I think it’s safe to say that the last thing you want to see at the end of a five-mile hike, especially when the trail is a loop and you can see your car, is something blocking your path. Especially when that something is a particularly large alligator. One who doesn’t feel compelled to move. And there’s rather deep water on either side of the rather narrow trail….
I love this picture because if you look closely in the center, you’ll see a bit of swamp gas light. This green will-o’-the-wisp is just one of the many very cool things I was fortunate enough to see while camping in the Everglades early this year.
Despite having grown up in Florida, my husband and I both made our first trip to the Everglades last year. We spent a day exploring Everglades National Park and knew we needed to plan another, longer trip to fully appreciate the area, so this year we planned a weeklong camping trip down in South Florida.
We spent the first night at the Flamingo Campground at the far tip of the park, where the only amenity available to RVs and travel trailers was electricity. If you ever want to unplug, this is the spot for you. No cell service, no internet, no cable, a short walk to the water . . . this is the epitome of a serene setting.
But I’m not going to lie – even though I am by no means one of those people who needs to be on the grid, it’s uncomfortable when your phone becomes nothing other than an expensive clock. For me, it wasn’t even the social aspect of it. I am a person who wants to know all the things. I’m used to being able to search the internet from the palm of my hand for the answers to all my crazy questions, species identification needs, etc. And apparently I perform these searches at least a dozen times a day. It was a little frustrating not being able to get instant gratification when I wanted to know if the islands I saw in the distance were part of the Keys and the difference between an anhinga and a cormorant and the answer to all the other things I feel the need to know, but I’m proud to report I survived it.
Luckily, we were scheduled to spend the rest of our trip camping in Big Cypress National Preserve, where cell service is spotty, but can can be found. It’s an important distinction.
Let me tell you – Big Cypress is where you want to go if you want to see wildlife! It seems like once we passed the Oasis Visitor Center the small river that parallels the Tamiami Trail was lined with alligators and birds of all colors, types and sizes! I saw SO many perfect pictures! Unfortunately, while the birds don’t care about cars whizzing pass as 65+ mph, if you get out of the car, or even just try slowing down enough to get a picture from the car, they fly off.
I was a little offended because surely I’m a little less threatening than the alligators that feed on them, but whatever. I don’t have to ask Google to know the reasoning behind the term ‘bird brain’.
One of the great things about the Everglades is that the water is so clear! Like, see the fish and reeds in the water clear. Or what an alligator’s hands look like when they’re chilling beneath the surface clear.
We spent our days driving around looking at the scenery and taking short hikes. As much as we would have loved spending the entire time on the trails, we had our 14 year old dog with us, and while we’re very lucky that he’s in great health and has plenty of energy, he only has one speed, and that’s full!
The Collier-Seminole State Park has some safe, pup friendly trails. We were also able to find a number of wide dirt road trails well distanced from the water. And when tiny legs get tired, there’s always the option of traveling in style!
But after all that fresh air, there’s nothing like curling up for a good nap on the drive back to the campsite!
Once back at the campsite, it was time to work on some of our other outdoor skills! Over the course of our stay we finally perfected the art of starting a campfire from scratch using only the sparks from a piece of flint!
Full disclosure – early efforts were more frustrating than going without a phone. But with patience and effort, a new and possibly important skill was learned.
Alas, as much as we enjoyed our time in the ‘glades, we were all looking forward to a return to civilization (and real beds!) by the end of the trip. So, we left super early to get a jump on traffic.
We took a different way home, one that would take us through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the park is closed to the public, and while they do have two short trails you can hike, we didn’t even look into it because of the pup.
But, as we were driving down the road shortly after dawn, going slow to get one last drink of the scenery, we saw a cat standing by the guardrail on the side of the road. A big cat. Big, big. With a long tail tipped in black.
Even going slow it was gone by the time we could come to a safe stop hauling the travel trailer behind us, but it. Was. Incredible. We’ve seen some pretty awesome things on our hikes over the years, from bobcat to wild boar to a mating ball of snakes, but considering how rare the Florida panther is, this was the sighting of all sightings. We were so reluctant to actually believe it that I spent the next hour Googling images of and questions about panthers. But that long tail left no doubt. We saw a panther. And while this seems like a once in a lifetime kind of thing, we can’t wait to go back and try again!