Everglades trail running is unique exercise

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla.— Ernesto Londono, a fellow Miami Hurricane reporter, veered his sporty yellow Jeep Wrangler onto the grass shoulder of Highway 9336. We almost missed the small clearing carved in the dense tropical hardwoods that lined both sides of the highway.

“Pick me up in an hour,” I told him as I stripped down to my running shorts and advanced towards the Rowdy Bend trail head. Nagging rain sprayed down on me like spittle. “Now this is what the outdoors are all about,” I told myself.

Last week, I vowed to find some peace of mind, away from the blur of sports cars, the chatter of weekend shoppers and the smear of deco blues, yellows and pinks. I scouted the maps of Florida’s biggest national park, the Everglades, and made the 90-minute trip deep into the park.

“Running isn’t all that popular here,” C.J. Grimes, national park ranger and naturalist since 1995 said, “unless you’re here in the summer. Then you’d have to run to get away from the mosquitoes.”

That was fine by me. Urban America—or pavement paradise, as I like to call it—was beginning to take its toll on my physical and mental state. Rowdy Bend Trail, located a few miles northeast of the Flamingo Visitor Center in the Everglades, seemed like the cure: soft trails, nature and solitude.

The narrow mud trail only accommodated single file traffic, but I was flying solo and it didn’t matter. After weaving along the trail for about a mile, the tropical hardwoods: gumbo limbos, pigeon plums and strangler figs became sparse and I found myself gliding through coastal prairie land. I was even surprised to see a cactus or two—I thought those only strived in deserts.

“The salt in the water is similar to no water,” Grimes, who has been an Everglades park ranger since 1998, said, “there is a very limited fresh water supply this far south, so the cacti do well.”

As I continued along the trail, I wondered what some of the other trails were like.

“We hiked Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail this morning,” said Carole Wilmot of Trenton, N.J., who was taking an excursion from a business trip in Miami. “Gumbo Limbo Trail was great for looking at the vegetation and Anhinga had lots of wildlife. There were alligators, herons, storks and turtles.”

A few ibises and woodstorks flapped their wings on Rowdy Bend trail, annoyed with my disruption of their normal Saturday activities. I suddenly wondered if I might run into a Florida panther and cursed my stupidity for running alone.

“There are only five or six Florida panthers that call the park home,” Grimes said. “But they stay up in the Long Pine Key area where there are freshwater sources.”

The coastal prairie was not as scenic as the tropical hardwood forest, but I didn’t have to ride it out for long as I soon hit Snake Bight trail. “I wonder if I should I be leery of legless serpents along this path?” I thought.

“It’s just a pun, actually,” Grimes said. “A bight is a bay within a bay. Snake Bight is a bay within Florida Bay. All the other bights are named after the explorers—Garfield Bight, Santini Bight—Snake Bight was kind of a joke.”

I turned right onto Snake Bight Trail and was immediately cruising through a thick tunnel of mangroves and tropical hardwoods. To my left, an old canal ran parallel to the trail. The trail itself appeared to be built up from the soil dug from the canal.

“Snake Bight used to be Old Ingram Canal,” said Grimes. “It was dug out a long time ago. Maybe 70 or 80 years ago.”

Snake Bight Trail was much wider—wide enough for a car—and the vegetation was much better. A rainy mist filtered its way through the mangrove and tropical hardwood canopy overhead.

Within a few minutes I reached a boardwalk that guided me out to Snake Bight. A small man stood at the end of the boardwalk gazing through binoculars at the birds that filled the sky. Roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans and a few osprey were hunting for a bite to eat. I asked the man if he was enjoying his hike, but he didn’t seem to speak English and just smiled and pointed at the birds as they dipped and soared through the sky. I took that as a yes.

I turned around and made my way back along Snake Bight Trail, passing the turnoff back to Rowdy Bend and running all the way back to the main highway. A few hikers, scattered along the trail, made their way south towards the bight. Occasionally, I had to duck under a snapped tree branch or spider web, but other than that, the trail was very well groomed.

Snake Bight trail was more or less protected from the elements by the tree canopy and therefore was not as muddy as Rowdy Bend trail. A very fine mist filtered its way through the treetops. The dryer surface was more compact and made for better footing and a faster run.

Eventually I turned back and sloshed through the soft, muddy Rowdy Bend. I was pleased to have found the Snake Bight Trail and was glad I had taken the advice Grimes gave me earlier.

“Stay away from the Coastal Prairie Trail today,” Grimes told me, “It’s going to be too muddy today—underwater in some spots.”

The Coastal Prairie Trail is roughly a seven-mile trail through coastal prairie with nothing but saw grass on both sides, Grimes said.

When I completed the run—which I estimated to be 8.5 miles (roughly 14 km for you metric system fans)—I stretched and waited for Ernesto Londono at the Rowdy Bend trailhead. After a few minutes, he pulled onto the shoulder. Taking one look at me, he said:

“You are not clean.”

Sure enough, I was caked in mud. It was splattered all over my back and was even running down the fronts of my legs.

Man, I love trail running.

Other trails to explore in the Everglades include the Long Pine Key Trail, Christian Point Trail and an unnamed trail headed at the Hidden Lake Education Center near the Royal Palm Visitor Center. It travels southeast, terminating at the Old Ingraham Campground.

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