Camping trip reveals Everglades wildlife

FLORIDA CITY, Fla. — Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and has been designated a World Heritage Site.

It also boasts some of the world’s most endangered animals; some are big, some small and, as I discovered while on a camping trip, some very, very scary.

Ten of us from the Canes Outdoor Recreation Program at the University of Miami hit the Everglades on a Friday morning for two days of hiking and camping around the Everglades backcountry.

The Everglades can be remote. This is the scene from the back of our campsite (Photos by Carly Mills).

We had originally planned to head for the more popular camping area towards the Flamingo area in the south, but due to the bad weather the week before, our trails had flooded, so we stuck to the high and dry backcountry towards the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center, not far from Florida City.

The Visitor’s Center was our first stop of the trip to get maps, have a look around and see what we were up against. The wildlife exhibition was full of useful information, from the birds I may come across, to what to do if I was chased by an alligator. I was slightly put off by a “Warning: Panthers” sign, but as Park Ranger Greg informed us.

“Panthers are extremely rare and very shy. There has never been a documented attack by a Florida Panther on a human being,” he said.

A marker at the entrance of the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center tells visitors that Everglades National Park is a World Heritage Site.

We then made our way toward the Anhinga Trail, one of the most popular trails this side of the Everglades. It was obvious why when I had barely walked five feet before spotting my first alligator. My second, third and fourth followed shortly after. I was amazed at how they just lay on the bank sunning themselves, at closer look (not too close though), they seemed to have smiles of their faces.

Heather Hearn, another UM student, enjoyed the new experience.

“I thought the wildlife was diverse and new to me as I had never seen an alligator before and I felt like I was in a movie or something. The birds in particular were stunning and it was interesting to see some new kinds of Ibis, even in the Everglades,” she said.

We then drove to the beginning of our hike, a little away from the trail. Setting off on a long dirt path, we were surrounded by swamp on both sides. A quick walk up a small hill unveiled miles and miles of swamp all around us, with small islands of branchless trees in the distance.Our shouts had nothing to echo from, it was entirely desolate.

An alligator suns itself on the grass.

We trekked on, stopping at spots along the way to peer into the wilderness- huge lily pads, alligators just below the water, all kinds of birds circling overhead.

After four or so miles of walking, we came to our campsite, or patch of grass. We stayed at the Ernest Coe campsite, which backs straight onto a wooded area, then to wetland. The tall trees and the intense silence made it pretty eerie.

We pitched our tents, an eight-person and a two-person, which just about fitted on our small patch of grass, then hiked on to see what was ahead.

The path got rougher, and more shaded by the trees. A snake slithered past ahead of us, and as the sun started setting, noises of animals waking up became more and more apparent.

We headed back after another few miles and had dinner. Campfires are forbidden in this part of the Everglades due to its isolation and potential for bush fire so we had a torch lantern to keep the bugs away and simply chatted. It is worth noting, in order to have a true nature experience and all that, our site also had no toilets— you just had to try and forget about the alligators.

A “Warning: Panther” sign on the road into Royal Palm warns drivers that the rare animal may cross the road at this location. Below, an Anhinga spreads his wings at the Anhinga Trail.

It was very much back to nature though, so peacefully quiet, and when we turned off the torch, the sky exploded with stars, the beaming Milky Way perfectly visable.

Alexandra Gowans, an exchange student from Scotland, really enjoyed her camping experience.

“It was so peaceful at nighttime, a little bit scary because we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but it was also very beautiful,” she explained.

It was only when we all climbed into our tents that the noises started. A screech in the distance— what kind of animal screeches? Then, later, a growling that sounded very close to our tent. The “Warning: Panthers” sign came to mind. Fortunately however, nothing attacked us and a ranger informed the next day that it was probably just a raccoon.

We were up with the roasting sun the next morning and after breakfast and dismantling the tents, were on our way back.

It was only later, when I looked at my arms and legs, itching and covered in marks, that I realized the most dangerous wildlife that we had encountered had been the mosquitos.

If You Go…

Tip: Bring insect repellent.

Park Entry Fee: $10 per car.

Camping: For backcountry camping, it is $10 per permit, plus $2 per person, per night. You will have to be specific to the rangers about where you are planning to camp, and you cannot reserve the sites in advance. Front country camping, such as Flamingo Bay or Long Pine Key is $16 for a permit, plus the $2 per person per night.

Getting to Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center: Visitors coming from the Miami area and points north should take the Florida Turnpike (Route 821) south until it ends merging with U.S. 1 at Florida City. Turn right at the first traffic light onto Palm Drive (State Road 9336/SW 344th St.) and follow the signs to the park. Visitors driving north from the Florida Keys should turn left on Palm Drive in Florida City and follow the signs to the park.

Best Times to Go: February/March will be when you have fewest mosquitoes, and usually the weather will be decent enough to camp.

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