After a photography trip to Puerto Rico fell through, my buddy and I were sitting around trying to decide on a plan B. My dad suggested the Everglades as a possibility and, since we already had the time off of work and neither of us had been there, we decided to make it happen. After all, how cool would it be to see what Florida used to look like and connect with nature, all while capturing some cool shots in the process? We put together a rough agenda and, after gorging ourselves with 4-Rivers barbeque (we weren’t too sure what we’d be eating for the next three days), we headed south to the Everglades.
We got a bit of a late start and arrived to Everglades City just as the sun was setting. Just south of Everglades City, we found a small bridge on Copeland Avenue that looks out on Chokoloskee Bay. In a hurry to capture the fleeting sunset, we elected to forego stopping to buy bug spray and other protective measures. Big mistake! We hopped out of the truck and, within minutes, were buzzed, bitten, battered and berated by bugs that very well could have been small birds. Nothing is more aggravating than trying to set up a tripod and taking a slow-shutter shot of the horizon when dinosaur-descendant deer flies and mosquitos are literally bugging you. All in all, we got some great shots … and possibly malaria. I highly recommend the spot for shooting sunsets, though, with the right clothing. Click here for more photos from Everglades City.
After a good night’s sleep in a Naples hotel (our room apparently came with a complimentary turd in the toilet, a half-eaten granola bar and slept-in sheets) and stocking up on enough bug spray and netting to coat the Everglades, we departed back to Everglades City to take an airboat ride. Finding a place to take an airboat tour in the Everglades is like finding an ice cube in Alaska; they’re everywhere! We settled on Big Jungle Erv’s hour-long airboat ride through the mangroves, as we thought it’d be better from a photography standpoint. Flying through the mangroves and using a slightly delayed shutter speed results in some pretty neat photos.
Although we didn’t see one single alligator on the airboat ride, we did come across a group of ring-tailed spider monkeys (an endearing, Everglade term for raccoons) in a mangrove. These little guys were as cute as the day was hot. Their coats were a bit more reddish than the typical raccoon due to the reddish, acidic dye that the mangroves release into the water in which the raccoons swim. Some of the tour guides feed the raccoons, which makes them come pretty close to your airboat, resulting in great close-up pictures. Click here for more photos from our airboat ride.
Turner River Road
We then headed just east of Everglades City on the Tamiami Trail to Turner River Road. This gravel road cuts through a section of the Big Cypress National Preserve and connects the Tamiami Trail (US41) to I-75, otherwise known as Alligator Alley. While this road stretches for 20 miles, the best place for pictures and animal sightings is the first two or three miles on the south side. During this stretch you’ll see your fair share of alligators, turtles, gar, a deer or two and plenty of anhinga. The anhinga, translating to “snake bird” in the Brazilian Tupi language, got its name by its appearance while swimming, often with only its neck sticking out of the water like a snake ready to strike. The birds are very skilled hunters and you will often find them eating fish they caught just off the side of Turner River Road. Click here for more photos from Turner River Road.
After passing the smallest post office in the U.S., located in the heart of Ochopee, we headed further east on the Tamiami Trail to Loop Road, a part-gravel/part-paved section of road that, you guessed it, makes a loop starting from and returning to the Tamiami Trail. The road stretches about 20-25 miles and is maintained by the National Park Service as part of its 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve. Loop Road was one of my favorite excursions on our Everglades trip, mostly because it is self-guided and wild. I saw more alligators from this road than I could count, and the coolest thing is that they’re sitting right there looking at you with no fences, barricades or park rangers in between you and them. Click here for more photos from Loop Road.
Further down Loop Road, where it turns from gravel to pavement, sits the home of a gentleman named Lucky Cole. I’d be lying if I said that Lucky wasn’t one of the main reasons we ventured down Loop Road in the first place. You see, when I was researching things to see in the Everglades, I read about Loop Road and the wildlife it features. When I decided to look for images for Loop Road, a nude woman leaning on a “Lucky” mailbox was the first to pop up; and the second; and the third. This naturally peaked my curiosity to find out why the hell naked women were posing next to a “Lucky” mailbox in the middle of the swamp. Through a little research, I discovered a gentleman by the name of Lucky Cole who has specialized in nude, female photography for more than 40 years. On the weekend, his property in the middle of Loop Road is an outpost that offers cold beer, burgers and his famous venison chili to passersby. During the week, women apparently flock to Lucky’s property to have nude portraits taken of themselves in the swamp. This guy literally has binders full of women, along with almost every wall of his place covered with them as well. After a bowl full of venison chili, some conversation with Lucky and his wife Maureen, and a quick peek in the binders, we were recharged and off to see the rest of the Everglades. Click here for more photos from Lucky Cole’s.
Everglades International Hostel
After discovering that the Miccosukee Indian Reservation was closed for the evening, we headed south toward the Lower Everglades. Most of the hotels in Homestead and Florida City looked pretty sketchy (and expensive, for some reason), so we decided to stay in the Everglades International Hostel for the night. I’d always heard about travelers staying in hostels in Europe but, to be honest, didn’t know they existed in the States. After dismissing my initial fear that I’d wake up in a bathtub without my kidneys, we checked in to the hostel. It was pretty much as I expected it to be; a lot of free-spirited people who probably couldn’t pass a drug test. There were, however, a good number of foreigners passing through and we met some pretty cool people. Our room was a shared space with four sets of bunk beds. The place was billed to have air conditioning, but when I laid down to go to sleep, it was so hot that I was literally sticking to my sheets and felt like I was back in the Everglades. An outdoor shower and free pancakes in the morning made up for the lack of cold air and off we headed to Everglades National Park.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is about $10 per vehicle for access and is home to the Lower Everglades, covering 1.5 million acres of South Florida and spanning three counties – Monroe, Miami-Dade and Collier. The park road stretches for miles, filled with mostly grassy plains. And while it wasn’t as exciting as the Upper Everglades from a scenery and animal perspective, it was really neat to see how Florida used to be. We drove the nearly 40 miles from the entrance to Flamingo, the park’s southernmost point, stopping at the various trails along the way. Anhinga Trail was my favorite trail that we visited as it featured a lengthy boardwalk with lots of alligators and, you guessed it, Anhinga. Other trails ranged from views of grassy plains to pine forests. Flamingo was my second favorite place in the park, mostly because you reach the ocean and cannot go any further. There are some really neat views at the campground located there and plenty of wildlife, including manatees and crocodiles. Click here for more photos from Everglades National Park.
All in all, our trip to the Everglades was memorable, and one I’d recommend to anyone looking to unplug for a little while and experience the real Florida. If you do decide to visit, I would suggest going during the cooler months, bringing plenty of food and water, and making sure you have plenty of gas in your car. You never know where you may end up or what you may run in to in the Everglades, and being prepared can make the difference in whether or not you make it back home. Click here for photos of Everglades sunsets. And click here for even more photos of Everglades sunsets.