After visiting Key West, Florida and Dry Tortugas National Park, we motored back up to Homestead, Florida. This put us in position for a brief visit to the east side of Everglades National Park. This 734 square mile park encompasses habitats ranging from subtropical wetlands to coastal and marine ecosystems to pine forests and hardwood hammocks. Everglades is more of a canoeing and kayaking park than a hiking one, but we found a short dirt trail in the pine forests present on the higher ground of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge. This gave us a taste of the dense complexity of these forest habitats. But, because we were visiting in the winter, this brief hike did not acquaint us with the dense complexity of flying and biting insects that await summer visitors.
We stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center for orientation before continuing on into the park,
to the Three-in-One Trail (or Lone Pine Key Walking Trail) near Long Pine Key Lake.
From the lake, we went through an open forest of spindly slash pines with an understory of saw palmettos,
and out into an open grassland which is likely water-covered during the rainy season, but which was just a little muddy on this day.
We then ducked back into the forest, marveling at its convoluted complexity. The pinelands are the most diverse habitat in the park, harboring over 200 species of subtropical plants.
It was a short, but interesting hike, through a forest habitat that isn’t the first thing most people think of when you say “Everglades.” The coastal marsh habitat that does come to mind is further to the west and is best explored via canoe or kayak. There are several canoe trails over there, as well as the Wilderness Waterway and established, above water campsites. But that is a trip of a different type and one (perhaps) for another day, so we pushed on to visit something you wouldn’t expect to find in a national park – a Nike Missile Base.
This historic site, called Alpha Battery or HM-69, remains virtually the same as it was when its military use was terminated in 1979. It was completed in 1964 at the height of the Cold War and was intended to protect South Florida from Soviet bombers based in Cuba, some 160 miles away. The long-range Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missiles carried either conventional or nuclear warheads. Despite this ghost of a nuclear option, it didn’t seem right to come to the Everglades and not see reeds in water or an alligator, so we drove north to the Big Cypress National Preserve, where we encountered water richly festooned with reeds and lolling gators.
Big Cypress Preserve contains All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) and swamp buggy trails, airboat trails, canoe trails, and hiking trails. The southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail (a hiking trail) is within the Preserve and there is a Backpacker magazine recommended 28-mile long section of it between Interstate-75 and the Tamiami Trail. But a hike through a swamp is definitely one of a very different type and one (for us at least) that is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon. So, having seen the gator, and absent someone or something to put it into action, we called it a day, and headed back to Homestead.