After two relaxing days in Marathon, our adventure took us back to Florida City (FC) for the remainder of our trip. I had previously stated in the first post of this trilogy that I wanted to give more detail on FC. Here are the positive things about FC.
- It is very close proximity to both Everglades and Biscayne Bay. Both parks are only a 15 minute drive.
- Located right along Highway 1 if you want to head south to the Keys.
Now, let me address my concerns about FC and using it as a base camp for park visitation.
- FC is one of those areas that I did not feel comfortable walking around after dark. I personally didn’t leave the hotel grounds. “Sketchy” is the word I would use.
- We didn’t find any interesting restaurants in FC.
- Traffic is chaotic
- Once you are done at the parks, there are not many things to do in the evenings. There is a nearby outlet mall if that’s your thing.
Regular Guy TIP: If I return to this area in the future, I will stay in Key Largo and drive up to Everglades. It’s only a 30 minute drive and there is much more to do down in Key Largo. I’ll talk more about things to do in Key Largo later.
After leaving our hotel on Tuesday afternoon, we drove the 15 minutes to Everglades National Park. Five minutes into your drive, the scenery changes drastically. You transition from bustling city to full agricultural area. The roadside fields were filled with waist-high corn, Royal Palm farms and many other crops I couldn’t identify.
We stopped at the park sign and asked another couple to take our family picture. We got back in the car and drove toward Ernest Coe Visitor Center. On our way, we saw a sign that got our attention.
Sadly, there are reported to be only 100 Florida Panthers left in the wild. We asked the Ranger at the toll booth if he had ever seen one and he gave me a chuckle and said, “They are almost never seen.” The toll to enter the park as $25 and lasts for the standard 7 days so keep your receipt.
In the visitor center, we got our park stamp and browsed around at the various educational displays. In the bookstore, my son bought himself a shirt. My wife and I had to totally resist buying our 7 month old granddaughter this outfit. When she’s older, I can assure you she will own one of these.
On the rear of the visitor center, there was a large deck overlooking a small lake. Here is where we spotted our first alligator.
We loaded back in the car and drove maybe a mile down the road to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Royal Palm is less of a visitor center and more of a launch point for ranger-led tours. More importantly, it’s the start of the Anhinga Trail. Do not miss this trail if you want to soak in the essence of Everglades NP. This short, .8 mile loop allows you to view the abundance of wildlife from an elevated deck. Even though the hike is short, there is very little shade so bring water. This ecosystem was just teeming with life. Fish, alligators, turtles, Anhingas, and many other wading birds.
At the end of that hike, there is a sign for another trailhead. The Gumbo-Limbo trail is a short .4 mile loop through dense forest and it’s really fun to say. Be prepared for mosquitos on this trail if you stop for any length of time. They like the shade and will torment you if you stop.
After you leave Everglades, the drive back to Florida City will take you past a unique fruit stand called “Robert Is Here.” Time your visit so you can stop here for a mid-afternoon snack. Robert was actually working the cash register when we walked in, so I introduced myself. What started out as a tiny fruit stand has grown into busy stop for tourists and locals alike. Most people come for the milkshakes so I ordered a cherry / key lime shake. These are two of my favorite flavors combined in one glorious cup of goodness. The shakes are $6 each which is pricy to me but the pulp of real fruit assured me this wasn’t made with pump-out artificial flavors.
We returned to Everglades again the following day but this time we traveled to the far southern tip and the Flamingo Visitor Center. This drive is only 35 miles but takes nearly an hour to travel. The mosquitos at Flamingo formed a cloud over us the moment we stepped from the car. Regularguy Tip: Wear long-sleeve shirt and hiking pants when visiting Flamingo. Obviously a good bottle of repellent will prove useful too.
I located a Park ranger inside and explained that we wanted to visit this section of the park via canoe or kayak. There is a marina that rents motorized boats, kayaks and canoes on site at Flamingo. There is also a range led boat tour that departs every hour or so. We opted for renting a 4-person canoe. It cost us $38 for four hours. The Ranger informed us that this is the only place in the U.S. where Saltwater Crocs can be found. It didn’t take long to see these guys.
In all of our initial excitement, I didn’t realized we paddled for 90 minutes or so up the canal with the wind. The return trip against the wind was brutal. My son had to take over and help me paddle the final 3 miles back to the rental center. When we returned, there was an 11′ crocodile floating in the marina that posed for us. Sadly, we never did see any Manatees or snakes during our time in Everglades.
For brevity sake, I am skipping our evening restaurant reviews so I can focus more on the parks. Thursday was our final full day of vacation. Today we visited park #19 – Biscayne Bay.
Since 98% of this park is water, the only real way to see it is via boat. Contrary to what the park service website says, they do rent kayaks / canoes here now.
I had originally booked us on a ranger-led boat tour to Boca Chita key. It costs $35 per person and the only thing you really get to see is the small island and light house. The kids were not thrilled when I told them what we were going to see. Nobody wanted to paddle anymore so we canceled our reservations and just walked the limited trails around the park. As National Parks go, I have to say this was one of the more underwhelming ones I have seen. I am thankful that it exists but it didn’t wow me.
We only spent a total of 45 minutes at this park, a new record low. I’m glad I trusted my instincts on this change of plans. We drove back down to Key Largo again to visit John Pennekamp State Park. Have I mentioned that I love the Florida State Park system? This park was excellent too. It cost us another $10 entrance fee but was totally worth it. My daughter didn’t feel like snorkeling anymore so she asked to stay and lay on the beach. My wife didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone (neither did I even though she’s 18) so she stayed on the beach with her.
My son and I bought tickets for a snorkeling tour 5 miles off the coast to a reef that is renowned for the quality of its coral ecosystem. The tickets were only $50 for the two of us to leave right from the park marina. We saw a Bald Eagle on our way out along with Egrets and other birds. We snorkeled for well over an hour and really enjoyed ourselves. This trip turned out to be one of those pinnacle moments for my son and I. Similar to the memories we created catching Brown Trout in Yellowstone and Black Tip Reef Sharks off the coast of North Carolina.
Another Regular Guy family vacation went into the books for 2017. We collected three more National Parks and more importantly, created memories that will last our lifetime.