Everglades-area / South Florida Trip Report – February 2021

White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill at Big Cypress National Preserve Florida

On the night of Sunday February 28th 2021, Mike Leone, Steve Covacci and I boarded our flight from EWR (Newark International Airport) on a direct flight to MIA (Miami International Airport). I booked my flight, hotel reservation (Fairway Inn Florida City) and rental car (Budget) all from expedia.com. Round-trip non-stop tickets were running $150 for the desired dates and times. We left frozen New Jersey and snowplowed banks behind in exchange for average Florida daily temperatures of 85°F. This trip would mark my 6th pilgrimage to Miami-Dade County in search of wildlife and outdoor adventures.

Dave onboard the United flight from EWR to MIA
Coastal Prairie near Flamingo

We landed on the tarmac in Miami close to midnight and made the approximate 35 mile drive south on the Florida Turnpike towards Florida City and Homestead. Itching to get my recommended daily dose of Everglades National Park (ENP), I drove our rental car directly to Main Park Road. There is 24 hour access to this area, though a seven day car pass will cost you $30. A nighttime walk from the Royal Palm Visitor Center onto Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail yielded views of a young American Alligator, a variety of fish, as well as some mosquitoes. Note that I only consider Everglades National Park a comfortable visit from December through March due to diminished mosquito levels. Following our nighttime nature romp, Mike, Steve, and I retired to our accommodations at Fairway Inn in Florida City which lies just about 10 miles from ENP.

Young American Alligator along Anhinga Trail

For the morning of March 1st 2021, the three amigos again drove towards Main Park Road to enjoy the immersive sites and sounds off the varied trails and boardwalks within ENP. Our morning stops included Anhinga Trail, Long Pine Key, Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, and Mahogany Hammock. We concluded the morning adventures at Flamingo Visitor Center and also a quick look at the Coastal Prairie Trail. Following a hot and humid Florida morning the only logical way to cool down is, of course, a cold refreshing tropical milkshake at Robert Is Here. Robert Is Here is a very popular fruit stand in Homestead and a great place to sample tropical fruits like Sapote, Sapodilla, Canistel, and Guanabana.

The three amigos partook in a short afternoon siesta at Fairway Inn before setting our sails for a late afternoon walk along the historic Old Ingraham Highway. The Old Ingraham Highway was the original concrete driving route through Everglades National Park and is now closed to vehicular traffic. Steve, Mike, and I ventured out on the old highway for an approximate 3 mile nature walk and enjoyed the expansive nature views of the beautiful Everglades back country.

After a full day of outdoor explanation Mike, Steven, and I head over to Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant in Florida City. Rosita’s serves great authentic Mexican fare and offers casual dining. You can also purchase beer and other beverages here.

In the early hours of March 2nd 2021, Mike Leone, Steve Covacci and I aimed our rental sedan Northward up Krome Ave and then Westward on the Tamiami Trail (US Highway 41). Our primary destination of the day was the rugged and beautiful Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress consists of over 700,000 acres of open space and is home to Florida Panthers and additional endangered animals and plants.

Sprawling landscapes of Big Cypress National Preserve
American Alligators are abundant at Big Cypress

We pulled into the parking lot for Oasis Visitor Center and were stunned by sheer numbers of wading birds in the nearby waterways. Egrets were out in large numbers including Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Cattle Egrets. We were able to see Wood Storks as well as a small number of Roseate Spoonbills in the beautiful morning light. Oasis Visitor Center is also an easy place to photograph alligators in the wild.

So many birds at Oasis Visitor Center!

Our next destination within Big Cypress was the scenic Loop Road driving tour. Loop Road is one of my favorite areas to look for large alligators, enjoy the lush foliage and blooming bromeliads, and also to admire the beautiful clear freshwater of Big Cypress National Preserve. Reptile life is abundant along Loop Road. Both Cottonmouths (Water Moccasin) and Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes are found throughout the Everglades region so it is always wise to watch where one walks.

View a detailed NPS brochure of Loop Road Scenic Drive here.

Mike and Steve admiring the scenery along Loop Road

From Loop Road the three amigos saw a kiosk for the backcountry hiking trail at Gator Hook Strand and decided to stretch our legs and explore. We enjoyed reading the kiosk about the history of the old logging tram line at Gator Hook and took a short peaceful walk on the hiking trail before the pathway became increasingly muddy. From what I’ve read, the Gator Hook hiking trail may be flooded in most seasons aside from Winter.

After returning back to our car on Loop Road we drove to the Tree Snail Hammock Trail opposite the Loop Road Education Center. We happened upon a very friendly and knowledgeable national preserve employee who excitedly filled us in on wetlands restoration projects to restore free flowing water throughout the Everglades. The process known as “plugging” occurs when East to West irrigation canals are patched with dirt and rocks to encourage water to flow in its original North to South orientation.

Great conversation with park personnel
Ligus Tree Snail

Following Loop Road, Mike, Steve, and I got our rental car back to Tamiami Trail and pulled up to Clyde Butcher’s Gallery. Clyde is very renowned for his stunning black and white imagery of Big Cypress and Everglades National Park. Within the Clyde Butcher Gallery there is a broad array of beautiful nature photography on exhibit and the artwork is available for purchase.

Our next stop on the Tamiami Trail was the Kirby Storter Roadside Park and Boardwalk. The Kirby Storter Boardwalk is an easy 1 mile round trip walk with elevated views through a Cypress Hammock concluding at a gator hole. The covered picnicking tables near the parking area provide a nice break from the Florida heat. Note that amenities such as restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations are sparse along much of the Tamiami Trail packing a cooler filled with food and drinks is recommended.

Further West along the Tamiami Trail we reached the scenic Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk located within Fakahatchee Strand. Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is a beautiful shaded and easy walk through some impressively large trees. Take your time along the boardwalk to look for watersnakes, gators, as well as nesting hawks or eagles. Our small party of explorers was very lucky to observe an American Bittern from the viewing platform at the end of the boardwalk.

American Bittern at Big Cypress Bend

After Big Cypress Bend we drove a short distance North to reach the entrance gates for Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. After paying our $3 vehicle admission fee at the visitor center we took our rental car on Jane’s Memorial Scenic Drive. Jane’s Drive is a dirt road and luckily the surface looked recently graded so we had no trouble navigating the road in our front wheel drive rental sedan. Mike and I took a short walk down the East Tram trail to take in a little more of the natural views to be found at “Faka”.

As we began our return Eastbound on the Tamiami Trail we took a late day drive on the rugged Turner River Road in Big Cypress. Turner River Road offers both expansive views of sawgrass prairie as well as wildlife-filled waterways. There is a great deal of photographs that can easily be taken through your car window though I prefer the experience of getting out on foot.

Mike and Steve document Big Cypress flora
The ever-present American Alligator

A dinner at El Rancho Grande Mexican Restaurant in Kendall was warranted after a long day of adventuring. We found the food, service, and ambience all to be excellent at El Rancho. After a nice meal we retired to Fairway Inn Florida City and called our day a wrap.

Chilaquiles at El Rancho Grande

Our final day of exploring Southeastern Florida was to be Wednesday March 3rd. In early morning Steve slept in dreaming of Dogecoin and AMC shares while Mike Leone and I decided to do earlybirders’ birding in the Frog Pond WMA proximity. Frog Pond WMA encompasses a large network of prairie and canal trails and is popular for birdwatching. We did encounter a few birders chasing a vagrant Smooth-billed Ani though we did not ourselves see the Ani.

Mike and I returned to Fairway Inn Florida City, picked up Steve and then packed up our bags and checked out of the hotel. One visit to Robert Is Here is rarely enough so we trucked over to our favorite local fruitstand for canistel milkshakes. Mike and Steve also picked up boiled peanuts for the road.

Next, the three amigos took the short drive over to Biscayne National Park. 95% of Biscayne National Park is aquatic and primary activities include kayaking, canoeing, as well as scuba diving. Steve, Mike, and I explored the other 5% of this parkland including a nice leisurely walk along a shaded mangrove trail.

Being an avid Orchid grower Mike advised us that RF Orchids in Homestead was not to be missed. Our entire party enjoyed the beautiful grounds at RF Orchids. Next we drove to the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead. The Fruit and Spice Park is a well manicured local park and the only tropical botanical garden of its kind in the United States. Picking of fruit from trees is not allowed though any fallen fruit is fair game.

As we left Homestead behind us for our last time this trip we drove North towards Hollywood Florida to photograph the celebrity Burrowing Owls. The local Burrowing Owls are easily viewed from the parking lots with a decent pair of binoculars. Steve and I enjoyed using telephoto lenses to snap shots of these charismatic ground-dwelling birds.

Mike & Steve

Next we drove towards Hollywood Beach, nestled between Fort Lauderdale and Miami for a brief visit. Taco Beach Shack at Hollywood Beach offered high quality food and drinks in a lively setting. Many beach goers and bicyclists were out and about at Hollywood Beach and we had perfect weather in the low 80’s with a light breeze.

As nighttime approached it was time to return our rental car, ride the Miami Mover, and get to our gate at Miami International Airport for our red-eye flight back to Newark International Airport by way of American Airlines. Mike, Steve, and I made it to our gate at MIA and enjoyed an uneventful flight back to Northern New Jersey.

Thank you for reading my trip report for our Everglades-area trip 2021. If you have any questions about our itinerary you can reach me directly at dave@daveblinder.com. You can also follow my local NJ nature adventures on Facebook and Instagram.

You can find my 2019 Everglades-area Trip Report here