The Florida Everglades

The Great River of Grass
The Florida Everglades: There's No Other Place Like It.

One of the really cool things about being in Key Largo is that you're so close to the Florida Everglades. So, besides all of Key Largo's SCUBA, snorkeling, fishing, and other activities, you can take a day trip to visit the Everglades, which is unlike any place else on earth.

Everglades Airboat Rides
Along US Highway 41, otherwise known as the Tamiami Trail, you can find commercial enterprises that will take you on an an airboat ride deep into the Everglades. If you've never been there, it's worth seeing just so you'll get a first-hand look at this vast watery world. Airboats can zip and slide over just a few inches of water, so they're the perfect vehicle for the Everglades backcountry.

An Everglades Airboat Tied Up at a Dock Deep in the Everglades
An Airboat Can Give You a First-Hand Look at the River of Grass

Piloting a Flamingo Skiff

Rent Everglades Boats. If you're particularly adventurous, you can rent Everglades boats--skiffs, canoes, kayaks, even houseboats-- at the Flamingo Marina in Everglades National Park. From there, you can explore the Everglades backcountry on your own. Just be sure you take a compass, a chart, and you know how to navigate. A GPS would also be an excellent idea. The Everglades mangrove wilderness is a maze of islands and channels, and it's pretty easy to get lost. But if you're up for the adventure, it's a lot of fun.

Take One of the Everglades Tours on a Comfortable Pontoon Boat
Wanna see the backcountry in style? You can catch one of the pontoon boat Everglades tours here at Flamingo.

Day Trippin' Down to Flamingo
Everglades National Park is well worth a day trip. Enter the Park at Florida City, and then drive the 38-mile stretch of the Main Park Road down to Flamingo. The Main Park Road's start is about 35 miles from Key Largo, so you're looking at about a 73-mile trip each way.

Stone Entrance Sign to Everglades National Park
Our Third Largest National Park in the Lower 48 States

While we're on the subject of driving, it's a good idea to gas up before entering the Park. They do sell gasoline at Flamingo, but it's costly, and besides, what if they're out, or happen to be closed?

Many people enjoy driving this 38-mile stretch in a leisurely fashion, stopping here and there to take in all there is to see.

Sign by the Side of the Road saying Rock Reef Pass, Elevation 3 feet
Ear Popping Heights Along the Main Park Road

A Watch for Panther sign along the Main Park Road
Watch for Panthers

Florida Everglades Might Not Be What You Expect
The Florida Everglades is different from what a lot of people expect. Many people unfamiliar with the Everglades think of it as a a vine-entangled jungle with snakes dangling from every other tree limb.

Certain regions in the Florida Everglades--Big Cypress, for instance--do have plenty of tall trees, including cypress, pine, and certain hardwoods.

And these areas do have plenty of vines.

But much of the Florida Everglades is composed of shallow, grassy waters dotted here and there with:

  • Bayheads--Slightly elevated areas where bay, magnolia, and holly trees thrive
  • and

  • Hammocks--Slightly more elevated "tree islands" usually supporting a dense undergrowth thicket and a variety of hardwood trees.

And as for snakes, well, the Florida Everglades certainly has its share, but I've spent days on end traipsing through the backcountry and never even saw a snake, sometimes one or two at most. They're here, for sure, but not in the numbers many people seem to imagine.

The Great River of Grass
Bayheads in the Sawgrass

The River of Grass
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas accurately called the Everglades a "River of Grass." Historically, this wide-open sun-drenched, expanse of a shallow river flowed uninterrupted from Lake Okeechobee, spilling ever-so-slowly mostly to the southwest, and finally pouring into Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

A View of the Loxahatchee L-40 Canal
Man Now Controls the Everglades Water Flow

Today, much of this historical flow has been impeded by a man-made system of dikes and canals originally built to improve what nature provided. One big result of these "improvements," however, is a Florida Everglades greatly reduced in size, and surviving precariously, dependent largely on human engineering instead of nature for its water flow.

The Main Park Road
Here are a few things you'll find along The Main Park Road down to Flamingo, the southernmost outpost on Florida's mainland.

Even before you arrive at the main gate, you'll come to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. The exhibits here will be your orientation to the Florida Everglades, what makes it so special, and the ecological challenges we face in preserving this unique and valuable eco-system.

Interior View of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park
The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center

Next Stop: Royal Palm Hammock
Leaving the Visitor Center, about four miles or so down the road is Royal Palm Hammock, formerly known as Paradise Key. There are two trails here...

The Anhinga Trail. The Anhinga Trail is a half-mile loop trail with boardwalks through Taylor Slough. In the cooler months especially, this is a GREAT place to see Everglades animals, and for wildlife photography. Normally, you'll see alligators, fish, anhingas, cormorants, blue herons and other species here. They often just sit still very nearby, almost as if they were posing for you.

The Start of the Anhinga Trail
The Anhinga Trail is a Great Place for Wildlife Photography

And the...

The Gumbo Limbo Trail. This is a half-mile paved loop trail through Royal Palm Hammock. This is one of those elevated "tree islands" mentioned above. In times past, people living in the Florida Everglades often inhabited hammocks because they provided both shade and higher (maybe 18 inches or so above the sawgrass prairie) ground.

An Alligator Lurks in a Shallow Pool Along Gumbo Limbo Trail
A Gator Lurks in a Shallow Pool Along the Gumbo Limbo Trail

Gettin' On Down the Road
On down the Main Park Road you'll come to the limestone Pinelands with their exposed pinnacle rock areas--Florida's bedrock limestone.

A View of the Everglades Limestone Pinelands
The Limestone Pinelands

After the Pinelands is the Pa-hay-o-kee Overlook--a wooden tower about three stories tall that provides a clear view of the expansive River of Grass that extends as far as the eye can see.

The Wooden Tower at Pa-hay-okee
Pa-hay-okee Tower

At about Mile 20, you'll come to Mahogany Hammock, another fine example of an Everglades hardwood tree island.

Looking Up Into a Giant Mahogany Tree at Mahogany Hammock
A Giant Mahogany Tree Graces Mahogany Hammock

Down at Flamingo
At the road's end you finally come to Flamingo.

Arriving at Flamingo
Welcome to Flamingo

"Filly Mingo," as the old-timers called it, may not be the end of the world, but they say you can see it from here. If you're wondering which old timers I'm talking about, there used to be quite a settlement here in this last mainland outpost until the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane flattened the place. The Coast Guard reported Flamingo was "swept bare."

Today, the only buildings in Flamingo are those having to do with the Park Service.

The Flamingo Marina
The Flamingo Marina. Notice the Crocodile in the Water.

Hurricanes are a fact of life in these parts. We don't have earthquakes. We don't have blizzards. And we don't have ice storms. But, boy, do we Floridians ever have hurricanes. I'm talking hellaceous rip stompers that make man and beast alike run for their very lives.

As a matter of fact, the 2005 hurricane season brought an eight-foot storm surge to Flamingo that destroyed the inside of the lodge that was here. It used to be a nice place to stay. It even had a large screened-in pool to protect people from summer's mosquito hordes. As far as I know, there are no plans to rebuild it. Man can stake his claim I suppose, but the "jungle" knows how to reclaim itself.

The Hurricane-Damaged Flamingo Lodge
What Remains of the Flamingo Lodge

Crocodiles. While at Flamingo, keep a sharp eye out for crocodiles in the boat basin. These are not alligators, but some of the 1,000 or so saltwater crocs that inhabit Florida's southern tip, including, you guessed it, Key Largo. One particularly large croc named "Hector" was around here for a long time until, I'm told, the unusually cold weather we've been having the last two or three years caught up with him. But, I'll bet he has children and grand children lurking around.

A Large Florida Crocodile Swims in the Flamingo Basin
This Was Hector

Welcome to Key Largo

A View of John Pennekamp Beach

Christ of the Abyss

SCUBA diver on a Key Largo Reef

Sign warning we play Jimmy Buffet music

A quaint Key Largo cottage

Copyright© 2010 Collingwood Publications, LLC.