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View Full Version : Need help with Everglades/Keys trip!


GEM
10-31-2011, 07:23 PM
Hey everyone. We are total experts when it comes to the Orlando area, but we are venturing further afield on our December trip. We've decided to tag on five days or so to our Orlando visit to take a tour of the Everglades and Keys. My little boy is CRAZY about alligators and wildlife of any kind, and I've always wanted to see the Everglades. And, I like the idea of driving down through the keys as well. Always wanted to see that part of the state and the little guy is obsessed with pirates, and we heard there might be some pirate stuff to explore. But...I'm totally lost on where to even begin planning that!

Does anybody have any tips on....

Possible itineraries and/or routes?

Things to see in each of those areas? We're interested in seeing some of the "old Florida roadside attraction" type places and lots of nature...not so much more theme parks or cities.

Good (moderately priced) places to stay? It will be me, my eight and a half year old son, and our dog...so we need someplace pet friendly. We don't need fancy, just clean and safe. We generally prefer cabins and villas to hotels.

Any "not to be missed" places to eat?

Thanks so much for any advice or help you can give!

JimMIA
10-31-2011, 08:45 PM
I hate threads like this, because I just want to go on...and on...and on.

Let's start first with the Everglades.

The only "true" authentic Everglades left are within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, located west of Miami. There are other places that call themselves "everglades," but they're either wannabee's or parts of the historic Everglades that haven't been natural since the 1920's. Everglades National Park is the ONLY place you shoudl go to see authentic Everglades...and there is no other place like it on the planet.

First of all, here's a link to the Everglades National Park website: www.nps.gov/EVER

National Park Service websites are notoriously clunky, and ours is no exception. But look on there and drill down through the layers (especially the buttons on the left side of the home page -- "Plan Your Visit," etc.)

There are five entrances to Everglades, one of which most people can't find, and two that are skipable unless you're doing a really in-depth exploration of the park. To get a really good introduction to the Everglades, you should go to two entrances.

Assuming you are coming from Orlando and working north to south toward the Keys, start at Shark Valley, located 25 miles west of the Florida turnpike (about 40 miles west of downtown Miami) on US 41. The entrance fee is $10 per car, but that's good for the entire park for a whole week (save your receipt).

Stop at the visitor center and get your son a Junior Ranger book (free). Walk around and see (not touch) the alligators...including baby alligators. Also lots of very cool birds, and December is a great time for birds.

Then, take the Shark Valley Tram Tour (http://www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/). It's an amazing 15 mile, 2-hour, narrated trip into the absolute heart of the River of Grass. You won't be looking at the Everglades like you are elsewhere in the Park, you will be IN the Everglades. It's truly Everglades "Up Close and Personal." At the halfway point, you get off the tram and climb the observation tower, which takes you about 50 feet above the Everglades. You can see for miles -- sometimes up to 20 miles -- across the Everglades.

GREAT tour -- one of the best in the entire National Park Service system. And reasonably priced for what you get. I don't know the exact prices (possibly on the website although they go up in December), but less than $40 for the two of you.

(To anyone reading who only has a half-day to "see" the Everglades...come to Shark Valley and take the Tram Tour.)

By the time you're finished at Shark Valley, your son should have completed his required Jr. Ranger activities, so stop back by the Visitors Center and pick up his badge and have him sworn in by a Ranger. (MAJOR photo op -- ranger flat hat, badge, the whole enchilada -- the kind of picture you embarrass him with at his wedding!)

While you're in the Shark Valley area, take an airboat tour. DON'T take an airboat ride to see wildlife. Airboats are little fishing skiffs with huge airplane engines on the back, and the noise drives wildlife away. But a FUN ride, and something you should not miss. The basic rides are all 30-40 minutes long, and an experience you will not forget.

For a bonafide, authentic Florida tourist place, do an airboat ride at Coopertown (about 12-13 miles east of Shark Valley, back toward Miami). Very good airboat tour inside the prettiest part of the national park visitors can access. And an authentic, iconic Florida tourist place. Airboat rides are not cheap, and this one will cost you about $30 each (a little less).

As an alternative, for a good airboat ride at budget prices, just west of the Shark Valley entrance is the Miccosukee Indian Village, and they have a nice airboat ride for around $15 per person. It's not in the Park, but it's pretty and you won't recognize the differences.

So that's the northern end of the park.

A couple of cautions, and then I'll take a short break and tell you about the southern end of Everglades National Park.


There is no lodging in Everglades National Park, so you'll have to find a place outside.
Dogs are allowed, but the Everglades are not the most pet-friendly place. You will be required to keep your pet in your car, or on a leash in designated areas. Because...um, it's illegal to feed the alligators. Seriously, it is.

JimMIA
10-31-2011, 09:32 PM
For lodging, check the Homestead/Florida City area near the southern entrance to the park. Where the Florida Turnpike terminates into US 1 at Florida City, there is a cluster of reasonable chain hotels. I don't know their pets policy, but you should be able to call them and find out.

In addition to being the gateway to the southern part of Everglades NP, Florida City is also the gateway to the Florida Keys, so staying there is a perfect connecting point. There are also a lot of decent, reasonable dining options around the Turnpike/US 1 area of Florida City.

The main drag in Florida City is Palm Drive, which is SW 344 Street in the county. Take that west and follow the signs. You'll go through a couple of traffic lights, and eventually come to a stop sign at SW 192 Avenue.

Turn left, and pull into "Robert Is Here." Robert Is Here is a fruit and vegetable market and fresh fruit milkshakes are mandatory going and coming to the Everglades.

One of the hokey signs at Robert Is Here will tell you "Don't Miss Royal Palm." Don't miss Royal Palm.

After you get your milkshake, continue south on SW 192 Ave and just follow the signs. You'll make a couple of turns, but eventually you'll enter the main entrance of Everglades National Park. You'll see a sign we lovingly refer to as "The Potato," and that is another photo op...although not an embarrassing one.

About a mile into the park -- before the entrance station -- you will see a road going off diagonally to your right. Turn there -- that's the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, the main (and very nice) visitor center in the park. Spend a little time there; the ranger at the info desk can tell you about activities throughout the southern part of the park, and there are nice displays, a video,etc.

Leaving Coe, proceed through the entrance station (showing your receipt from Shark Valley to get in) and drive a few miles south. You're on the upper part of a 38-mile road to Flamingo at the extreme southern tip of the Florida mainland. But a couple of miles in, you will come to an intersecting road to your left...with a sign that says "Royal Palm." "Don't miss Royal Palm."

Seriously, don't. There is a wonderful trail there called Anhinga Trail, and another good trail called Gumbo Limbo (after the "tourist tree"). At Anhinga Trail, you will see lots of wildlife in a short time.

After you leave Royal Palm, unlike the "River of Grass" ecosystem at Shark Valley, you're going to pass through several different habitats on your way to Flamingo. First, you'll come to the Pinelands, then sawgrass prairies like at Shark Valley, then Cypress forests, and finally to the salt water estuary area around Flamingo. (The pineland area, from the park entrance to just south of Long Pine Key campground, is one of the two main habitats of the endangered Florida Panther.)

Notable stops along the way are Pay-hay-okee (which can be skipped if you went to Shark Valley), Mahogany Hammock (nice boardwalk trail) Paurotis Pond, and Nine Mile Pond. Lots of birds at those two ponds. I'd stop at a couple on the way down, and a couple on the way back to break up the drive.

And finally, into downtown Flamingo. It ain't much, but there are some very nice boat tours from Flamingo that you may want to look into.

If you want to just walk around, you'll see lots of birds -- but different bifds than you saw elsewhere in the park. These will be mostly salt-water wading birds.

Look closely down by the marina (and ask where to look) and you may see one or two truly wierd things. You might see manatees in the wild. And you might see alligators and crocodiles swiming together. The southern tip of Florida is the ONLY place in the World where alligators and crocodiles live together. It just doesn't happen anywhere else, so seeing a croc is really special.

The trip into the park, down to Flamingo -- taking time out for some stops and maybe a ranger program -- will take you a full day. As you return at dusk, be especially careful driving in the Pinelands area -- it's not only the habitat of the Panther, there are also a lot of deer there and they come out at dusk.

If it's still open, don't forget the obligatory stop at Robert Is Here for another milkshake.

"The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American
people so that all may experience our heritage. Enjoy your America!"

GEM
10-31-2011, 09:34 PM
Thank you thank you thank you!!!! That's all great info and I really appreciate you taking the time. My son has loved doing the Junior Ranger program at other parks we've visited, so we will make sure to do that! If you have any other ideas for other areas, I would love to hear them. This was VERY helpful!

Any ideas of where might be the best place to look for lodging in the Shark Valley area? It sounds like we could maybe drive down early, do the tram tour and explore that area, and possibly do a boat ride in one day, before we move on to the south. Do you think that's doable?

JimMIA
10-31-2011, 09:41 PM
Thank you thank you thank you!!!! That's all great info and I really appreciate you taking the time. My son has loved doing the Junior Ranger program at other parks we've visited, so we will make sure to do that! If you have any other ideas for other areas, I would love to hear them. This was VERY helpful!

Any ideas of where might be the best place to look for lodging in the Shark Valley area? It sounds like we could maybe drive down early, do the tram tour and explore that area, and possibly do a boat ride in one day, before we move on to the south. Do you think that's doable?
Easily doable to see Shark Valley and do an airboat tour, and maybe the Indian Village, in one day.

There is no lodging worth staying in near Shark Valley. 18 miles east is the Miccosukee Casino, but rooms there are more than $100 per night and the whole place reeks of cigarette smoke.

The best place for reasonable lodging is going to be Florida City, and Shark Valley and then driving to Florida City is very doable in one day.

GEM
10-31-2011, 09:43 PM
Looks like we were posting at the same time! Thanks again. This is truly wonderful info! I'm so excited about our adventure.

GEM
10-31-2011, 09:59 PM
So would you suggest....

Day 1: Drive from Orlando to Shark Valley, explore Shark Valley area and take tram tour, airboat ride and Indian village, then drive to Florida City to spend the night

Day 2: Drive from Florida City to Flamingo (stopping at the cool places you mentioned along the way), then drive back to Florida City and spend the night there before heading off for the keys the next day

And thanks so much for the info about Robert Is Here. That's just the kind of interesting place we love to visit!

JimMIA
11-01-2011, 11:55 AM
Yes, that schedule looks doable, with the strong suggestion that you get a very early start from Orlando.

You want to get to Shark Valley in plenty of time to see some things and take the 2 hour tram ride, do an airboat tour, and possibly visit the Indian village. Most of the airboat rides close at 5 PM, and Shark Valley closes at 6 PM.

The timing of your visit is critical because of some seasonal quirks and special events, so when you get a chance PM me the date(s) of your visit and I'll give you some detailed info and suggestions.

Montegut
11-22-2011, 10:36 PM
Great posts above! Just want to second my kudos to the suggestions above.

I was a biology major at UMiami in the early 80s and took ornithology and wetlands ecology. Shark Valley and Flamingo are fantastic for birding! You will love it!

On a return trip to Miami for a wedding 20 years ago, husband and I drove from Miami all the way down to Key West in one day, so I could go to the Hemingway House. We took one road, I think it was Highway 1, all the way down through the Keys. Gorgeous scenery, and we pulled over several times and walked out into the water. It was a long drive. We barely made it back in time for the nighttime wedding. But it was so worth it! I had gone on many field trips in the Keys in college, and I loved showing off this beautiful part of the world to my husband.

Another recommendation for birding is Corkscrew Park in Naples, if you're in that area. There is a boardwalk there as well, and great birding.

I just took a 50th birthday trip to visit my college friend who lives in St. Pete now. We did nature exploring like we did when we were in college, driving from Clearwater all the way down to Sarasota, to see our dream destination, Mote Marine Laboratory. We also spent the day at Clearwater Aquarium. I took side trips along the way to meeting her doing my own impromptu birdwatching and visited Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Rocks Beach. So beautiful!

Just putting all this out there, as you never know where you're going to end up. Things seem to be so close to each other down there.

Be on the lookout for roseate spoonbills. Gorgeous pink birds that you may mistake for flamingoes. They are so awesome to watch feed in the shallow waters.

Enjoy your trip and please come back and post about it!

JimMIA
11-23-2011, 07:36 AM
Another recommendation for birding is Corkscrew Park in Naples, if you're in that area. There is a boardwalk there as well, and great birding.That's the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, run by the Florida Audubon Society. Their mailing address is Naples, but the sanctuary is actually quite a ways NE of Naples. It's actually located east of Bonita Springs, out toward Immokalee.

Great place to visit if you have time, but what you'll see there is extremely variable depending on water levels. Corkscrew used to be a great place to see endangered wood storks, but a few years ago the water level changed drastically during nesting season and the parents abandoned the whole area, losing an entire year of chicks. I don't know if that population has recovered from that disasterous year, but we have wood storks at Shark Valley nearly year-round.Be on the lookout for roseate spoonbills. Gorgeous pink birds that you may mistake for flamingoes. They are so awesome to watch feed in the shallow waters. The best places to see spoonbills in December are Shark Valley and the lower parts of the Main Park Road near Flamingo -- especially Paurotis Pond. They are quite a sight when they are in their bright pink breeding plumage.

iluvflorida
11-23-2011, 01:16 PM
Visit Billie Swamp Tours. Will see many gators up close in wild from air boat ride. Swamp tour in swamp buggy, air boats, other shows included in one price admission. Ask for AAA discount if member and there are also coupons