May 11, 2011

5/9-5/10/11 Big Cypress NP & Everglades NP/Shark Valley

We weren’t sure we would even be able to go to Big Cypress National Preserve.  The “Jarhead Fire” had been burning since April 26th, caused by a lightning strike.  We kept checking status on, getting concerned when it was over 20,000 acres and only 15% contained. 

As we drove the Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) to Big Cypress, we could see dark clouds of smoke off to the north. We watched red helicopters carrying buckets drop water fairly close to the highway, and there was a lot of activity around the park headquarters building.   When we got to the Oasis Visitors Center, they had a fire information officer right there to answer questions about the fire.  Smoky—no problems—okay to stay at the campground.
We talked to a ranger about best places to go, then watched the park video.  Right across from the building, there’s a long viewing platform that overlooks the canal beside the road.  We saw more alligators there than we’ve seen total in all the other swamps we’ve been to!  The ranger said it was mating season, and they were starting to get friendly—not cozy, just friendly.  It surprised me that there were a lot of fish in the water, swimming around the gators.  We saw one gator catch a snapping turtle and carry it around for awhile.  There was a Little Green Egret fishing on the bank that was cute.
We drove a few miles east to Midway Campground.  George said it was better than any forest service campground he’d ever been in!  We had 50 amp power, no water or sewer, but there was water and a dump station by the entrance.  The road and site were paved around a little man-made lake.  The park was landscaped.  There are giant bromeliads in the trees, an alligator in the lake, and a resident red-shouldered hawk.  The smoke looked like fog the next morning when I got up, but it had mostly dissipated by the time George did. 
We drove back west and stopped at a couple of roadside parks.  At Kirby Storter, there was a boardwalk back through grasses and cypress stands.  H.P. Williams is another overlook to see alligators (but there were more at Oasis!  George told several people to make sure to stop there.)  Other trails were closed because of the fire.
Big Cypress was not at all what I expected—I thought it would be swampier, but we were there right before the rainy season…no water,no swamp.  There were cypress trees, but we’ve seen bigger.  It was more open than I expected.  The dwarf pond cypress trees, gumbo-limbo and Royal palms grow in hardwood hammocks—surrounded by tall sawgrass and islands of slash pines.  There are air plants in the trees—huge bromeliads in bloom!
We went down to Everglades City and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center—which is actually in Everglades NP, not Big Cypress—and George got his park stamp.  It’s the gateway to Ten Thousand Islands.  Really pricy boat rides were available, but we’d just missed one and the next was 1½ hours later.  We backtracked to stop about 2 minutes at Ochopee which has the smallest Post Office in the US. 
We drove right on past the campground and headed to Shark Valley Visitor Center, another one in the Everglades.  They have a 15 mile tram tour there but we decided to walk down the West Road so we could see more.  It goes alongside a canal that was built in the '20s.  There were alligators (surprise, surprise!) and other critters.  Lots of pond apple blossoms that I thought looked like fried eggs in the water.  And there were swamp lilies, also called “string lilies”. 
There was a big old gator in an “alligator hole” on the other side of the road.  We watched her for a while then continued on.  George looked back and she’d climbed out of the hole and was lying right in the middle of the road!  Of course we went back.  She eventually stood up and walked over to the canal and got in the water. 
It was hot and humid, but I talked George in to the detour to the Bobcat Boardwalk, which goes through a tree island and sawgrass slough.  It was still hot and humid, so we were glad to head back to Midway Campground. 

On the way, George spotted a bunch of wading birds, including roseatte spoonbills, which I had been trying to see for weeks, so he turned around so I could take pictures.
You want more pictures?  Go here for Big Cypress:  Big Cypress 
And here for Shark Valley in the Everglades:  The Everglades-Shark Valley 
Here for pictures from the campground:  Midway Campground 

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