Well to celebrate the last weekend of January, the CurbCrusher clan loaded up the RV and headed south: to the Everglades, the River of Grass, the Southernmost tip of mainland Florida. We headed to the Everglades National Park for a four day trip, Thursday through Sunday. The park has two campgrounds, actually I should say two RV campgrounds, there are a number of places that you can camp on the canoe trails and in the swamp, Long Pine Key near the entrance, and Flamingo at the end of the road.
You get to the Everglades by traveling down Florida’s Turnpike until mile 0, where it ends and dumps you out on US 1 headed toward the Keys. Instead of going south, you make a quick right hand turn and head due west for a couple of miles and pass the last gas stations before heading southwest. After about 10 miles of farmland, and a couple of airboat ride signs, you come to the Coe Visitor Center. This is the National Park Services way of welcoming you to the Everglades. The Visitor Center is a very nice facility that has a number of exhibits about the park, a film, and helpful rangers that will tell you anything you want to know about the park.
Following your stop at the Coe Visitors Center, you start your journey into the park. You first come to the ranger station that collects your $10 for visiting the park, then start down an approximately 40 mile road that leads to Flamingo on Florida Bay, the end of mainland Florida. Along the way you’ll pass a number of trails, ponds, overlooks and the Long Pine Key camping area. For most of the road the speed limit is 55, so you reach the end of the road in about an hour.
Unlike every campground the CurbCrushers have stayed into date, the National Park Service (NPS) campground at Flamingo does not have any hookups. It has a dump station, potable water, and bath houses that have cold water only. So this was our first attempt at “boondocking.” The campground at Flamingo is broken into four loops, A-C, and T. The A-C loops are for the tents, truck campers, pop-ups and small van campers. The T loop is for larger rigs, and is all pull-through sites that are at least 60 feet long. When we were there the B and C loops were closed, the A loop was probably about 75% full and the T loop probably approached 50% before we left. Needless to say, parking and hooking up was very easy. The sites are also spaced fairly far apart, so you are not right next to your neighbor when are here. As a matter of fact, this is one of the first public campgrounds we’ve been to where we sit around and chat with folks in the campground. People were pretty much gone all day, and then stayed inside at night. The bath house was kept clean, and did have electricity. As a matter of fact I walked in one night and found someone’s digital camera battery plugged into the outlet over the sinks, they were charging it up after a day of use in the only plug to be found around.
To prepare for this trip, we had loaded the fresh water talk about 3/4 full, and taken our little Honda EU200i generator. We ended up running the generator about three hours each day, and didn’t run out of water during the time we were there. In addition to the fresh water tank, we took about five gallons of tap water from home to use for cooking and drinking. We set up our quick-up shade and screening, as we had heard that the bugs were bad here. The first two nights the wind was very brisk (weather reports said 15 – 20 MPH), and quick-up tent was flapping and making noise. We staked the tent down, but were very surprised that the stakes only went about 2 to 2.5 inches into the ground before becoming very hard to hammer in. It appears that the ground under the campsite is not swamp, but a fairly tough limestone.
Flamingo was a small fishing village back around 1900, and today has the feel of a partially abandon town. While there are no original buildings from when it was a fishing village, there are a number of structures that the NPS has built over the years that are now abandon and forlorn looking. At one time there was a gift shop, cottages, restaurant, lodge and marina here overlooking Florida Bay. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 did a number on most of the buildings. One ranger told us that the mud in the bottom of the bay came into most buildings and coated the floors and walls when the 10 foot storm surge moved through. The marina and a gift shop have been re-built and are operating, along with a Visitor’s Center. There is also a gas station next to the marina, but you pay for the privilege of buying gas in the Everglades, the price was about 50 cents more than the stations right before the park entrance. The other amenities have remained closed, and the NPS is currently working on a master plan to replace them with a new set of amenities in the future.
The big thing that seems to be going on in the Everglades is fishing and birding. There were a lot of folks in the tent area and the small loop that had boats with them. There were also an untold number of people walking around with those really big cameras that need a tri-pod to support the lens. We aren’t really big into either of these hobbies, but we did wander around the trails a bit. The Eco Pond trail is close to the campground, and takes about 20 minutes to walk. There were a good number of wading birds to watch, and small crocodile that seemed to have a favorite spot picked out. There is also a bay front trail that winds in front of the old lodges and cabins, between the campground and the Visitor Center. The longest trail that we went on was Snake Bight trail, a couple of miles long, it runs from the park road to the bay a few miles north of the Visitor Center. CurbCrusher ventured on a couple of trails by himself one morning, the Bear Lake and the Christian Point trails. We didn’t really see any wildlife or anything too exciting on the trails. Although Lady CurbCrusher did see the back end of a snake on the Snake Bight trail. The biggest crocodiles were located behind the marina and seemed to be consistently present each day.
The concession at the marina runs a couple of cruises every day. One is aboard a sailing ship in the bay, and the other is back-country pontoon boat trip. We took the pontoon boat trip, which is a couple of hours running up a man made canal that runs up to Coots Bay. A naturalist narrates the trip, and it is informative. We saw a number of wading birds, a few hawks, and a couple of more crocodiles on the trip. From listening to people that went on the trip earlier and later it seems that it is a real gamble whether or not you’ll see anything.
One of the greatest things about the trip was the night sky. We took the portable CurbCrusher astrolab (ok, its a telescope) and got great views of the night sky. Of our three nights, the first and third were clear enough to drag out the telescope, and the middle night was pretty cloudy. The first night was also a bit buggy, I ended up going inside and putting on a long-sleeve shirt and pants even though it was fairly warm. The last night was cooler, and the bugs were not an issue.
The whole CurbCrusher gang enjoyed the Everglades. In some ways camping without water or electricity was not that much of an issue. I was surprised that the house batteries never seemed to be loosing there charge, even after sixty-minutes of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader? on Thursday night. We took the Honda generator because we know it uses very little gas (a lesson from Hurricane Season 2004) and we figured that would be better than running the generator in the motorhome all the time. The park prohibits generator usage from 8 PM – 8 AM, and sure enough at 8:01 AM every morning, you can hear them start up, and they shut down promptly at 8 PM. Most people didn’t run their generators when they were away from their rigs though. I was also surprised that we never ran out of water. We rationed it a bit, but never spent a lot of time worrying about how much we were using.