The concept of connectivity
An important word in conservation is connectivity. It is a concept that makes our wilderness in North America different from many places around the world. Our wilderness parks are not isolated tracts of land that harbor trapped wildlife populations. Thanks to buffer zones around many national parks, a lot of our wildlife has room to move outside the boundary lines.
For a park like the Great Smoky Mountains there is Joyce Kilmer, for Joshua Tree there is the Mecca Hills Wilderness Area, and for the Grand Canyon there is the Kaibab National Forest. A quick glance at any national park on the map and you will find a lot of green areas close by and bordering.
For the Everglades, there is the Big Cypress National Preserve, Collier-Seminole State Park, and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. I spent part of two days on the edge of the Everglades exploring Fakahatchee Strand checking out the swamps, doing a little hiking, birding, and even got an amazing sunset in for my effort.
Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
Just north of the Everglades and west of Big Cypress, the Fakahatchee Strand is an important extension to the wilds of south Florida. According to the website, it is a linear forested swamp approximately 20 miles long by 5 miles wide. It provides key habitat for the Florida panther. Panther crossing signs outside the park on the highway warn motorists to slow down.
There are two entry points for the preserve. One off of Highway 29 on Janes Memorial Scenic Drive, and the other farther south along U.S. Highway 41 or the Tamiami Trail.
Exploring Fakahatchee Strand – Northern entrance
Once you turn on the scenic drive off of Highway 29, you pass through a cluster of homes and then you enter the preserve. At first the road takes you through open savannah and swampland, but very quickly the road enters the murky deep dark swamps. Entrance fee is $3.00 per vehicle and $2.00 for non-motorized options.
Drive slow and stop often. The swamp is full of birds and alligators. I saw one car creeping along with a passenger poking her head out the sunroof with binoculars pointed. I had stopped to check out an alligator. They asked what I was looking at, so I shared the intelligence of a gator hiding in the mud. Nonplussed, they continued their search.
This was my third time in a cypress swamp in Florida in the past week, and I had yet to tire of the scenery. Cypress swamps are mysterious, eerie, otherworldly, lush, and just plain beautiful places. A different kind of outdoor beauty exists here. It is not like a vista in the Grand Canyon or a snow covered mountain peak. Perhaps you do not gape open mouthed at the beauty of a cypress swamp, but somehow the charm of these places hook me and have me thinking of them long after I have moved on.
It has been this way for me ever since childhood. When I first visited the Everglades as an adolescent, I dreamed about the experience for months and years afterwards and found myself petitioning my parents for a return trip. It was not hard as they fell in love with the landscape as well.
At Fakahatchee, most people stick to the scenic road. It is 11 miles long and the only thoroughfare in the park. There are several trails or “trams” that veer off from the road. I parked at a gate and walked about a mile into the swampy forest on an abandon road before returning. Many of these trails are overgrown, muddy, and some impassable. There is a section of the Florida Trail farther north, which sounds intriguing for a return trip, but I did not make it on this one.
Exploring Fakahatchee Strand – Southern Entrance
The south end of Fakahatachee Strand is a little more visitor friendly for those who are not as adventurous and do not want to walk through a swamp. The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Trail is a wonderful 1 mile round trip trail that traverses through the world’s only bald cypress-royal palm forest. Suggested donation is $3.00 for the trail.
The boardwalk ends over a scenic swamp with an observation platform. From the observation deck an alligator, blue heron, wood stork, and egret shared the small pool and fished.
At one point the alligator swam into the pool and submerged. Hundreds of small fish surfaced and made a ripple on the pond’s surface. The egret took advantage and flew over the pond and dove into the fleeing frightened minnows and harpooned a small snack being careful not to get too close to where the alligator disappeared to.
This is the great thing about Florida. There are many opportunities to watch animals feed. During my two week trip I saw numerous osprey with huge fish in their talons flying or perched on a sign eating. I also saw anhinga, egrets, and herons eating fish or crayfish.
There is also a canoe trail on this side of the Fak, which looks really interesting. The park website talks about lakes with mangrove tunnels in between and access to the 10,000 Islands. This is something I would love to check out for my next Fakahatchee adventure.
Fakahatchee Strand is open 8 a.m. to sunset. There is no camping inside the park. Nearby camping can be found at Collier-Seminole and Big Cypress. Everglades City is the closest city with lodging.
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