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.
Every great road trip needs someone riding shotgun, and so I enlisted hometown bestie Michelle to join me. Considering Albany temperatures were hovering around -4°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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.