Homestead, FL: the Gateway to the Everglades

We finally headed to southern Florida and were so excited. The weather was looking fabulous and we were staying at a campground in the Everglades National Park.  But first, we needed to get there.  I took my turn at the helm, driving the first leg from Starke to Sebring, home to the Sebring International Raceway.  Our biggest challenge was finding a place to stop for lunch and bathroom breaks.  We found a truck stop, but because they are few and far in between off the interstate highways, they are always packed, so we had to keep moving and it made for a long day.

Turn 2 Brewing Company

We stopped overnight at a brewery for the first time in our Harvest Host experience.  Turn 2 Brewing Company is fairly new, having just opened in May 2021.  Parking was a bit tight, and we had to disconnect our truck in order to fit, but it worked out just fine.  Once we had some food, we went for a relaxing walk through the Tanglewood retirement community next door to stretch our legs after being in the car all day.  Herb, the owner of the brewery, was really accommodating, had crafted some excellent brews and had quite a broad selection, including porters, ales, ciders, and hard seltzers just to name a few.  

I tried the Nitro Chocolate Stout, and Brueberry Swerve fruit beer, and Matt had the Belgian Golden Strong and the Brown Ale.  They also have rotating guest taps and food trucks on site.  We talked with Patrick, one of the locals who retired from driving tugboats in Miami, who provided us some recommendations for our upcoming visit to Miami.  The Super Bowl just happened to be on during our overnight, so it was a great venue to watch the big game.  Overall, I recommend this host, but be aware that parking is a bit tight if you have a bigger rig.  You may need to disconnect your truck or towed vehicle to fit in the space.

The next day we finished our journey.  The scenery changed from highways knitted in by pine trees to grassy landscapes with intermittent cattle farms.  We passed Lake Okeechobee, which is the largest lake in Florida.  This lake feeds into the Everglades, and is now controlled through a series of canals and reservoirs, which you can see parallel to the roadways.  As we approached the outskirts of Miami and Homestead, we passed through a massive agricultural district where it seems nearly anything can be grown.  

Long Pine Key Campground

There are two campgrounds within the Everglades, one near Flamingo Marina on the coast and Long Pine Key Campground, closer to the southernmost park entrance.  At first, Matt was worried about what our experience would be like there since the reviews gave us mixed signals, but it turned out to be a real slice of paradise!  The layout of the campground provides spacious sites, the roads are paved, they have several bathrooms and solar-powered shower facilities, they offer night talks at their outdoor auditorium on different topics, and there are several trails that criss cross around and near the campgrounds.  There are mosquitos, but based on other campers’ experiences, there aren’t quite as many as they have at the Flamingo Campground.  We loved our stay and highly recommend staying here if you are visiting the Everglades. 

Hiking in the Everglades

If you like hiking, there are a plethora of options to explore in the Everglades.  There is so much to see if you like discovering new flora and fauna, and the winter months are the best time to go with milder heat and humidity.  You never know what you’re going to find, but here is what we experienced during our stay.

The Long Pine Key Trail the crosses near our campground is over 15 miles, and is primarily comprised of forestry roads.  We traveled along a few miles of them, and though they are wide, they are flooded in several sections.  We didn’t get our feet wet, because we had waterproof shoes on, but be aware if you attempt to bike as you will likely get wet, muddy and possibly stuck.  The trail landscape varies from wide open grasslands to pine forested sections.  I saw a decent variety of grassland plants blooming and Halloween Pennant dragonflies along the way.  

Our route eventually deposited us on the Long Pine Key Road, which tourists use to access the Nike Missile Site, and the Royal Palm area.  We saw more wetlands along the highway and an interesting sinkhole, but it made for a long day walking along this road to get back to the campground. 

At the Royal Palm area, you can access the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga Trails as well as the Old Ingraham Highway, which is also a long forestry road similar to the Long Pine Key Trail.  The Gumbo Limbo Trail is a paved, 1/2 mile loop that takes you through a lush, tropical forest with some informational signage.  It wasn’t that exciting for us, so we continued on to the Anhinga Trail, which is slightly longer at .8 miles and the path is either paved or comprised of boardwalks above the marshlands.  

This is a very popular trail, because there are alligators, a wide variety of fish, birds, and turtles.  The marshlands are filled with grasses and lily pads, and some of the trees are covered in airplants. The highlights for us were seeing native and invasive fish species and a Florida softshell turtle.  Both of these trails are family friendly, and great for wildlife viewing. 

Along the route from Flamingo to Long Pine, we stopped at a few short boardwalks as well.  The first one, called Mahogany Hammock Trail is .5 miles, and takes you across a marsh and among large, old mahogany trees on higher ground, called a hammock.  The highlight for us was watching two lizards called green anoles spar with each other. 🦎 Check out this video that shows them changing color, posturing and fighting!  Had we been here a few minutes later, we may not have seen this, so it was a real treat to witness.  

Green anoles sparring

Later on, we stopped by the Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook Trail, which is a .2 mile loop.  I saw snails and more green anoles, and enjoyed the expansive view from the high point that overlooks the grasslands north of us.  All of the boardwalks are family-friendly, so you can bring your strollers and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook to the north

Shark Valley

One of our favorite experiences during our time in the Everglades was visiting Shark Valley, which is accessed by going out of the park, heading north through Homestead, and then west along Highway 41.  This is a very popular destination, so be prepared for traffic, but it is well worth the hassle.  We parked along Highway 41, and biked in.  Pedestrians and bikers have a separate check in from automobile traffic, making it more efficient to enter the park.  The entire loop in Shark Valley is over 15 miles long, so biking it is the way to go, but you can also sign up for a tram tour.  Walking the entire loop may be overly ambitious, because it is mostly exposed and hot without a lot of amenities along the way.

We saw so much wildlife while we were there.  It’s odd that it’s called Shark Valley, because that is one of the few things you will NOT see while there.  However, the birds are seemingly unafraid, so we got up close and personal with them like we have nowhere else, seeing herons, egrets, purple gallinules, anhingas and more.  Alligators are all over the place, so if you want to see one, this place will not disappoint.  We also saw a variety of fish, turtles, and some interesting flowers along the waterways.  

At the southernmost point in the trail is the Shark Valley Lookout Tower, where you have sweeping views in every direction of the grasslands and hammocks within the Everglades.  We had a bite to eat at the top, which had a nice breeze and some shade.  There are also bathrooms nearby, the only ones on the loop aside from the visitor center.  After enjoying our respite, we continued on to the eastern portion of the loop.  This area is even more exposed than the west, and we didn’t see as much here as the western portion.  That being said, we did see an alligator with its mouth open, which looked menacing; however, we later learned that’s how they regulate their body temperature.  

All in all, this loop is packed with some of the best wildlife sightings and best views within the entire park.  I highly recommend taking a day to visit if you are going to the Everglades.  Trust me, you will not be disappointed.  🐊

Boat trip from Flamingo Marina

Because the Everglades are filled with waterways, it makes sense to either do an airboat tour (we saw a bunch along Highway 41 headed to Shark Valley) or a pontoon boat tour.  We opted for the latter, signing up with Flamingo Adventures.  They offer both bayside and backcountry tours, and since we had already toured the inland waterways of Shark Valley, we chose to tour the bay instead.  

A lot of the reviews state that you’ll see more wildlife in the marina than you will on the tour, and our experience was no exception.  In the marina we saw a crocodile, a pair of osprey tending to their chicks in a large nest, manatees, needle fish, and lots of shore birds milling about.  If you just visit the marina, still be sure to bring your bug spray as the mosquitos are thick there.

Nevertheless, we did learn about the history of the keys (small islands) we visited on the tour.  The Florida Bay has one of the largest seagrass beds in the continental US, and is essential to the survival of many species, including manatees, a beloved sea mammal.  We visited Murray and Frank keys, both of which are mainly covered in mangrove trees and have big osprey nests  visible along the shoreline.  The waters are shallow as you get close to the keys, so shore birds such as egrets, herons and pelicans are plentiful.

We came near Oyster Keys as well, which is where one of the country’s first game wardens named Guy Bradley was killed by a plume hunter, which was a frequent activity in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Egrets, flamingos and other birds were hunted for their feathers, because hunters could make good money doing so, but these birds were nearing extinction due to this practice.  Guy was a fierce conservationist and tried to step in and stop this practice and protect the birds, and died doing so, having been shot in the line of duty.  

Oyster Keys where Guy Bradley was killed

Although it wasn’t a great opportunity to see wildlife, we did enjoy a relaxing boat ride, learning about the history of the area and exploring a new part of the Everglades.  All in all, we had an AMAZING experience in the Everglades and would highly recommend visiting in the winter months, especially if you love camping, hiking and biking outdoors.  There is so much to discover, and it sure beats battling ice and snow in the northern regions of the country.  

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