Celebrating Our National Parks at 100
The National Park Service celebrates its centennial in 2016. How lucky we are to have three national parks right here in South Florida! And winter is a great time to explore them.
Our first stop was Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West. You can visit by seaplane, private boat or the Yankee Freedom ferry. The ferry leaves from Key West at 8am, so this can be part of a fun Keys weekend trip if you’re coming from the mainland. On your drive to Key West, stop at Keys Fisheries for fresh stone crabs. At the Big Pine Key Flea Market (weekends 8am-2pm) stock up on sunglasses, cheap T-shirts and sundresses.
KEY WEST AND DRY TORTUGAS
Key West is filled with charming B & Bs. If you find one close to the Ferry Terminal on Grinnell Street, you can walk to the ferry. I stayed quite comfortably at the vintage motor court Southwinds Motel. If you’re driving, you can park in the city garage across the street from the terminal ($13 a day). Stop by the Old City Bakery on Eaton St. for excellent coffee and almond croissants, and perhaps pick up a sandwich for the beach. Breakfast (yogurt, bagels and cereal) and lunch (sandwiches and chips) are served on board and are included in the price of your ferry ticket, but a small cooler is allowed on the island – just remember to pack it in, pack it out. Aboard the high-speed catamaran Yankee Freedom, a guide narrates area history and points out noteworthy sites, like the Marquesas Key Atoll, home of the Atocha wreck.
After a couple of hours, Fort Jefferson appears – a circular, crumbling brick fort surrounded by a moat and white-sand beaches. There’s plenty of time for passengers to snorkel the clear waters and tour the fort. The ranger-led tour covers the origins of the fort in 1846, its strategic location and its role as a Union prison housing deserters from the Civil War as well as a supposed conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. Also on display: a boat made of scraps used by Cuban refugees – hundreds arrive here every year. For adventurous travelers, there’s an overnight camping option, but you must bring in everything, including drinking water. The bar is open on the way back, with frozen cocktails and cold beers available for purchase, ensuring that everyone returns happy and just in time for a Key West sunset.
BISCAYNE AND EVERGLADES
You can now visit South Florida’s other two national parks using the convenient National Parks Trolley on weekends through May 1. The trolley is free, and so is park admission to trolley riders. At Homestead’s Losner Park, catch the 7:45am trolley to Everglades National Park, perfect for an early walk along the Anhinga Trail, where alligator and bird sightings are plentiful. The Gumbo Limbo Trail is primarily a tropical hardwood hammock, with labeled trees and lots of mosquitoes. Pick up the trolley to Homestead and have lunch at Chefs on the Run on Saturday, or The Whistle Stop at the historic Hotel Redland for Sunday brunch. Then hop back on the trolley for Biscayne National Park.
What makes Biscayne unique is that 95 percent of the park is underwater. Exploring by boat, canoe or kayak is the best way to explore this marine park. Guided boat tours have started again from the park’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center on select Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 1, 2016. Convoy Point, where the trolley stops, features a boardwalk, picnic areas and a visitor center. Here, you can see displays of underwater life, shoreline flora and fauna (including manatees, wading birds and migrating birds in the winter), informative movies and a tank of lionfish, the invasive fish that’s killing off native Florida species. Back to Homestead, stop by La Michoacana for tropical fruit ice cream and paletas – mamey, guanabana or tamarind. It’s not expensive but it is cash-only. And don’t miss Robert Is Here for creamy fruit shakes, salsa, local produce, honey and jams, jellies and other treats.
The northern entrance to Everglades National Park is Shark Valley, 25 miles west of Miami on the Tamiami Trail. A two-hour tram tour gets you up close with alligators and wading birds. One fun way to explore Shark Valley is by bicycle along a 15-mile paved road, about a 2-3 hour trip. Bring your bike, or rent one for $9/hour from Shark Valley Tram Tours. Two short trails, the Bobcat Boardwalk and the Otter Cave Hammock Trail, wind through the sawgrass and tropical hardwood forest. However you travel, be sure to bring plenty of water! Make a pit stop on the way home at rustic The Pit BBQ (find on Facebook) for pulled pork sandwiches, frog legs and gator – true South Florida tastes of the wild.
As part of the 2016 centennial, all national parks will waive their entrance fees on 16 special days in 2016:
Jan. 18 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Apr. 16-24 – National Park Week
Aug. 25-28 – National Park Service Birthday (and following weekend)
Sept. 24 – National Public Lands Day
Nov. 11 – Veterans Day
Visit findyourpark.com for more information.
Clyde Butcher’s Everglades
Photographer Clyde Butcher uses a large-format camera for his black-and-white landscape photography. While he travels the world shooting stunning vistas, he is perhaps best known for capturing unique beauty of the River of Grass. See his works at his Big Cypress Gallery on the Tamiami Trail at MM 54.5, about a half mile east of the Big Cypress National Preserve Oasis Visitor Center. Through May you can see his works on display at Miami International Airport’s South Terminal J Greeter’s Lobby as part of the parks’ 100th anniversary celebration.