Florida National Parks
Carrie and I just completed a whirlwind tour of the Florida National Parks. Our itinerary was fast and adventure filled:
Day 1 – Biscayne National Park – kayaking and tour of Boca Chita Key.
Day 2-3 – Dry Tortugas National Park – ferry ride, tour of Fort Jefferson, snorkeling, and camping on the key
Day 4-6 – drive up the keys site-seeing, visit Everglades National Park, Tram tour at Shark Valley, Airboats at Everglades Holiday Park (Home of the Gator Boys), and a quick swim on Dania Beach before catching our flight home.
A lot of activity crammed into a few days, but everything came together great.
Day 0 – Thursday Feb. 15
After finishing our workday, Carrie and I jumped into the car and headed to the Tulsa airport. A long flight with a layover in Atlanta, left us arriving in Fort Lauderdale at about 12:30 am. Fortunately we had reserved a room at the Oasis Hotel near the airport and arrived shortly before 1:00 am. The room has small but well furnished and clean and perfect for our 4+ hours of sleep we would get that night.
Day 1 – Friday Feb. 16
We were up before 6:00 am and headed out to Biscayne National Park. We stopped by Walmart on the way to pick up camping supplies we would need for our stay on the Dry Tortugas on Saturday night. We arrived at Biscayne National Park at 9:00 am when they opened, rented our kayaks and proceeded out into the bay. We paddled out to a couple of island close to the park and headed toward the Mangroves growing along the shore in search of some trails. We found a couple of short trails into the mangroves and explored them. We spent about 3 hours paddling around the bay and turned in our kayaks around noon in order to grab some lunch before the Boca Chita tour began. The park store had some sandwiches and chips that we enjoyed on a picnic table overlooking the small Marina. After eating someone spotted a Manatee in one of the boat slips and we were able to get some pictures and video of this strange creature while we were there. The ride to Boca Chita Key was fun and the tour guide explained the history of Biscayne Bay, the park, and Boca Chita Key on our ride there. Boca Chita Key is a small island with a harbor, a decorative lighthouse, and a few old buildings. A quick walk around the island and we got back on the boat for our return trip to Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Jumping in the car we began our drive down US 1 towards Key West. Stopping at Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar for a sunset dinner we enjoyed our food to live music and a magic show. We arrived at our home for the night, Boyd’s Campground on Stock Island about 9:00 pm, set up our tent and headed to bed since we had another early day Saturday.
Day 2 – Saturday 2/17/18
Today was another early morning as we had to drop all our camping gear off at the Yankee Freedom Ferry before 6:30 am. We we up and around too early and spent some time driving around Key West. The traffic is nonexistent at 6:00 am in the morning. We boarded the ferry at 8:00 for the 2 1/2 hour ride to the Dry Tortugas. Once on the island the ranger came up and talked to all the campers and made sure we understood the camp rules, where to swim, where to fish, and emphasized the need to be safe. Emergency services are 3 1/2 hours away when you are on the island. After the talk we loaded up our gear and quickly set up our tent before heading over to a tour of Fort Jefferson. The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson is an amazing piece of our naval history and an important part of how America was able to settle the center of our country. We spent the rest of the day touring the fort, snorkeling and swimming in the ocean, and looking for wildlife (in the air and in the water). The sky’s were clear that night and the stars were bright and beautiful in the sky as we went to bed.
Day 3 – Sunday 2/18/18 – Carrie’s Birthday
Today was a lazy day. We broke our camp in the morning and spent the rest of the day on the beach. I snorkeled some more while Carrie lied on the beach and read a book. We boarded the return ferry about 2:00 pm and found us seats in the main cabin. There we met a family who was taking 14 months to travel the US in an RV and visit the national parks. They have done most of the west coast parks and are now working on the east coast parks. Check them out at RatticalSabbatical.com. The ferry arrived at Key West at 5:30 and as we were deboarding we discovered that some of our extended family visiting in Key West had come to the terminal to greet us. We quickly loaded our gear in the car and took off walking to Mallory Square for the sunset festival. This is where people come to view the sunset over the ocean and watch the local street entertainment. After sunset we headed to Two Friends for dinner and conversation. When dinner was over we headed back to Boyd’s Campground where we had reserved a site on the bay. It was dark when we arrived so the bay was dark, but the stars were already coming out to light up the night sky.
Day 4 – Monday 2/19/18
We awoke this morning to a wonderful view of the bay with several boats anchored off shore. The site was great in the daylight. We met our family at Havana’s for breakfast. They had great coffee and a wonderful cuban breakfast. After a quick breakfast we said our goodbyes and began our trip up the coast to Everglades National Park. But, before leaving Key West we had to make one more stop at the Martello Museum to see Robert the Doll. Robert is supposedly possessed and was the inspiration for Chucky movies. If you don’t ask his permission before you take his picture bad things will happen to you. Check out this video to learn more about him.
After the museum we headed up US 1 stopping at Bahia Honda Beach for a quick look and again at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. The turtle hospital is a rescue for sick or injured sea turtles and had several turtles currently under their care. Jumping back in the car we continued north to Robbie’s for a late lunch and to feed the tarpon. The tide was low and the fish weren’t jumping much when we fed them, but it was still cool to watch how big there mouths open to eat a fish. After last lunch we again headed north and finally made it to the Long Pine Key Campground in Everglades National Park.
We got our tent set up just as the rain started. Since it was raining we headed into Florida City for burgers and ice cream. The rain had passed by the time we got back to camp. Another busy day and we were ready for an early bedtime and soon fell to sleep.
Day 5 – Tuesday 2/20/18
We started off early again this morning reaching the Anhinga Trail parking lot before sunrise. The vultures here will eat the rubber around the windows in your car so there are tarps and bungee cords near the parking area to cover your car with. After covering the car we made it to the trail just as the sun was rising. We spotted a couple alligators here at the beginning on the trail and headed out onto the boardwalk trail. There were many bird species here and we enjoyed watching them in the early morning sun. No more alligator sightings though. So we headed to the Gumbo Limbo Trail. This is a short trail around Royal Palms Hammock and it felt like we were walking through a tropical rain forest – wait-a-minute – we were. With ominous rain clouds moving in we headed out to Mahogany Hammock for another short hike. This trail was was entirely on a boardwalk and again circled a hammock that was a miniature tropical rain forest in the middle of a sea of saw grass. We then headed to Pahayokee Overlook for the final hike in this area. This was a real short walk up to an observation deck overlooking the everglades with saw grass as far as you can see. We headed back to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to get our National Park Passport Stamp and then headed to the north side of Everglades National Park at Shark Valley. We had reservations a Midway campsite in the Big Cypress National Preserve for the night and headed to the Oasis Visitors center first. The trip down the Tamiami Trail (US 41) was great. There were numerous alligators all along the road in the canal and the Oasis Visitors Center had a viewing area where over 30 alligators had gathered. This was the best alligator viewing we had yet. The Oasis Visitors Center also holds the distinction of being the southernmost terminus of the Florida Trail. I had hoped to walk a little of this, but the trail was closed for a prescribed burn. That’s OK, a Florida Trail thru-hike is on my bucket list and I’ll get to it another day. After leaving Oasis we headed back to Midway campground, checked in and quickly set up our tent and then headed back to Shark Valley Visitors Center to walk a few short trails and go on a tram tour. The tram tour was very good and explained a lot about the conservation of the everglades and the wildlife within it. There were many species of birds in this area as well and we gained some insight into them on the tour. The mid-point of the tour is a big viewing tower where you can look out over the everglades and several alligators were there waiting for us. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, it was about dinner time. We finished the tour, headed back to camp, and cooked brats on the grill. The stars were bright again tonight, but we had to head for the tent early to escape the insects. Another early night so we could start an early day tomorrow.
Day 6 – Wednesday 2/21/18.
Once again we were up early and headed to Everglades Holiday Park for a airboat ride and Gator Show. The airboat ride was fun, but we only sighted 3 alligators during the trip. Sure glad we got to see the large numbers at Oasis yesterday. Everglades Holiday Park is the home of the Gator Boys as seen on Animal Planet and Paul was the “alligator wrestler” for our show. He did several stunts and made jokes throughout the show which was very entertaining. We did get to hold some of the animals and got pictures of Carrie and I holding an alligator and a python. We finished up a little before noon and our flight was not until 5:55 pm so we headed back toward the airport and spent the last couple of hours in Florida at Dania Beach. The wind was pretty strong, and there were a couple warning flags flying, but we were still able to get wet and spend some time laying on the beach before having to head to the airport and back to real life. And by real life I mean 25 degrees in Tulsa with ice covering the windows of the car when we arrived. What a change from earlier in the day.