Bicycles take visitors to see wildlife

SHARK VALLEY, Fla.— From intense all-night South Beach extravaganzas, to overstated oceanfront Art Deco, South Florida is an adventure in extremes.

But Everglades National Park, located minutes away from Miami’s bustling downtown, combines this larger-than-life aspect with a simple, unpretentious beauty and solitude.

Hoping to experience this understated natural wonder, I set out for Shark Valley on a spring morning, with camera, bottled water and power bars in hand.

Located about 45 minutes from Miami, Shark Valley is just on the northern edge of the park along U.S. 41. My destination was the visitors’ center at Shark Valley, which is about five miles inside the park.

Visitors have the option of bicycling, or taking a motor tram around the 15-mile path that winds through Shark Valley. The flat trail is ideal for walking or cycling, and these options allow visitors to go at their own pace.

“We’re here from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.,” said Rick Cook, public affairs officer for Everglades National Park and Shark Valley.

“Depending on the speed you’re planning on going, we recommend that you get out onto the trail well before 2 p.m.”

The Shark Valley bicycle and hiking trail is paved and runs from the Visitor Center to the Observation Tower. (Staff photos).

Proving that if I put my mind to it, I can be on time, I arrived about 11 a.m. Being a naturally worried soul, I decided to consult park officials as to whether I had any chance of getting lost (not an unheard of option, in my case), and if they thought I’d last out on the trail.

“We recommend planning on about two to three hours to cover the trail,” said Cook. “It’s a paved pathway, so it’s made for an easy-going ride that anyone from a child to the elderly can enjoy.”

The bicycles are about $5 an hour, so depending on your speed around the valley, plus the $8 entrance fee to Shark Valley, your total costs should equal about $18 to $20. Passes are available for groups of 20 or more, and cycling clubs are welcome.

“The park is always an experience we enjoy,” said Joe Wascura, president of the Everglades Bicycle Club in South Florida. “It is one of the many rides that we plan each year.”

After renting a one-speed bicycle with a basket (I was reminded of my third-grade Huffy), I set off down the path.

The parking lot near the head of the Observation Tower trail has plenty of room for loading and unloading bikes.

The first thing I noticed was the silence. I could hear the birds; I could hear the breeze moving through the brush. I could also hear the splashing on either side of the path, indicative of the unseen alligators I had been told to keep my distance from. The trail is bordered by shallow water and marsh, with low, flat shrubbery stretching towards the skyline.

The area can best be described as a slow-moving saw grass plain, about 15 centimeters deep and 80 kilometers wide.

Above, an observation tower, located about seven miles from the start of the trail affords an excellent opportunity to view the landscape. Below, visitors inspect rental bicycles at Shark Valley.

The slow-moving waters of the Everglades also provide homes for a total of 150 different species of trees and shrubs, more than 40 species of mammals, more than 50 species of reptiles, 18 species of amphibians and about 350 species of birds.

The Observation Tower at Shark Valley.

I encountered my first animal sighting about half a mile into the valley. I did a double take as I noticed what looked like an alligator floating, as if asleep, in the marsh to my right. I quietly parked my bike to the side of the path, and readied my camera for a quick picture.

After trying to creep up without being noticed, and probably making a great deal of noise in the process, I realized that not only was the alligator aware of my presence, but he was actually looking at me.

Looking north into Shark Valley from the Observation Tower.

This didn’t inspire him to move, however, and I got my picture.

On the whole, I saw six alligators, two turtles, countless white herons and equally numerous butterflies and dragon flies.

Luckily, the visitors’ center had provided me with a map of the Everglades containing illustrations of the most commonly found wildlife, so I was safely able to identify the animals.

I covered the first seven miles easily, stopping at the lookout tower before continuing on.

The last eight miles of the trail were less densely surrounded by brush, and the wetlands stretched around the path. The quiet and isolation was punctuated throughout with birdcalls and the occasional bicyclist passing me (I’m just not that fast!).

The trail to the observation tower at Shark Valley runs along a canal filled with wildlife.

Two hours after I set out, with only a slight farmer’s tan and rather tired legs, I found myself back at the visitors’ center, where I took advantage of the air conditioning and bottled water.

A few hours spent immersing myself in the great outdoors was tiring, but by no means overwhelming, and the exercise left me feeling refreshed.

Taking advantage of the Everglades is a must, especially with it right on your doorstep. I found that not only did I enjoy the scenic beauty and wildlife, but that the cycling was also a pleasure. I managed to combine exercise with my tour of the Everglades, proving that multi-tasking can be productive as well as new and exciting.

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