My family and I visited Everglades National Park over Thanksgiving 2015. We saw alligators, crocodiles, birds, trees, water … the whole shebang. The crocodiles pictured above were my favorite wildlife, of course!
Our vacation started out with a short overnight stay in Key Largo at the Bayside Inn. It was less than a hundred bucks, and a decent room.
We spent Wednesday driving along the Florida Keys. We didn’t want to do anything too exciting — just see the Keys for the first time, and drive all the way from Key Largo to Key West. Having lived in a landlocked state for most of our lives, the view was pretty spectacular.
After a few hours, we were in Key West. We had a look around, visited the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center (because it was free and kid friendly and we happened to stumble across it), bought some delicious Cuban sandwiches and then ate them at a kid-only picnic and play area on the beach.
After Key West, we headed straight back up the Keys and on to Homestead, Florida, where a cousin of mine lives. We visited with him and his cute family Wednesday night, and were given some good Everglades tips. We spent the night at the Holiday Inn Express in Florida City, which was nicer than expected. It was recently remodeled, came with a free continental breakfast, and was around $80 with my AAA membership.
The first must-see stop before entering the park on Thanksgiving morning was the Robert Is Here shake and produce stand. Their shake flavors are tropical and varied and awesome! We got a key lime shake and a banana and dragonfruit shake. We also grabbed some Florida tangerines to snack on during our day trip in the park and some tasty and cheap key limes to take home.
We have an adorable 4th grader this year, and that means free entry to all U.S. National Parks! Pretty exciting, huh? Our darling Katie went to the website, completed the online activity, printed out the completion certificate, and brought it to the Everglades. The ranger at the gate spoke excitedly to Katie, took her info and printout, and gave Katie a cute card that will serve as her free pass to all the national parks this school year, September 1, 2015, through August 30, 2016. Score!
At the Main Entrance to the Everglades sits the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, open 365 days a year, even on Thanksgiving Day. This is a great place to plan out your day, ask the Park Rangers questions, get some postcards, and buy insect repellent. I picked up three free Junior Ranger activity booklets for the kids, which they LOVED, and we were on our way.
Our first stop was the Anhinga Trail, just four miles from the park entrance. This is an easy, wheelchair accessible trail that features abundant wildlife, and is only less than a mile round trip. We saw six or seven alligators, some hidden, others out in the open , a LOT of birds, and beautiful plant life.
Directly next to the Anhinga Trail is the Gumbo Limbo. It’s a very short trail, but very pretty and shady.
Flamingo was our last stop in the Everglades, about a 35-mile drive. This is where, we were told, the crocodiles live! When we arrived, we ducked into the Flamingo Visitor Center, and were underwhelmed. It was pretty small and smelled … bad. I’m not sure if this is an everyday occurrence or just the luck of happening during our trip. I’ve heard that the park buildings still have damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. We walked over to the marina where there’s a small convenience store that sells snacks and drinks, rents kayaks and canoes, and sells tickets for the boat tours. Right in the water behind the marina, in view of the Florida Bay, is where we saw THREE beautiful crocodiles.
We took the boat tour out to the Bay, even though it was a little pricey for 5 people. But we weren’t sure when or if we’d be returning to Flamingo, and wanted to have the full Everglades experience. It was a nice tour, but we didn’t see as many animals as I was hoping for. We saw a lot of birds, and were lucky enough to be sitting near the First Mate for most of the trip, and he was able to tell us the names of each species.
As the boat went further out in the bay, we saw dolphins! Everyone on the boat was really excited.
At dusk, as the boat returned to shore, the captain told us that if we waited around the dock area and continued to look into the water, we would probably see manatees. We’ve never seen manatees, so we stood around, staring intently at the water. Then the mosquitoes attacked! (Lemongrass oil may be a great bug repellent for backyard BBQs, but it did not cut it for the Everglades!) We hightailed it to our car and spent a few minutes killing the mosquitoes that had followed us. Seriously. Never be outside at dusk near water in the Everglades.
And … that’s it! That night we drove the 4 1/2 hours back home to Orlando. The Everglades are beautiful and unique. We hope to return soon!