You would figure since I was born in FL that I would know this state like the back of my hand, especially as a photographer. Well, you know how the saying goes...something about green grass? After attending FotoFusion we headed south to Homestead FL, the city closest to the Everglades park entrance. We stayed in the trusty Best Western. I've been having a lot of luck with the BW hotels recently, they seem to be cheaper than the Hampton Inns (my "gold" standard) and each hotel is a little different. At $105 a night, queen bed, fridge, microwave, breakfast, it's a good deal. Our plans for the week were 3 days here in the Everglades, a quick trip to Key Biscayne, then driving through Big Cypress and up to Sanibel, then back to Jacksonville.
I'm not a wildlife photographer, and when you say Everglades you say birds and wildlife. This being the height of the birding season gets some people really excited. Lots of shorebirds, egrets, herons, etc. and plenty of gators. I was looking to produce some interesting landscapes and found this to be challenging. Clyde Butcher has the corner on the classic FL landscape, and you can't help but be completely in awe of his work. Finding my own interpretation of the nature of FL would certainly take me more than 3 days. I've grown to appreciate the fact that you need to be in an area for a long time in order to fully capture the sense of place. You can't just show up in your car on a random day and expect to walk away with a great image. Clyde Butcher lives right in the middle of the Big Cypress swamp and has been photographing there for half of his life. That is one reason why his images are so incredible.
So I set out with modest expectations and hopes of seeing and experiencing new things. We left my brother's house in Boca Raton and headed to the American Orchid Society Botanical Gardens in Delray Beach. Included is a landscaped garden area and a 45oo sf greenhouse filled with orchids. Best of all they allowed tripods. I was challenged finding compositions with so many flowers. The facility itself contains many resources for orchid growers and is a must see if you are an orchid lover.
From Delray we took the Florida Turnpike to Florida City, which is at the south end of the highway. We checked into our hotel and headed to the Everglades visitor center to grab maps. It is about 15 miles from Florida City to the park. Our sunset location was the Pa-hay-okee Overlook (river of grass) which is an elevated boardwalk in the middle of an area of dwarf cypress trees. There were many clouds as the front was coming in and we managed to see some color. As soon as the sun went down the mosquitoes came out...they were brutal!
The next day we headed out to the end of the main road which is at the Flamingo Visitor Center. Along the way we stopped at an overlook right before Pa-hay-okee. Then we headed to the Mahogany Hammock. From here there was an area where there had recently been a fire, and the palmettos were just beginning to grow back, creating an interesting scene of green shoots. From Flamingo we headed back to the Christian Point Trail. We hiked about 1 mile in and turned back, then we stopped at the West Lake boardwalk and stayed until sunset. Unfortunately the clouds had taken over and there was no color.
Our next destination was Key Biscayne NP which is due east of Florida City. At the visitor center we found out that no boats were leaving due to the weather. By now the front had moved in with high winds and cold temperatures. We walked along the boardwalk and out to the jetty. Next time we will take a glass bottom boat tour which is a great way to see the reef if you want to keep dry.
From here we headed back into the park and stopped at Royal Palm which is the start of the Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail. The Anhinga is famous for wildlife, especially gators along the bank of the canal that follows the trail. It was very crowded with people and bus loads of kids, so we opted for the Gumbo Limbo trail and from there we headed for Long Pine Key, which is primarily a campground in the middle of a pine forest. I enjoyed a cloudless sunset in the pine forest.
While visiting all these locations I became aware of the devestation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Basically Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane had winds of over 169 mph when it hit FL, ripped through this area destroying practically all the vegetation, trees, buildings, and most if not all of the growth is new since 1992. The signs along the trail told of many of the massive oak trees which were lost, and the buttonwood trees that were felled by the storm. You can still see many of the remains of the destruction.
From here we headed back to the Tamiami Trail to Big Cyress National Preserve. We stopped at a boat slip near the Miccosukee Reserve and talked to a local guide about all the big changes going on in the area. Lots of new development everywhere until the economy tanked. Lots of people from the north moving in. We took the Loop Road Scenic Drive on recommendation from one of the rangers. Lots of gators along the roadside and great views of the cypress trees. This road is unpaved but suitable for all types of cars. It's a slow drive but well worth it to see a "real" view of the old Florida. It was back to the highway on onto I-75 to Ft Meyers, where we checked into the Best Western (of course!). The weather report said early morning lows of 28 degrees with 20-25 mph winds...are you kidding?
We made a quick stop at Sanibel Island. It had been many years since we were here with the children. We stopped at Bowman's Beach hoping to find a good shelling spot. Looks like we missed the low tide so the shells were disappointing. It was cold on the beach so after about 2 hours we headed back to Jacksonville.