This is one of my favorite images from my 2021 trip to Southeastern Florida. Wildlife is abundant throughout Big Cypress and there was an enormous concentration of avian life at the Oasis Visitor Center on this particular morning.
I will be writing up my Everglades-area 2021 full trip report with map links when time allows.
Myself, Lisa, and Woody the schipperke departed by car from Northern New Jersey and began the 20 hour drive to Florida City, Florida. This was my 5th trip to Southernmost Florida but a first for Lisa and Woody. I had already researched which nature areas were and were not dog-friendly and had ruled out a few nature areas I knew we couldn’t visit. I always recommend the TripAdvisor forums for asking your own questions on any given destination or see what others are discussing.
Our hotel accommodations were Home2 Suites by Hilton in Florida City. I found the hotel by searching for pet-friendly hotels with good ratings on Expedia, though I did not book directly through Expedia. I made the reservation for Home2 Suites and paid on Priceline.com as they offered the lowest nightly price at $146.19/night. Other big perks about Home2 Suites were the in-room kitchenettes and very close proximity to Everglades National Park.
Below is our daily activity schedule (with links) to the best of my recollection
Day 1 (3/3/19)
Brian Piccolo Park to see Burrowing Owls. It is no secret the Burrowing Owls are here, do not be a jerk, do not yell at the owls and do not encroach on them. It seems a little surprising to head to a sports field in Hollywood Florida to view owls, yet that is exactly what we did.
Afterwards, we bought weekly entrance pass for Everglades National Park. The weekly car fee for ENP is now $30. You purchase the weekly pass at the entrance gate on the main park road and receive a receipt which you should secure in your car at all times. Visitor fees for cyclists, RVs, and senior citizens may vary. ENP is accessible 24 hours per day, though the entrance gates only seem to be manned from about 8AM-5PM (rough guess).
Next we went to nearby Robert Is Here to buy fresh fruit milkshakes. My first visit to Southernmost Florida was in 2008 and I had heard about this fruitstand on a travel forum. I loved the shakes and exotic fruit so much I have visited Robert Is Here on all 4 subsequent visits! I think the Coconut milkshakes may be my favorite.
Day 2 (3/4/19)
Drive from Florida City to Key West. Google Maps says that this drive is 126 miles and approximately 2.5 hours, however you should of course pad in extra travel time for scenic stops and traffic. We hoped to stop to swim at Harry Harris Park but found unfortunately that animals are not allowed near the swimming area. I also have greatly enjoyed my visits to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Sanctuary on past visits, however dogs are also not allowed near the rehab facility for the safety of the birds. There is a great boardwalk at the facility and also a cove which can be good for wildlife photography.
We did find a great area in Islamorada to take a break, eat sandwiches we had packed, and dip our feet in the water. This stretch of roadside with room to park seemed popular for fisherman also. It is a good place to unwind.
For nature lovers, I also recommend a short excursion from the Overseas Highway to drive a few backroads to steal a glimpse of the diminutive Florida Key Deer. The Key Deer is a sub-species of the White-tailed Deer and found only in the Florida Keys, they are quite noticeably smaller than a common deer. Driving the backroads behind the newly constructed Key Deer Visitor Center is a good place to look for the Key Deer. Don’t be surprised to see them in a front lawn or grazing at roadside.
After viewing a few Key Deer we continued our drive to Mile Marker 0. Much of Key West is very populous but I already knew that from experience. Lisa’s dog is not good with big crowds so we were not going to stay long. We stumbled upon Amigos Tortilla Bar in Key West which had some nice open air seating and is also pet friendly. I had a friend avocado burrito which was good and filling, though the overabundance of white rice filling left a little to be desired.
After a very quick look at the crowded Mallory Square we jumped back in the car and made a beeline back to Florida City. The vast majority of my travels are planned around finding solitude in nature and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of vast open spaces. I do love to talk to fellow travelers and locals along the way also. I grew up in a small town and spending time in big cities and tourist traps does not entice me.
Day 3 (3/5/19)
From Home2 Suites we headed to some of the backroads of Big Cypress National Preserve. The Big Cypress region sits just North above Everglades National Park as you can see on this regional map. With 720,000 acres of preserved open, multiple boardwalks, scenic backcountry drives, and wilderness hiking, boating, and fishing Big Cypress has something for all walks of nature aficionados.
From Florida City we drove up Krome Ave to the Tamiami Trail to reach Big Cypress. This drive can be scenic and good for wildlife spotting along the way. There are several car pull-offs along the Tamiami canal where fishermen park. Our first stop in Big Cypress however was the not to be missed Loop Road.
It is always funny when I get back from Florida when friends ask “Did you see any Alligators?”. Visitors are virtually guaranteed intimate roadside views of Alligators along the scenic backroads of Loop Road. In my opinion wildlife viewing is generally better at Big Cypress than at most of Everglades National Park. Visiting both parklands is a priority on my trips to South Florida. You can get out of the car to stretch your legs on many portions of Loop Road. Loop Road can be great photographing not only Alligators, but also birds, butterflies, lizards, and plants so take your time and enjoy.
Our next stop in Big Cypress was the HP Williams Roadside Park. This park has shaded benches which can be a great relief on a hot day. There is also a nice boardwalk section which can provide great views of alligators and herons. I have seen Green Herons, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Little Blue Herons actively fishing at this boardwalk. I also noticed the common Palm Warblers hunting for insects in the shrubs.
After visiting HP Williams Roadside Park I would recommend driving for a while on Turner River Road and adjoining roads to look for wildlife and to take in the sprawling scenic views. Some of my favorite landscape images of florida were taken at sunrise near Turner River Road. Visit very early morning or late afternoon to capture the magic of this area. It is also worth noting that gas stations and food stores are sparse in these sections of the Tamiami Trail. Fill up your gas tank and also your picnic basket closer to civilization in advance to make the most out of your visit.
After a nice day of outdoor adventuring we returned to home base at Home2 Suites to clean up and take a rare few minutes of rest. A little bit of Yelp restaurant research pointed us to El Toro Taco in Homestead as a strong Mexican dining candidate. Homestead borders Florida City and has many diverse restaurants to explore. When we arrived at El Toro Taco we were greeted by the owner who was extremely friendly while also not being overbearing nor neglectful. I had the Vegetarian Platter which was excellent. The complimentary side order of homemade hot sauce was also outstanding. Note that El Toro Taco is a BYOB establishment.
After dinner we took a drive up Krome Ave to check out the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming casino. Lisa and I did not have high expectations for the casino but were surprised by a complete lack of video poker or table games. The only games available at Miccosukee are slot machines or the bingo area.
Day 4 (3/6/19)
After my morning coffee and Greek Yogurt at Home2 Suites (nice free breakfast!) we hit the road for more nature attractions in Big Cypress National Preserve. Our first stop was at the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center. There were nice views of several alligators from the boardwalk here and bathrooms in clean working order. I had a great chat inside with one of the friendly employees who shared her knowledge and passion about local wildlife with me. It is also exciting for me to chat with other friendly folks who are wildlife lovers like myself.
Our second stop of the day was at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park. I had never taken this pull-off from Tamiami Trail but was curious to explore. Near the parking area there are several shaded picnic benches in a nice maintained grassy area. Lisa and I took a leisurely walk down the scenic nature boardwalk which was pleasant though we did not see a lot of wildlife.
After Kirby Storter we drove a little further until we came upon the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center. With a little bit of patience, a bit of strategy, and a lot of luck we were able to observe two manatees from the observation boardwalk behind this welcome center! Cypress Swamp Welcome Center also appeared to be a popular spot for fishermen.
We jumped back in the car for a few short minutes until arriving at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. This is scenic shaded walk is extremely popular and may get crowded so plan accordingly. Big Cypress Bend is one of the few pet-friendly boardwalks in the greater Everglades area. We saw a perched Bald Eagle atop a barren tree, just where I had seen an Eagle on my visit the prior year.
With a several hours of daylight remaining we opted to press our luck and continue on our elongated daytrip to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. This was my first trip to Ding Darling and I was not sure what to expect. I felt a little overwhelmed by the high density of vehicular and pedestrian traffic at this popular wildlife refuge.
My (and Lisa’s) preference is to visit the more wild and semi-wild destination areas. I find myself more relaxed and in tune with nature when off the beaten track. The strong Florida sun was also high in the sky upon arrival making it the very worst time of day to attempt any nature photography. We did one quick loop around the driving route before getting back on the main road.
Our final major stop of a long day would be Bowman’s Beach in Sanibel Island, another first time visit for me. Neither Lisa and I are really “beach people” but we both have an appreciation for short walks along oceans and bays. I had done prior due diligence online to determine that Bowman’s Beach was dog friendly. We saw several other couples with dogs on leashes as we walked around. The beach looked very clean and nearly trash-free. Sanibel is known for great seashell hunting, however the shells looked mostly picked over for our arrival.
Day 5 (3/7/19)
When traveling I rarely invest time in eating breakfast, I like to maximize daylight hours and get directly in nature. I am likely to be outdoors for photography at both dawn and dusk on most days also when traveling alone. That being said I was craving a good Central American breakfast like Lisa and I had enjoyed on our trip to Costa Rica.
Lisa spent time looking at pictures and menus on Yelp and founds us an option for a nearby Nicaraguan breakfast. We brought our morning appetites over to Tutilandia Fritanga. Despite a slight language barrier at the restaurant we found the service extremely friendly and accommodating. Lisa and I enjoyed generous breakfast servings of rice and beans along with fresh homemade tortillas and plantains. I really appreciated the self serve homemade salsa which was quite zesty. I hope to visit this restaurant again on my next visit.
After a hearty meal we drove back into Everglades National Park to souvenir hunt for Lisa. While she picked out a poster at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center I hung out near the information area. Two NPS employees were discussing trails and hiking options to newcomers and I was eager to hear about any trails I had not yet explored. After a wave of visitors dispersed I inquired about boat tours within the national park. I got info on pricing and schedules and confirmed that the boat tours would leave from the Flamingo marina in case we opted to give that a shot.
After Ernest F Coe, we drove over to Biscayne National Park. I had visited Biscayne once before but wasn’t too impressed. The main attractions at this park are snorkeling, kayaking, and boating. There are not a wealth of activities for land lovers though that is not what this park is about. Unfortunately we had a pretty windy day so kayaking would not be an option for us. We got pricing on a boat tour but it was significantly more expensive than the tours found within Everglades National Park.
After a short walk around the marina at Biscayne we jumped back into the car and set a course for Schnebly’s Winery and Brewery. Having been to several NJ breweries, Lisa and I were both surprised by the expansive size of the indoor beer tasting room at Schnebly’s. This facility looked large enough to be an airplane hangar. If you are interested in tasting local wine or beer schedule in a visit to see what this redlands facility can offer you.
Day 6 (3/8/19)
This morning I roused myself a bit before sunrise and borrowed Lisa’s car to head onto Main Park Road for a morning of solo photography adventures. I considered myself fortunate to capture some morning fog burning off a pond at Coe Visitor Center after which I returned to the Anhinga Trail as I hoped to do 4K wildlife videography. I nearly had the boardwalks to myself in early morning except for 2 other like-minded photographers. I spoke to both guys and one hailed from Ontario while the other was from Maine.
After a few hours outdoors I headed back to Home2 Suites to check on Lisa and Woody. Lisa and I got ourself ready for the day and then walked over to Exit One Taproom to check on beverages and food. I found a coffee porter on draft to my liking while Lisa sampled a couple of IPA’s.
We ate at the picnic benches outside of Exit One and had lunch from the Tako Krew food truck. Lisa ordered a shrimp quesadilla and I ordered a tofu quesadilla. My tofu quesadilla was filling but I wish the tofu had been prepared more crisp as it was still a bit soft and soggy. My dining experience at Tako Krew was not terrible but could have been better, your results may vary.
Following lunch, we packed up the car, wrangled the dog up from our hotel room and headed back towards the national park to look for wildlife and adventure. We stopped at one of the parking areas for the Southern Glades Birding Areas but didn’t see any noteworthy wildlife or scenery. After a short walk we continued into the national park.
The evening light shone beautifully on the scattered Cypress trees in the sloughs along Main Park Road on this relaxing drive. I opted to turn the car towards the PaHayOkee boardwalk to look for roadside wildlife. Lisa and I were excited to spot a Barred Owl perched on an isolated Cypress tree. As we observed the bird, we heard a second owl responding to its vocalization. A few seconds later a the other Barred Owl, assumedly its mate flew in nearby to perch. The birds’ conversation seemed to get more excited in tone until one of the owls burst off of its perch to chase off a crow which was infringing on the same turf.
Day 7 (3/9/19)
After minor deliberations we settled on taking an 11AM guided backwater boat tour out of the Flamingo Marina. The Everglades backwater mangrove tours operate out of a covered motorboat which can hold at least a dozen people and is operated by a national park vendor. 90 minute tours depart Flamingo at 9AM 11AM 1PM and 3PM at a cost of $35/person in 2019. You can also inquire about offerings for Florida Bay Tours. Kayak rentals are equally popular and you can rent the kayaks right at the Flamingo marina.
The backwater boat tour is led by both a knowledgeable and friendly captain as well as a park naturalist. Our naturalist was a friendly young girl and she was very up to snuff on knowledge of local wildlife, native & non-native plants, and interesting Native American history. Lisa and I found the boat ride peaceful and relaxing. We were fortunate that early morning rain had cleared but also deterred our boat tour from filling to capacity.
On our backwater boat tour we saw several American Crocodiles ranging from medium size down to small yearlings. We also saw Royal Terns, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Snowy Egret. I enjoyed hearing about the different types of plants as we traversed the mangroves. We would recommend taking the backwater boat tour out of Flamingo.
After our boat returned to dock at Flamingo, Lisa and I headed to another nearby section of the marina to admire Manatees. On this particular day there was a group of between 4-6 Manatees feeding and surfacing close to the docks at Flamingo. It was a lot of fun to see the Manatees coming near the surface to breath and the animals will sometimes interact with each other. Oddly enough one boat dock a PVC pipe dripping water and the Manatees would surface for long periods of time to take advantage of their “water fountain”.
After enjoying wildlife viewing we drove back to Florida City to get ready for our last dinner of the trip. Lisa did more Yelp research and found the food and margarita reviews at La Quebradita Mexican Restaurant & Grill favorable. It is no exaggeration that La Quebradita gets very busy and with small staffing it may be a long exercise in patience to get any sort of drink refill. Lisa enjoyed her meal though I found my Chile Relleno a little bland and nothing to write home about. La Quebradita is a well maintained restaurant and staff is friendly but the lackluster food and long wait was not worth it to me.
Day 8 (3/10/19)
It was time to check out of Home2 Suites Florida City and attack the tarmac for a 20 hour drive home. By this part of the trip I had several real estate clients in New Jersey who were anxious to get out and look at homes to purchase with me. This means we would be driving straight back with no overnight stay. Lisa was not very excited about that but business waits for no man or woman. The drive home was expectedly arduous and we hit some misty patches making our voyage more strenuous. However, me typing a trip report on my imac is proof that we survived the 20 hour drive.
Everglades Trip 2019 Afterthoughts:
Bringing a dog on a trip to South Florida will limit some nature viewing opportunities due to park regulations. No dogs allowed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, no dogs allowed on Everglades Boardwalks, and woefully no admission to the lush Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge with pets. I have visited “Lox” twice in the past and was overwhelmed by the beautiful trails, diverse native trees, myriad of freeflying butterflies, and avian/mammalian denizens.
Regardless, Lisa and I had a lot of fun on our trip, ate some interesting food and had up close and personal run-ins with a lot of wildlife. We wouldn’t change a thing. I think that Everglades National Park and Big Cypress offer something for everyone. Dogs are permitted on the myriad of unpaved trails. Every time I return to the ‘Glades I learn more about local history and ecology. I also always have great conversations with others park employees and fellow travelers. I know I will be going back!
It is always a good idea to “work the scene” when out performing nature photography. Our instincts may lead us to shoot a subject from a specific angle that has worked well for us in the past, or maybe even to mimic what we have seen in a magazine. However, there are nearly infinite ways to image an animal, plant, or landscape when we factor in using different focal lengths, varied camera angles, and also begin to think abstractly. One alternative type of shot is to fill the frame with nothing but the texture of a live animal’s skin, fur, or feathers. In this case we are looking at the “business side” of an American Alligator’s body. Yes, the animal is both free and alive.
An intimate view of the ridges atop an Alligator’s body. All other contextual clues are eliminated from the frame. #Photo taken with the #Tamron SP 70-300mm VC lens and the #Canon 6D.