Travel Along the “River of Grass” on the Road to Flamingo

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details Length: About 50 miles.

When to go: Winter and spring, when wildlife watching is best.

Words to the wise: Most waters are unsafe for swimming. Beware of sudden weather changes. For protection against the sun, wear sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat; for mosquitoes, insect repellent.

Nearby attraction: Biscayne National Park, headquarters at Homestead. Further information: Everglades National Park, 40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; tel. 305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/ever/.

The road to Flamingo, the southernmost town on the Florida mainland, begins barely an hour’s drive south of downtown Miami. Yet this route through the heart of the Everglades makes civilization seem a good deal farther away. 1. Everglades National Park “There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1947. She was referring, of course, to the unique natural character of these wetlands: the several distinct environments that combine to form a highly complex ecosystem; the web of life that is as fragile as it is fertile; and the “river of grass” whose original 50-mile breadth made it the widest river in the world. But perhaps what most impresses visitors to this lush, liquid realm is its incredible flatness. Indeed, the highest point in the park stands only 10 feet above sea level. Looking more like an African savanna than a wetland, this sea of saw grass, its tall stalks barely ruffled by the passing breeze, stretches from horizon to horizon, broken only by an occasional tree island, or hammock. Embracing some 4,000 square miles, the region is so vast that even 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park (the second-largest national park in the lower 48 states) occupies a mere one-fifth of its total area.

2. Main Visitor Center The remarkably diverse habitats and wildlife of the Everglades make it one of America’s most precious natural wonders. Mangrove forests, freshwater sloughs, cypress stands, pinelands, coastal prairies, freshwater marl prairies, hardwood hammocks, estuaries—all can be seen here. The park is also home to an astonishing array of animals, including more than 600 species of fish, some 300 types of birds, and at least 67 kinds of mosquitoes. Among the threatened or endangered creatures that find sanctuary here are the Florida panther, the American alligator, the southern bald eagle, and the Key Largo cotton mouse.

The park’s entrance is located 12 miles southwest of Homestead on Rte. 9336. Through a cluster of stately West Indian mahogany trees, you can glimpse the gabled roof of the main visitor center. Built to replace the one shattered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the structure houses exhibits on the park’s history, habitats, and the hurricane itself.

Though it certainly wounded the Everglades—damage is most visible in the high, headless palms and the tall pines with missing limbs—Andrew, like all hurricanes, was part of the park’s natural cycle. These storms’ rains are critical, and while the fierce winds often topple trees, they also distribute seeds, open new windows for sun-loving flora, fertilize plants as they decay, and carve fresh habitats for other fauna.

3. Royal Palm Visitor Center As you head west toward the Royal Palm visitor center (located off a spur road leading south), you may encounter sunbathing turtles, great egrets, and hordes of butterflies. The visitor center, a concrete oasis tucked beneath palms, serves as the starting point for two short but exciting nature trails, each one providing a chance to see wildlife up close. From the Anhinga Trail you might spy alligators, marsh rabbits, and of course, the animal that gives the path its name, a bird with a razor-sharp bill that it uses to spear fish. While walking the Gumbo Limbo Trail, you can study a wide variety of aerial orchids and ferns, along with the gumbo limbo itself, a graceful smooth-barked red tree once used for making carousel horses. 4. Pa-hay-okee Overlook When the waters are high and the air is still, the shimmering saw grass looks as if it’s growing from glass. The tranquil glades then become an aquatic mirror, with clusters of green extending above and below the surface. In reality, of course, the mirror is moving. Flowing southward from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, the water of the Everglades—only six inches deep in many spots—glide at the rate of less than one mile per day across porous limestone bedrock. At the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, some 10 miles west of Royal Palm, you can appreciate the sheer immensity of this expanse, a massive sheet of water whose movement to the ocean is all but imperceptible on most occasions.