Day Trip to the Everglades: Untamed Excitement in Miami’s Back Yard
Less than 20 miles from the city limits of Miami, the Everglades, Florida’s own outback, offers unique opportunities to get up close and personal with local wildlife. My friend Dave and I had been wanting to experience it firsthand since we’d first arrived in Miami last May, and now we were finally getting our opportunity, our first stop: Gator Park.
DRIVING OUT TO GATOR PARK
Once on Highway 41, the roadway rapidly morphed from suburban sprawl to tree-laden woodland, to simple, two-lane country road bisecting a treeless, marshy landscape with a gator-infested canal running along its right side. The gators, however, weren’t the main danger here: this was the territory of the monster-sized Ford Pick-Up Truck, which, with USMC and Bush bumper stickers adorning it, delights in tailgating any vehicle traveling at less than light speed.
The bright August sun pressed down upon us as we passed Krome Avenue, the unofficial boundary between the last remnants of Miami and untamed nature. An assortment of colorful billboards toted various airboat excursions, but we had already pre-planned our destination, our tickets secured, thanks to the virtual terminal on the miamibeach411 site. Not only did we save $4 a piece off our admission—about the price of an Everglades roadside Coca-Cola—we’d been provided with a thorough description of the offerings at Gator Park, which included a 40 minute airboat tour of this river of grass, along with a 30 minute wildlife show. (Buy Tickets)
The entrance to Gator Park was easy to spot. Just 12 miles from our Turnpike exit, a series of roadside signs on the left announced its proximity, followed by an immense Coca-Cola can with an airboat on top, piloted by what appeared to be a bear and a reindeer.
The intriguing entrance to Gator Park.
The exact significance of the bear and the reindeer was lost on me; however, the words on the side of the airboat—Gator Park—gave me all the information I needed. We had arrived. The parking lot was packed with cars, more than you might expect on an August day in South Florida. Of all the places we’d pass along the highway this afternoon, this place was the busiest. I figured they must be on to something.
Inside was a mob of people, standing in line for tickets. There were European tourists a plenty, but the wait was surprisingly short. I presented the print-out I’d received from my online reservation, and received two tickets. They told us the next airboat would be leaving in about ten minutes, and to relax on the side patio. We would be escorted to the dock by our tour guide shortly.
We stepped outside onto the patio area. Beyond it was a collection of hungry peacocks and roosters, as well as a few songbirds trying to blend in incognito. They knew how to how to shake down a tourist faster than any over-priced concession stand attendant, and it wasn’t long before they began closing in on Dave and his bag of potato chips.
Nearby, a larger-than-life glazed alligator with open mouth baring its pearly whites sat frozen stillness under a palapa canopy, a “Gator Park” sign on prominent display behind it . Kitschy, yes, but at least it didn’t have two heads.
Just when the native critters had bilked Dave out of the last possible potato chip, and he’d diplomatically spread the crumbs on the ground, our tour operator, Ron, called us over to our boat. He lined us up four to a row for five rows aboard the craft, handing us each a pair of earplugs. We then set off into a canal lined with sawgrass and dense foliage that could have just as easily passed for an Amazon inlet. Ron informed us that the indentations we’d see every so often along the side were alligator dens. Up ahead, he pointed out, was Norma, a young gator.
Norma the Gator (foreground) stalks a boatload of tourists.
She’d started out as Norman, he recounted, until the staff noticed that she was laying eggs. As we drew closer to her, the boat’s fan intermittently buzzing to guide us along our course, Norma appeared, opening wide her jaws and with a perfectly timed hiss, though I doubted her sincerity. She’d seen enough tourists over the years to know there was no threat. Whatever her reason for playing along, it wasn’t for treats. If a tour guide were to feed one crumb to a wild animal, Ron explained, he or she would be fired on the spot. Most of the gators we’d see were females. The males, he told us, were extremely territorial, with only about one for every mile and a half of local real estate. Though they’ll take a bite out of you, alligators aren’t overly fond of people, we were told, as they find them too salty. Crocodiles, on the other hand, are more aggressive, and will eat first and ask questions later.
As we continued on our journey, we passed turtles and odd looking birds, including one known as a Purple Gallinule.
Birds were the most predominant animal in the Everglades, our guide informed us. The water was clear enough that you could see fish swimming around below the surface. Alligator gar and the mosquitofish were the most prevalent, though there were several introduced species, including South American oscars and Mayan cychlids. Ron said that the turtles and the young alligators got along well; the turtles fed mostly on the yellow flowers growing out of the lily pads.
Overhead, in the tree branches lurked another introduced species: the iguana. Reaching a size of about six feet, these creatures had been released by young pet-owners over the years after they’d grown into veritable monsters, and were well-adapted to the climate. The iguana’s prime means of self-defense is to do a huge belly flop into the water as soon as it perceives an approaching threat.
Next, Ron pointed to the abundant sawgrass, which predominated the Everglades landscape. This, he said, was the scourge of the native tribes; passing through its sharp-edged blades could cut you to the bone. However, the Native Americans utilized its roots to make bread. The roots of the water lilies, in turn, were boiled and tasted similar to potatoes. However, Ron added, he preferred potatoes.
Another seemingly edible fruit was the swamp apple. Nonetheless, its taste, while palatable enough to the iguanas, is considered extremely bitter to humans and will leave you with an upset stomach. And, lest you be deceived, the Everglades isn’t actually a swamp at all. It’s a slow-moving “river of grass”.
By this time, we’d reached an entryway to the open water, and it was time for our David Caruso Miami CSI moment. Ron fired up the engine full throttle, and we’d inserted the earplugs we’d been given at the beginning of our tour, roaring out across the river of grass, no obstacles aside from grass and water. The wind felt good against my sun-baked skin; I held on to my baseball cap as Ron led us on a series of twists and turns into the open water. Then, pretending that we’d run out of gas, he stopped. The only observable life around us was a great egret in the distance, carefully plodding amid the foliage.
Ron hops into the water, demonstrating how shallow it is.
Hopping out of the boat, Ron told us that the average water depth throughout the glades was only about 3 feet. However, due to the extreme climate and number of predators, human survival in this environment for an extended length of time would be near impossible. The water, nonetheless, was very fresh, and it was the main source of South Florida’s tap water—so that fountain drink or cup of coffee we’d consumed that morning, Ron grinned, had come from water that he’d been playing in. He hadn’t peed in it, he maintained, but the alligators certainly had.
We set off again across the great wide open, and soon returned to the canal where we’d first begun. I was surprised that the 40 minutes had gone by so fast. Touristy or not, this was just plain fun!
THE WILDLIFE SHOW
After we disembarked, I left Ron a token of our appreciation and Dave and I continued on to the second half of our Everglades extravaganza—the wildlife show. We were guided into a primitive hut with wooden plank seating lined up stadium style. Before us was a pen with an alligator inside.
After providing us with a death-defying alligator wrestling demonstration, our animated guide asked the packed house which one of us wanted to volunteer to wrestle the alligator. After we all nervously looked away, and an unfortunate fellow was plucked from the audience, he produced a pocket-sized creature that looked much less threatening.
Passing among the crowd, the little critter snapped at various audience members, and the guide explained that people often underestimate the power of this little fellow’s jaws. He soon produced a larger version, with a taped mouth. At this point, things began to feel a little like a reptilian house of ill repute, as our guide explained to us that it cost $2 if you want a picture of yourself holding it taken with your camera, and $5 for a picture taken with his camera.
Gator Photo Op.
The audience, dollar bills in hand, crowded the front, eagerly lining up to get their picture taken with the young alligator. After inspecting my now bare wallet, I contented myself by taking a picture of someone else holding it, for free. Dave wasn’t up to the task, and the $6 we’d spent on potato chips and a couple of sodas had cleaned me out! We made a beeline for the exit. On our way out, we passed the gift shop, through an assortment of Gator Park paraphernalia, just as the next batch of people were arriving. The car was hotter than Christina Aguilera on a tin roof in July!
MICCOSUKEE INDIAN VILLAGE
Our activities at Gator Park now complete, we thought we’d check out the surrounding neighborhood. Just a few miles westward, we happened upon the Miccosukee Indian Village and pulled in for a gander. While this place was also abuzz with gleeful tourists, the numbers were a little lighter. The gift shop was stocked with all things Native American, including cards, jewelry, and various crafts. $10 got you admission to their gator show in the back; however, by this time, we were gatored out. The cashier, undaunted by our lack of excitement, pointed out their $10 airboat ride on the other side of the 41, but our been-there-done-that reaction signaled to her that we were no longer newbies to the wetlands. “Where are you from?” she asked, curiously. “Miami,” I answered, jadedly. It felt strange to now say I was actually from there. She nodded in a knowing acquiescence, and we moved on.
SHARK VALLEY, EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
The only thing left undone after our visit to Gator Park was a good hike, and the closest option was Shark Valley, which thankfully turned out to be a misnomer—as if gators, crocodiles and poisonous snakes weren’t enough! Situated between Gator Park and the Miccosukee Indian Village, this was the nearest entrance point to the expansive Everglades National Park. The other main entrance point, the Big Cypress National Preserve, was several miles to the East, situated halfway between Miami and Naples. Shark Valley seemed the most convenient option.
After turning at the sign, we drove past a sign which listed the entry fees. If you were on foot (who in their right mind would be walking up on foot?), the price was $5 per person. Vehicles were admitted at $10 each. Once inside, we learned that Shark Valley consists of a 15 mile loop, which ends at a 65 foot observation tower. You have the option of taking a tram ($14.50 per adult, $13.50 for seniors 62 and over, and $8.75 for kids, 12 and under), renting a bicycle, or walking.
The Shark Valley Tram.
In the summer heat walking the full distance is strongly discouraged. Nonetheless, there is enough to keep yourself entertained without making the entire loop: a canal off to the side presents many wildlife observation opportunities, and a couple of trails between the two legs of the loop—namely the wood-planked Bobcat Trail and the Otter Cave trail—provide that sense of wilderness people go to this area to experience.
Dave and I walked both of these trails; birds and lizards were everywhere.
While the Otter Cave was the shadiest route, both were worth the trip. The Otter Cave trail led us through various hammocks (elevated portions of the wetland where trees are more abundant), along limestone covered in “solution holes”, sinkholes formed when the limestone underlying the area collapses, leaving small perforations over the water.
One note: if you choose to make this journey during the summer heat, make sure you bring plenty of water!
TAKING THE LONG WAY HOME—VIA CALLE OCHO
Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do.
Now wearied by the sun’s intensity, we piled back in the car and headed back to Miami along Highway 41. Since the journey is half the fun, this time we opted not to take the freeways. Soon enough, old Highway 41 made its transition from two-lane country road, back to four lane suburban thoroughfare, eventually taking on a more exotic identity as it transformed abruptly into Calle Ocho, the Cuban epicenter of Miami. We stopped here to stretch our legs and enjoy a nice early dinner at the Pub Restaurant, a local stand-by oozing with personality, complete with oversized rooster statues out front.
Rice, black beans, fried bananas with roasted pork, and a pitcher of sangria made a perfect end to a perfect day. Finding our way back to South Beach was a breeze. We just followed Calle Ocho to Brickell Avenue and turned left. We continued along Brickell through the financial epicenter of Miami. Eventually it curved to the right, turning into Biscayne Blvd., past Bayfront Park and Bayside Marketplace to the A1A on-ramp which would lead us back unto the MacArthur Parkway and out to South Beach. Home again, we’d successfully dodged alligators and toll booths alike!
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