who knew?) and many small keys (islands created by biological activity versus geological). Mostly accessed by boat, we were disheartened to hear, on our first day, that the Park lost its boat concessionaire four years ago! Biscayne is a locals Park with some nice little walks and views of Miami but that’s it unless you get out on the water. Brian, the guy who rents the kayaks, tried for two days to get us out among the mangrove but the winds weren’t in our favor.
So, today we take the recommendation from the Visitor Center and head to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park just 30 minutes south since it has a regular concessionaire and access to the same barrier reef. Once again, high winds limit our activities a bit. They recommend the glass bottom boat versus snorkeling – bummer! We board, curious how the glass bottom thing will go. On either side of the main cabin there are angled windows showing the seafloor quite well. An enthusiastic naturalist calls out the different types of coral and fish once we get out to the reef (45mins). The Atlantic Ocean sea life is certainly different than the Pacific – we get to see lots colorful fish, healthy coral and cute green turtles.
Once back to the Marina, another two hours along the Overseas Highway gets us to Key West. We arrive at the Gates Hotel just east of downtown. It is a renovated 60’s hotel done in an updated beach motif – really nice. We opt for the Tavern N Town at the Marriott across street for some excellent (first on this trip) food and wine.
Day Five – The pool
We certainly aren’t accustomed to resort living on National Park trips but what the heck – may as well enjoy it and today is the day. It’s warm and sunny and the pool is very inviting! We even walk four miles into town for lunch.
Day Six – Dry Tortugas National Park
We wake to a peaceful cell phone ring at 6:30 am. Day bags already packed, we get our coffee and head to the ferry terminal in downtown Key West to catch the Yankee Freedom III, a large high speed catamaran, out to Dry Tortugas National Park. I must admit, we are excited!
We get lots of announcements from the crew and I pop the suggested Dramamine due to high winds and waves – there are 175 of us making the approximate three-hour voyage (70 miles) today. After breakfast, the cloudy skies gradually clear as we head west and lose any sight of land. Finally, the Captain tells us that we will soon see Fort Jefferson off the starboard side. Dry Tortugas National Park includes 7 keys, it’s named after the once plentiful tasty turtles and is “dry” – no water at all! Fort Jefferson is on Garden Key, the second largest, which is about one square mile.
As we approach Fort Jefferson, everyone is in awe and snapping photos like crazy – us included. We disembark and immediately walk the perimeter of the Fort along the mote wall. The shallow, turquoise water surrounding the Fort is created by a coral reef. Then, we join the 1 ½ hour tour conducted by Hollywood, an energetic guide.
We learn that the US began constructing this Fort in the early 1800’s to protect the shipping channels from the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern seaboard. While “dry”, Tortugas offered a safe harbor for mariners and pirates. Fort Jefferson, being 70 miles out to sea, was designed to house a years’ worth of supplies, including water for the slaves, soldiers, prisoners and workers so it was one of the largest masonry forts in the United States. It’s hard to imagine getting 16 million bricks out here from Pensacola, FL and Maine via wooden ships after getting them to Key West! The Fort was never completed and never fired one of its planned 450 cannons. Garden Key started to sink from the weight of the bricks and water purifying system. But, the Fort did function as a prison housing thousands of inmates during the Civil War including Dr Mudd who was accused of aiding the Lincoln assassin. In 1907 the Fort was abandoned after being hit hard by yellow fever and hurricanes. Naval improvements had rendered it obsolete. In 1935 it became a National Monument and finally a Park in 1992.
After the tour, we get to experience the small white coral sand beach on Garden Key and a little snorkel time in the warm water.
Back on the Ferry, everyone is in a festive mood after a great day in Dry Tortugas National Park!
Day Eight and Nine – Key West to Denver
Our final sunny pool day is accompanied by Flashback, a murder mystery about Dry Tortugas. Sunset on the requisite boardwalk followed by a quiet (Key West is kind of crazy) and delicious dinner at Bliss concludes our adventure. We get up early and drive 3 ½ hours back to Miami International Airport where we catch a flight to Denver for Thanksgiving. 38 down and 21 to go. The water Parks of Florida are unique - Dry Tortugas may be at the top of our list for historical significance! We’ll be back – Virgin Islands National Park is next and Cuba is on the way.
If you go:
1. We chose November because Hurricane Season was over. But, going later in the dry season – December, January or February would be better due to the nasty mosquitos.
2. I’d recommend Home2 Suites in Florida City. We couldn’t get in due to a big NASCAR race in town.
3. Dining is extremely limited in the Florida City/Homestead area. Wish I could give you a recommendation.
4. Make sure and check activities in Biscayne National Park ahead of time. I hope they get a concessionaire!
5. One can also get to Dry Tortugas National Park via Sea Plane.
6. It would be so fun to camp overnight at Fort Jefferson but one must reserve months ahead. Our trip was planned at the last minute so we didn’t get to – hope you can.