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When I began planning my big Sunshine State adventure, I planned to mostly get around by train — the horrified reaction Florida residents had to this idea deserves a post of its own — and perhaps one internal flight. But then, suddenly, luck dropped a much better idea in my lap.

Enterprise contacted me about joining an upcoming social media campaign, and suddenly, with a car rental at my disposal, I hatched a plan so exciting it made planes and trains weep with jealousy — a road trip through the Florida Everglades.

Everglades Road Trip

Every great road trip needs someone riding shotgun, and so I enlisted hometown bestie Michelle to join me. Considering Albany temperatures were hovering around -4Β°F that weekend, a Tampa to Miami itinerary was not a tough sell. Michelle has been one of my best friends for over a decade and yet we’d never taken a trip, just the two of us. I could not have been more pumped.

Poring over Google maps and my Lonely Planet Florida guidebook, I crafted a meticulously timed plan that would have us follow the west coast and then traverse the state along the Tamiami Trail, arriving in Miami by sunset. We pulled out of my Aunt’s Tampa driveway at 7:45am, armed with a carefully curated snack selection, a sunny playlist and a fresh batch of goodbye hugs.

A little less than two hours later, we arrived at our first stop — Fort Myers County Manatee Park. While not technically part of the Everglades, I think we all can agree that manatees are an essential part of any Florida road trip experience, and also that for two Diet Coke fiends, two hours without bathroom breaks is really pushing it.

Fort Myers County Manatee Park

Fort Myers County Manatee Park

Unfortunately for us it was a cloudy day and the many manatees hanging in the river weren’t super easy to see or photograph. But on the upside it was a cute and clean little park with great signage, free entrance aside from $2 parking, and the perfect place to stretch our legs.

Our next stop, after about an hour and twenty minutes of windows-down, tunes-up, gossip-on-full-blast driving, was Everglades City. I was beside myself at the quaint charm of this stuck-in-time little town.

Everglades City

Everglades City

Museum of the Everglades

While just strolling or driving around town is entertainment in itself, Museum of the Everglades was a worthy stop. There, we learned the history of the area and most interestingly, of the Tamiami Trail itself, which was constructed to link the major cities of Tampa and Miami (our own start and end points!), connecting east and west south Florida for the first time. A motorcade that marked the opening of the road in 1928 took three days to drive — which reminded me, we were actually a bit behind schedule.

Today, the most direct route between the two is along the newly constructed Interstate 75, or Alligator Alley, as it is more commonly known. But we were all about the scenic route.

Museum of the Everglades

Museum of the Everglades

After getting our culture on, it was time for lunch. We were recommended a much-loved local shack on Chokoloskee Key, but due to our time crunch we decided to stop off at a nearby diner instead. It was everything you’d hope and dream of from a small town, South Florida diner, down to the raspy-voiced elderly waitress and the existence of gator nuggets on the menu.

Giddily, I realized that I was fulfilling my dream of living out a scene from a Carl Hiaasen novel, and felt that if the Skunk Ape himself chose that moment to reemerge and prove to the world his existence once and for all in a gory attack on a Yankee travel blogger, I’d die quite happy.

(What’s a Skunk Ape, you ask? He’s Florida’s own swampy version of Big Foot, obviously. But more on that later.)

Everglades City Diner

Everglades_010

Next up was a much anticipated aspect of our Everglades escapades — an airboat ride. Already running a tad behind schedule, we raised our eyebrows at the 60 and 90 minute tour offerings. When one flyer promised a thirty minute option, we happily hopped onboard. And with the $10 off coupon we snagged, we payed just around $25 each.

Mentally preparing to take our sneaky selfie game to a new level, we were pleasantly surprised to find we had a private tour in which to snap away unashamed.

Everglades City Airboat Tour

Everglades City Airboat Tour

Everglades City Airboat Tour

We were warned the thirty minute option was more of a “taster” and we wouldn’t stop to see any animals or take photos. But we quickly won over our driver, who pulled over and summoned a family of raccoons to our shrieking delight.

Everglades City Airboat Tour

Everglades City Airboat Tour

We even saw one baby alligator peering wearily at our boat — concerned, I suspect, that we had not had our gator nugget fill for the day.

Everglades City Airboat Tour

Everglades City Airboat Tour

Everglades City Airboat Tour

While the animal sightings were entertaining, I mostly just loved the adrenaline burst of peeling through the mangroves at speeds I never anticipated airboats could reach. The majority of our time was spent clutching our headphones to our ears, trying to tame our wind-blown hair and making google-eyed “isn’t this the coolest thing ever!?” faces at each other over the roar of the motor.

And then, all too soon I felt, Everglades City was in the rearview, and we were on the road again.

Ochopee Post Office

The next forty-five minutes of driving were broken up with numerous mini-stops along the desolate Tamiami Trail. Each one filled my kitsch-loving heart with joy, starting with a postcard drop at the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest in the country. Formerly an irrigation pipe shed, the structure was given new life in 1953 when a fire burned down the town general store and post office. The teeny postal hut also multi-tasks as a local ticket office for Trailways bus lines.

Next up was a somewhat mysterious stop — the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. The Skunk Ape is Florida’s very own, swamp-loving version of the Big Foot, complete with occasional grainy-photographed sightings and conspiracy-loving devotees, as this fabulous Smithsonian investigation reveals. The Headquarters were heavy on the gift shop items and light on scientific displays, but there were several fabulous photo-ops strewn around the property. And I think we can all agree that’s what really counts, no?

Skunk Ape Research Center

Skunk Ape Research Center

Finally, we pulled over at Big Cypress Gallery, which showcases the photography of Florida photography legend Clyde Butcher. As understandably no photographs were allowed inside, you’ll just have to visit for yourself to stand in awe in front of the large format works of a brilliant artist and environmentalist. I really enjoyed this little burst of culture in an otherwise fairly kitsch-filled day.

Big Cyprus Gallery, Everglades

And then, our final stop. We were more or less on schedule when we arrived at Shark Valley National Park a little after 3:00pm. Our plan was to spend around two hours biking the entire 15 mile loop through the Everglades, reaching a magnificent viewing tower at the far end.

By this time my Canon dSLR was low on battery, and I happily switched to my iPhone for the reminder of the day.

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

We didn’t count on the fact that we’d be running a bit behind, or that the parking line would be endless, or that bikes actually needed to be returned at 4:30pm. So unfortunately, we did not complete the entire loop as planned. However, what we saw was spectacular — beautiful, otherwise inaccessible swampland teeming with birds, amphibians and yes, endless alligators. We stopped counting at a dozen, though we didn’t get sick of passing within feet of one of nature’s prehistoric predators.

I absolutely adored Shark Valley and considering its location less than an hour from Miami and its $9 an hour bike rentals, I’m sure I’ll be back to tackle the full loop another time.

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

I can’t overemphasize how much I enjoyed our little adventure in the Everglades. While I would have loved more time in Everglades City and Shark Valley, I was amazed with how much ground we covered and how each of our road trip stops contributed to an overall day of awesome. While package tours to the Everglades are a popular day trip activity from Miami, I can’t more highly recommend renting a car and hitting the road on your own — this couldn’t have been an easier trip to DIY.

Yes, I adored the Everglades. And I have a sneaking suspicious that considering my Florida fondness, I’ll be back for more someday soon.

Next stop, Miami! Have you ever been to the Everglades? What did you think?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to Enterprise for providing me with the sweet wheels we used to get around the Everglades as part of their Pursue Your Passions social media campaign. All opinions, as well as the idea and itinerary for this particular trip, are my own.

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39 Comments...
  • Melanie Fontaine
    April 2 2015

    Wow, you packed in a lot on one single day! I would love to visit the Everglades one day and see some Aligators while going on a boat trip there – I am sure it would be an awesome experience! By the way, I am really enjoying all your US posts: The US may not be a super exotic location, but coming from Europe I find it super interesting to get some insides on travel in the US! πŸ™‚
    Melanie Fontaine recently posted..Goals for April

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Glad to hear that Melanie! It’s a nice reminder that what’s familiar to one person is exotic to another.

  • julie
    April 2 2015

    I can’t believe I’m years late in discovering your blog, I love it. Mailing a post card from that teeny tiny post office would be worth the trip for me by itself. I love this road trip except for the alligators cause I’m terrified of them and crocodiles (and pretty much anything else that can attack me like bears and sharks). I never knew you could get that close to them!!

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I’m so glad you found Alex in Wanderland, Julie! You can always poke around the archives and make up for lost time πŸ˜›

  • Katie
    April 2 2015

    The Everglades are so high on my list, I’ve been to Florida a bazillion times and still haven’t made it there yet (those pesky beaches keep filling up my itinerary). Thanks for the inspiration! πŸ˜‰ I’m trying to plan a visit here and the keys for some diving later in the year!
    Katie recently posted..Pad Ka Prao Recipe: A Spicy Thai Stir Fry

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I know how you feel, but there are definitely worth a day away from the beach πŸ™‚ Looking at a map is crazy… South Florida basically IS the Everglades.

  • Marni
    April 2 2015

    Now that’s how you do a road trip! It looks like you had an amazing time. I’ve driven through the Everglades many times, but I’ve never stopped places along the way, so this is a good eye opener to the types of things I’m missing out on. I have yet to try it for myself, but I’ve heard great things about the Jungle Queen cruise leaving from Ft. Lauderdale, if you have any interest in checking it out next time you’re in southern Florida.

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Thanks for the tip Marni! I will have to look out for it. And next time you drive through the Everglades definitely budget some time for a stop or two!

  • Martha
    April 2 2015

    Very neat that you got to see manatees again. I think they are such fascinating creatures. One small comment about the raccoons. As cute as they are, feeding wildlife isn’t ideal as it can lead to aggressive behavior as they lose their fear of humans. Fed wildlife is dead wildlife.

    http://www.dfg.ca.gov/keepmewild/
    Martha recently posted..March went by in the blink of an eye

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Martha, you are definitely right and I’m glad you brought it up here — thank you for sharing that link. I did have a weird feeling about it at the time, but I have a hard time speaking up in the moment because I always feel awkward coming in as an outsider and telling a local how to live their life differently, even if I know what they are doing is harmful. Still, I know that’s how change happens!

  • tammyonthemove
    April 2 2015

    Would love to visit the Everglades. It looks like such a cool place to explore by boat, by foot and bike.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..Lifeventure Ultralite Packable Daysack Review and Giveaway

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I had high expectations and the Everglades exceeded them. Loved loved loved this day!

  • MarkG
    April 2 2015

    Looks like a good day-trip…but you gripped me on ‘shark’. Why is it called ‘Shark Valley’? I am confused!. The official website and other ‘Googled’ paths do not relate to sightings of (bull) sharks. So, why this name?

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I’m actually not sure! I thought it was a funny name but didn’t probe too much into it πŸ™‚ It would definitely more appropriately be called Gator Valley!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    April 2 2015

    Enterprise is always who we use for rental cars, too. LOVE their customer service. And the Everglades look so quaint and sunny! I wanna come next time =)
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Bluegrass in the Belly of a Cave

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      They were so friendly it was insane! I haven’t done a lot of rental car-ing in my travels, but after this experience I will definitely be back at the Enterprise counter.

  • Daniel
    April 2 2015

    I am totally going to steal this trip and tackle it with my wife. We will have to hit it opposite direction because we live just on the east coast. Your writing is great and I really enjoy your pictures. Thank you!

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Thank YOU for those kind words, Daniel! I think this would be a great in any direction πŸ™‚ Enjoy!

  • Kacy
    April 2 2015

    Sounds like a fantastic experience! I love your comment about Floridians gasping at your plan to take the train. Funny how so many places in the U.S. really don’t get down with any transportation other than cars and planes.
    Kacy recently posted..So, I live in Brazil now…

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Ha, I’m not kidding when I say that deserves a post of its own. What an adventure that was! Amtrak in Florida is very different from Amtrak in New York πŸ™‚

  • becky hutner
    April 2 2015

    I have been to Florida a conservative 35 times & the Everglades is my hands down highlight. However, when I went, I wasn’t a biker & now I am 2-wheels obsessed so if I ever return, I’m totally doing the Shark Valley loop.
    becky hutner recently posted..Fashion β€˜Round the World: WINTER ’15

    • becky hutner
      April 2 2015

      PS — the train is not so bad!! I’ve ridden the Tri Rail many a time.
      becky hutner recently posted..Fashion β€˜Round the World: WINTER ’15

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I SO want to return and do the whole loop as soon as possible. Was definitely devastated by our time miscalculation there. The observation tower at the halfway point looks so cool! I would be there on a regular basis if I were a Miami resident.

  • Ron
    April 2 2015

    Thanks for sharing you trip down the west coast and through the Everglades. The Everglades is a very special and different place at least as US destinations go. We always enjoy the airboats!

    We have spent a lot of time in FL but its been a while. Thanks for revisiting our fond memories!

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      You’re so welcome! I agree — The Everglades are such an amazing unique environment. Another gem in the USA!

  • I
    April 2 2015

    Hey,

    Awesome stuff. I’m in Miami also, just put in notice on my apt a few days ago, and will be going on a cross-country road trip this summer, and potentially other countries after that. Would be awesome to learn more about your experiences.

    Let me know if you and your friend want to grab coffee on South Beach.

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Sounds like an awesome plan! Thank you so much for the kind coffee offer, but this trip was actually way back in January. A little behind on my blogging πŸ™‚

  • Leah
    April 2 2015

    While I don’t share your love for all things kitsch, there are parts of this trip that would definitely appeal to me, like zipping around on that airboat or gator spotting while riding bikes. Looks like a fun day!
    Leah recently posted..Kicking Ass, Taking Names: ATV Riding in the Hills of Guarne with Medellin Adventure Trails

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      I will make a kitsch convert out of you yet, Leah! Just wait for our next trip… πŸ˜‰

  • Jenia
    April 3 2015

    Nice! We are headed out to Fort Myers / Sanibel Island in a few weeks, a side roadtrip might be in order. Thanks Alex πŸ™‚
    Jenia recently posted..Big city living in VIENTIANE

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Ah, lovely! Yes, this would be a great sidetrip from Fort Myers — you’d cut out a big stretch of highway and get straight to the good stuff.

  • Justine
    April 3 2015

    How have I not heard of the Skunk Ape?! I am such a fan of conspiracy theories and the fact that there is an official research headquarters dedicated to this creature is nothing short of AMAZING! I must go there.
    Justine recently posted..Happy Blogiversary – The Travel Lush Turns One!

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      Read the Smithsonian article I linked to in the post — it’s a great story! The Skunk Ape lives!

  • Wow, who knew Florida could be so cool! I’ll admit Florida has never been on my travel list. We did the whole family Disney trip years ago and my aunt lives in Fort Meyers area, but I’ve never had any interest in going back. I’m glad to see a bit of Florida from your eyes. It makes it so much more interesting!
    Katelyn @ Diaries of a Wandreing Lobster recently posted..Hiking the Highest Volcano and Zip Lining Costa Rica Jungles

    • Alex
      April 6 2015

      This would be an awesome day trip from Fort Myers if you ever return to visit your aunt, Katelyn! It really is a cool state πŸ™‚

  • Amy - Toothbrush Travels
    April 13 2015

    Looks like such a fun trip, can’t beat a bit of girl time!
    Those airboat things look epic! x
    Amy – Toothbrush Travels recently posted..Chicken Noodle Soup

    • Alex
      April 13 2015

      It was so much more fun than I could have anticipated! Will definitely be doing again, next time I have the opportunity.

  • Christie
    May 19 2016

    Looks like an awesome trip! Great photos, I went to the Everglades last year, but it was a quick trip and still have so much more to see πŸ™‚
    Christie recently posted..Safari Animals – South Africa

    • Alex
      May 20 2016

      I LOVE the Everglades. I definitely want to go back to Shark Valley next time I’m in Miami!

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