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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Oxford

Everglades National Park: First Experience

There is no place on Earth like the Everglades. Located in South Florida, Everglades National Park spans 1.5 millions acres across this southern portion. In our visit, Sam and I barely scraped the surface of its boundaries, but the experience in itself was like no other. In the short time we were there, we were able to learn so much about the park's history and land preservation, as well as see some amazing biodiversity and trails.

Getting there:

We woke up in the shanty the morning of November 7th, nestled in between two semi-trucks at a Love's Truck Stop in Gainesville, Florida. From Gainesville, it was approximately 450 miles or 7 hours of driving according to the GPS. In reality, it was going to take much longer, for going anywhere with the shanty we realized you need to add about 2 hours of buffer time. We set out, initially just trying to take the backroads, but the stoplights along that route were discouraging so we quickly hopped on I-75 southbound. This was the first time we had to drive on an interstate for an extended time, and it certainly did not treat us well. The road itself was so rough, and having a semi-truck pass you every second it felt scary nonetheless. After hours on I-75, we finally took the exit for US 41, and from there it was still approximately 150 miles to get to our destination. This drive was luckily very intriguing, for we entered the Big Cypress National Reserve, a place we knew even less about than the Everglades. 

We stopped at the visitor center for Big Cypress and to our surprise, saw our first alligator of the trip! It was swimming in the water directly behind the visitor center, and with that excitement of seeing one went back inside the visitor center to write on the "Wildlife Sighting" whiteboard that we saw one. The park ranger inside was sort of surprised, and we certainly were too. Shortly after leaving the visitor center, we entered the Miccosukee Reservation. Everybody was passing us as we drove through, even though I tried to maintain the speed limit as best as possible. As the sun was starting to set and our hunger grew stronger, we stopped at a Chipotle on the outskirts of Miami. We definitely got some looks from locals driving through suburbia to get there, for everyone had nice, clean cars and there we were with a beat-up Subaru towing an ice fishing shanty. Luckily we didn't scrape any paint with the erratic drivers there, and headed towards the Everglades with still 75 miles to go.

As the night fell, we scurried through the dimly lit exotic farmlands in Homestead and finally approached Florida 9336/ Main Park Rd, the only route throughout the national park. We posted a Snapchat of the park sign as we drove in, and there were so many people warning us to "be careful!" Should we be afraid? What's going to get us? Why is everyone warning us about going here? So now, being the only people driving down this dark and desolate road into the park, we were pretty scared. About 20 miles in, we saw the figure of what looked to be a giant snake in the road and Sam was now really freaking out. I was not particularly too afraid, and reminded her we just need to be aware of our surroundings and we will be alright. After about an hour of driving down this lonely road, we approached the town of Flamingo, where our campsite was for the night. To our surprise, there were still people working at the Flamingo Campground contact station when we arrived, and they showed us where to get to our site for the night. The campground was very large and spread out, and our site was all the way in the back away from everyone else there because we didn't book a site with electricity. There was no cell service for our Verizon phones, but that was okay because we kept busy being intrigued by the unique reptiles and insects hanging around the bathrooms and stargazing in awe at some of the brightest stars we had ever seen.

What We Did:

After being bit by mosquitos all night long, we packed everything up in the morning and hit the road. Our first stop was the Guy Bradley Visitor Center in Flamingo, where we gained some insight from rangers where to stop on our way out of the park. It was recommended we stop at each of the trailheads along Main Park Road and hike the short boardwalks into the wilderness.

We hiked each one of these trails: 

West Lake Trail- 0.4 mi

Paurotis Pond- 0.0 mi (overlook)

Mahogany Hammock Trail- 0.4 mi

Pa-hay-okee Overlook- 0.2 mi

Pinelands Trail- 0.4 mi

Gumbo-Limbo Trail- 0.4 mi

Anhinga Trail- 0.8 mi

Starting from the south and working our way northbound proved to be beneficial, for it avoided the visitors coming in from the entrance station and we got to be the only ones at the trails until we got to the Gumbo-Limbo and Anhinga Trails.

Before we exited Main Park Rd, we stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which had a very informative interactive interpretive exhibit. We enjoyed listening to the stories of how the Everglades affects everyone in Southern Florida and how the fate of its future is in the hands of our generation and those to come.

Our next adventure in the park was to take an airboat tour, but we made a short pit stop at a fruit stand named "Robert Is Here," and what an interesting experience that was. This stand had exotic fruits that were being grown locally in the area for sale, delicious fruit smoothies, and a zoo of unique animals outback. Stopping at Robert Is Here is a must when visiting the Everglades.

We made our way back up to US 41 to get an airboat tour experience in Coopertown, population of 8 residents, home of the Original Airboat Tour since 1945. Sam had done the tour here back when she was a kid with her family, so she was excited to take the tour again. The Coopertown tour was an official concessionaire of the National Park Service, and only 1 of 2 official airboat tours in the Everglades. We were thoroughly surprised to find they had their own National Parks Passport cancellation stamp, but there it was just chilling in the gift shop. The tour started with a presentation in a small amphitheater about alligators, crocodiles, and Burmese pythons, and we even got to pet a baby alligator. We then boarded the airboat, and the captain sent us ripping through the Everglades, gliding over any tall grasses in the water, and then idled us through a small passageway where we saw some alligators swimming through the water. Before leaving, we sampled some alligator nuggets and frog legs in the connected restaurant.

To end our night, we stopped at the Shark Valley Visitor Center along US 41 and made a reservation for the Midway Campground, located right down the road in Big Cypress. We cooked up some hot dogs and got to bed early from a long, sun-beaten day.

"The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we get to keep the planet."

Learning about how fragile the ecosystem of the Everglades is and how easily its resources are becoming depleted made me very emotional. There is no other place in the world as unique and special as the Everglades, and to know within a matter of years it could completely vanish is heartbreaking. It truly upsets me to know that people in powerful positions do not do more to protect such a special place in the world. I feel as if most people do not understand the true importance of this place, and I certainly did not without visiting there. It opened my eyes that people can be so ignorant to pressing issues because they lack even the most basic education. The Everglades isn't the hellscape full of alligators and snakes which is what most seem to think it is. It's a home to over 1000 species, a sacred place for native people, and the water source for a city of almost a half-million people. I have no fear of the Everglades, yes there are deadly alligators and Burmese pythons, but those two animals should not define an entire place, especially when there is such more of a magnitude of what this place really is. I hope the conservation efforts of this beautiful place only continue to grow, and the reality of how quickly the Everglades could vanish is more commonly known.

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