During the tail end of our Miami/Florida trip, we were able to dedicate a couple days to visiting Everglades National Park!
On the first day, we headed straight to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, so we could see some alligators! At the visitor center, we were able to rent bikes from Shark Valley Tram Tours. (Bikes were rented out by the hour at $9/hour.) Even though it was quite a warm day and there was barely any shade, the Shark Valley Trail (a 15-mile loop) still offered a beautiful scene to bike down. Straight ahead, we could see fluffy white clouds dotted across the light blue skies. Along the right side of the trail, there were plenty of opportunities for alligator sightings. At one point, I found at least eight tiny little baby gators with their mother close by. We were also able to see a couple of Florida soft shell turtles (they have such pointy noses!) and some species of birds common to the Everglades, including the Great Blue Heron and the black Anhinga. It was really nice being able to bike at our own pace and stop whenever we spotted some wildlife to see. After 7.5 miles, we reached the Observation Tower, where we were able to park our bikes and refill our water bottles. The tower was a great spot for bird watching. As we walked up to the very top, we were able to use our binoculars to see a pink Roseate Spoonbill in the pond below! After our stop at the observation tower, we decided to bike back the way we came, because supposedly it was more scenic than the second half of the loop. Unfortunately, as we were biking back, I got a throbbing headache and a heatstroke, so that was a HUGE bummer. Luckily, the visitor center had ice cream and I was able to eat two strawberry shortcake popsicles back-to-back and cool down just before our afternoon airboat tour! Clay had helped us book a tour with Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours, a company owned by members of the Miccosukee Tribe native to Florida. During our 45-minute tour, our guide stopped our boat just in time so we could watch a Great Blue Heron catch and devour a fish whole. Our guide also called over a female alligator to our boat and gave us a short break at what used to be part of a Miccosukee village.
On the second day, we stopped by Roberts Is Here (a fun outdoor fruit stand and farm that Nancy had found!) before heading over to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. This visitor center had some interactive exhibits that allowed us to learn more about the issues related to park conservation, as well as about the wildlife in the Everglades. They also had an outdoor deck with rocking chairs, which Clay and I enjoyed. For me, the highlight of our second day was definitely the Anhinga Trail, which again offered many opportunities for us to see alligators, turtles, and birds. Afterwards, we attempted to walk through the nearby Gumbo Limbo Trail, but turned back around as soon as Hayong was attacked by some crazy bugs. After that, we ended up just driving to Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, which was cool/different, but also kinda barren-looking...and had one two many black bumble bees (thanks Nancy for protecting me!). Overall, I think it's safe to say that we were able get a pretty good glimpse of the Everglades wildlife and make some good memories with our friends during our two-day visit! I'm already missing our time there as I conclude this belated blog post!
The second national park that we planned to visit on our Florida trip was Dry Tortugas National Park! Located about 70 miles west of Key West, this national park is made up of seven different islands. The main island that we planned to visit was Garden Key, including its historic Civil War fort, Fort Jefferson. In order to get there, we first drove 3.5 hours from Miami to Key West, where we stayed for a couple of nights. (The drive down US-1 was incredibly beautiful with Caribbean blue water on both sides.) Then, early the next morning we took a 2.5 hour long ferry ride on the Yankee Freedom III to get to the island. The ferry departed from Key West at 8am and we arrived at Fort Jefferson around 10:30am. Poor Clay actually threw up since it was quite a bumpy ride. But once we reached the island, we were all very excited and eager to explore as much as we could before we had to return to the ferry at 3pm!
We first decided to sit in on a tour at 11am, so we could hear about the history of Dry Tortugas. The island's namesake comes from its green sea turtles (now endangered) and its lack of fresh water. We learned about the history of Fort Jefferson, which was originally constructed by the U.S. to control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as to protect Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade. During the Civil War, the fort also served as a Union military prison for captured deserters. Today, Dry Tortugas National Park is a wildlife refuge where visitors can come bird watch and snorkel through live coral reefs. After the tour, we took some time to walk through/on top of the brick hexagon-shaped fort and around its surrounding moat outside. The remainder of the afternoon, we snorkeled around the perimeter of Fort Jefferson from South Swim Beach to North Swim Beach. The waters were great for snorkeling and we were able to see a variety of fish and marine life during our afternoon there!
The first out of three national parks that Clay and I visited in Florida was Biscayne National Park, which was located about a little over an hour south of Miami. As the largest marine park in the NP system, more than 95% of Biscayne was covered in water. We decided that the best way to explore its waters was to book an all-day (10am-4pm) sailboat tour with the Biscayne National Park Institute. As we sailed out from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center/Convoy Point to where we were going to snorkel, the view before us was quite picturesque: light blue skies, white fluffy clouds, and clear turquoise waters. Whenever the boat stopped, we could see the sandy bottom of the ocean floor, including an occasional ray gliding by. One of my favorite parts of that morning was when a group of playful dolphins suddenly appeared and started riding the waves created by our boat! I was actually able to snap a quick picture of one as it jumped out of the water right in front of me and smiled!
Anyway, the first half of the tour was spent snorkeling the reefs out on Biscayne Bay. Around noon, we sailed to Adams Key for lunch. (Other keys at Biscayne National Park that visitors can take a boat out to explore include Elliott Key, the park's largest island, and Boca Chita Key, the park's most visited island.) Adams Key was once home to the Cocolobo Cay Club, a private club and retreat location for some notable people, including President Hoover, Harding, Johnson, and Nixon. Today, the key mainly serves as a day-use area and home to some of Biscayne's park rangers. It has a picnic pavilion as well as toilets. We also were able to see a couple of abandoned boats belonging to those who had sailed from Cuba to the shores of the United States. After lunch, we spent the remainder of the afternoon paddle boarding (our first time!) at Hurricane Creek along the saltwater mangroves and learning about its sacrificial leaves. Clay and I loved our day trip out to Biscayne National Park and even found a very special friend at the gift shop to bring back home with us, a little manatee named Barbara.
For my spring break this year, Clay and I were originally hoping to organize a backpacking trip to Havasu Falls in Arizona. But let's just say we were very, very sad and bummed out when our group was not able to obtain permits during the beginning of February. With that said, we switched gears and decided to plan a weeklong trip to Miami and Key West, Florida so that we could still visit Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Everglades National Park. (Feel free to check out my blog posts about each of those national park visits!) Anyway, for this post, I specifically wanted to share some photos of our time spent in Miami and Key West. Below, I've also written an overview of all the places we visited & activities we did! Hopefully, if you're ever interested in going, this can help you in your trip-planning!
During this trip, Clay and I discovered Miami to be one of our new favorite U.S. cities that we have traveled to! We just loved so many things about it: the variety of food, abundance of nature (and national parks), beautiful beaches, richness of art and culture, fun nightlife, and overall laid-back subtropical vibe. We'd very much like to go back to Miami some day and also see more of Florida in general. There are just too many options...maybe next time we'll visit Gainesville (where Clay was born)...or Orlando (I've never been to Disney World before!!)...or swim with the manatees at Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River. I want to do all of these things on my Florida bucket list!
Just capturing as I go.