Christy and I originally planned to spend 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year’s on vacation. We were torn between going to Southern California / Cabo or Florida. Our favorite band, Phish, made the decision for us. I had just gotten serious about researching a trip to Mexico when they announced that they would be playing 4 consecutive shows in Miami starting on New Year’s Eve. We hadn’t seen them play on New Year’s Eve since the concerts to end 1999 in Big Cypress. A trip ending with 4 nights of Phish was too good to pass up.
Originally we planned to drive all the way to Key West. We’d stop at various keys along the way for camping, paddling, and snorkeling. We’d spend a couple of days in Key West in a hotel, but we also added an overnight camping trip in Dry Tortugas National Park to the agenda. After returning to the mainland we’d spend a few days in the Everglades. Then it would be on to Miami for 4 days of relaxation and partying with Phish.
I was able to get the Doubletree on Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami for 4 nights for free using hotel points. Then we got lucky and actually managed to get tickets to the Phish shows. It took me 4 minutes to get through on the Ticketmaster website the morning they went on sale. The arena holds over 20K, but at that point the only seats remaining were in the rafters and behind the stage. I bought 2 seats in the rafters, relieved that we were able to get tickets at all.
Our plans began to unravel after that. First, I found out that camping in the Dry Tortugas was completely booked from mid-December through early January. Apparently during peak holiday season it is necessary to make those reservations months in advance. Then some family obligations came up. It turned out that we would need to travel to Pennsylvania for the week of Christmas. Due to those factors, we decided to scrap the Florida Keys from our trip altogether.
The revised plan meant driving to Pennsylvania on the Sunday before Christmas and returning to Charlotte on Friday. Then we would drive to South Florida on Sunday. We would spend a few nights camping in the Everglades before finishing up the trip in Miami.
The drive back from Pennsylvania was relatively painless. It was around this time that we found out that our friends, Myron and Dorcas, had a winter home near Titusville, Florida. They invited us to stay with them Saturday. That would’ve been great, since we hadn’t seen them in a while, and it would break up the long drive to the Everglades. However, it meant having to unpack, repack, and finish a bunch of chores and errands Friday night and Saturday morning. By 10am Saturday it was apparent that a departure that day was hopeless.
We left early on Sunday, which kept us ahead of the traffic all the way to I-95 in Southeastern South Carolina. That first stretch of 95 was awful, and we feared we were in for a brutal drive. Surprisingly, traffic was lighter once we got beyond Savannah.
We visited Myron and Dorcas for lunch. They have a nice place that features a port for their RV as well as a kitchen, living room, and bathroom. Their property backs up to the St. John’s Wildlife Refuge, too. After lunch we took a short stroll along a sandy trail that borders the refuge. We spotted a tortoise, a number of birds, and a dead snake. It would have been nice to spend more time with Myron and Dorcas, but we still had a long drive ahead of us.
We left their place around 3:30 and resumed the journey south. We took the turnpike most of the way, which is a bit expensive but probably worth it since it avoids I-95. The highway eventually ended south of Miami, and we filled up the gas tank one last time before driving deep into the heart of the Everglades. We had reservations for the campground at Flamingo, so we headed that way.
After 45 minutes of nothingness we finally reached Flamingo, which features a visitor’s center and a marina in addition to the campground. We drove to the campground, and found the entrance booth unattended since it was after hours. Our reservation wasn’t for a specific site, so we drove around a bit before finding a nice one under a large tree. The campground was mostly full, and I was a bit puzzled about the system. We had reservations, but there was nothing stopping people without reservations from coming in and taking all of the available sites. What would we have done if they’d all been full? Maybe the campground never completely fills up? Either way, reservations don’t seem to be particularly useful.
The campground is pretty nice. The sites are very spacious, at least compared to most National Parks. They are equipped with picnic tables and fire rings, and warm showers are available. The only downside was horrible mosquitoes. I’d read that the bugs were awful in the summer, but could be a bit of a nuisance even in the winter. I’d say that was understating things a bit! We’d brought repellant with us, but I chose to wear sweat pants and a sweatshirt that evening for protection. I was a bit warm with that much clothing on, even though we arrived well after dark (8:30ish).
We had 3 days to spend in the Everglades. We had no specific plans for Monday, but on Tuesday and Wednesday we intended to do a backpacking trip from Flamingo to Clubhouse Beach on the Coastal Prairie Trail. I first read about the trip in Backpacker Magazine (http://www.backpacker.com/trips/florida/coastal-prairie-trail-in-florida/) years ago, and it’s been on the to-do list ever since. It sounded like an easy, interesting hike to a premier destination. The mud and bugs were a concern, but from the article, it didn’t sound like they would be a major issue in late December.
We needed a permit to camp at Clubhouse Beach, and they can’t be reserved in advance. The earliest we could get the permit was at 8am on Monday (for a hike starting on Tuesday). I wasn’t sure about the popularity of the campsite, so I figured we should get the permit immediately. Unfortunately this meant missing out on a ranger-led paddling trip. They do them daily in the winter, with canoes and gear provided, and they are even free. However, there is only one per day, and they start at 8am. I didn’t want to risk waiting until the afternoon to get our permit. This was not one of my better decisions, in hindsight.
We spoke with a ranger about our trip. It quickly became clear that getting the permit would not be a problem. He cautioned us that the trail was no longer maintained, and that some sections were overgrown and hard to follow. He also warned us that some areas would be wet. Specifically, the final stretch just before the beach would require wading through knee-deep water. This caused us to hesitate, but it didn’t sound like anything we couldn’t handle. We decided to go ahead and do the trip. After all, having a beach all to ourselves was compelling, and even the ranger said it was a great place.
With that taken care of, we had the rest of the day to explore other parts of the Everglades. We debated driving to Shark Valley for a bike ride, or Long Pine Key for hiking, but those ideas would require more driving. We were tired of driving. Instead, we decided to venture over to the marina to see if we could rent kayaks for a few hours.
There was a huge line at the marina. After a 30 minute wait, we found that there was one single kayak, one tandem kayak, and some canoes remaining. We took the tandem kayak, which was $45 for four hours. We discussed our options with the agent there. From the marina, the best options are to paddle out into the bay or to follow the Buttonwood Canal up to Coot Bay. Everything else would require transporting the kayak on our car, and we didn’t have the rack on it. We decided to go up the canal, because from there, we could paddle through a mangrove tunnel into Mud Lake. Mud Lake is fresh water, while the remainder of the trip would be in saltwater. That gave us the best chance to see a variety of wildlife.
We had just started up the canal when I realized that I’d forgotten the sunscreen. We didn’t want to go back for it, and I figured we’d be in the shade much of the time. The canal wasn’t terribly exciting. It’s bordered by mangroves, but the channel is (presumably) man-made, and we had a lot of motorboats for company. This included the Park’s official tour boats, which passed by regularly. We didn’t see any wildlife on the way out, aside from a few birds.
Coot Bay is a large lake, and it was pretty choppy when we reached it. It actually got worse later, with the afternoon winds stirring up some whitecaps. We crossed the bay and found the passage through the mangroves, which is marked with a signpost. This was the most exciting part of the trip. The channel is narrow and twisting, and a lot of maneuvering is required to get through. There were a number of families in canoes attempting it, which was pretty amusing. Some of them made it through eventually! We didn’t have any trouble, and reached Mud Lake after only a few minutes.
In Mud Lake we followed the shoreline (which was muddy) and explored a series of small islands. We were hoping to see alligators, but the only wildlife was a variety of birds. We were running a bit short on time, so we didn’t paddle all the way around the lake. Instead we cut across the middle so we could return along the opposite shore. This was the highlight of the trip for me. As we paddled, I occasionally saw a big splash out of the corner of my eye. I thought they were being caused by birds, but that wasn’t the case. Suddenly, a football-sized fish launched itself out of the water just ahead of us. It arced 5-6’ into the air, landed with a splash, exploded from the water again, and disappeared into the water in front of our boat with another splash. One more and he would’ve been in the kayak with us! We quickly realized that he wasn’t the only “flying” fish. There were several others all around us, rocketing out of the water. Occasionally they would do a double jump like that first fish, but more often it was just a single leap. We never saw one go more than twice at a time.
Unfortunately this proved to be impossible to photograph because you never knew when or where one would take flight.
I could’ve watched the flying fish all day, but we had time constraints. We paddled back through the mangroves, across Coot Bay, and down the canal. We made good time, mostly because Christy had to pee. Unfortunately, we’d seen only one place where we could get out without swimming or slopping around in the mud. It was a dock near the upper end of the canal that marked the portage path to a shallow, muddy channel leading to Bear Lake. We took a short break there and managed to fend off the mosquitoes long enough to take care of business.
We were leaving the dock when another tour boat passed by. This one stopped, and all of the tourists were looking at something on the bank near us. After they left we decided to see if we could figure out what they were looking at. We poked around in the mangroves for a few minutes, and nearly jumped out of the kayak when we found a baby crocodile sprawled along a branch! He was small, cute, and docile, which is how we like our crocodiles! Unfortunately the vegetation obscured our photos.
We had better luck a few minutes later. This baby crocodile was a little larger, and was sunbathing on a log in full view. We managed some nice photos with our phones, but I was kicking myself for leaving my camera and zoom lens behind.
We returned a few minutes before 2pm, which was slightly early. We both had some mild sunburn, but managed to dodge anything serious. There was still a huge line at the rental kiosk. If you visit during the busy season, I recommend arriving at the marina early, or reserving a boat in advance.
We still had almost 4 hours of daylight to work with. We considered driving to Long Pine Key and the Royal Palm Visitor’s Center to walk the Anhinga Trail. That one had been recommended to us by two different people for its exceptional wildlife. However, that would require a fair drive, and I was pretty sure I’d done that hike on a previous visit to the Everglades way back in 1994. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the Flamingo area. However, getting away from the marina was a priority. The whole place was a zoo of tourists, which was pretty startling after a fairly quiet paddling trip.
We decided to do a mountain bike / hike combo to Bear Lake. From the marina parking lot we rode out to the main road and followed it to the bridge over the Buttonwood Canal. From there we picked up an old dirt road that parallels the canal. The ride was pretty easy, though puddles and mud made things a little interesting. We rode to a T-intersection, where going right would’ve taken us to the dock we’d stopped at earlier. We went left, and continued to a gate. We parked the bikes and locked them there, as the rest of the trail is open to foot only.
The trail to Bear Lake is 1.6 miles one-way and follows another old road. It parallels the channel connecting Bear Lake to the Buttonwood Canal. Apparently it can be paddled if there is enough water, but it looked very shallow and muddy when we were there. We stayed in the forest the whole way, which meant that we had to slather on the bug repellant. The hike wasn’t terribly exciting, as the wildlife was limited to a variety of birds. Bear Lake is a large body of water and it was fairly pretty, but hardly overwhelming. The biggest highlight was probably having the trail largely to ourselves. We did see one guy paddling out on Bear Lake, and two fishermen and some paddlers in the canal.
We were both quite tired when we returned to the car. We’d been going at it all day, with a lengthy, 4-hour kayaking trip in windy conditions, 4 miles of easy mountain biking, and a 3+ mile hike. I guess you can say that I completed my first triathlon? I sure felt like it. The worst part was that my shoulder was throbbing. I have an old shoulder injury that has been acting up recently. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that 4 hours of kayaking might aggravate it even more.
We returned to the campground and took well-deserved showers. Then we made a fire with wood we’d purchased at the marina and watched a nice sunset. The fire certainly wasn’t necessary for heat, but it did discourage the bugs. We grilled steaks and potatoes for dinner, and rounded out the meal with salad and wine. It was one of the best campground meals I’ve had recently. We didn’t make much progress towards organizing or packing for our backpacking trip, but I wasn’t too worried about that. The hike was only 6.5 miles, so we didn’t necessarily need an early start.
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