Riding on South Florida's crowded urban byways (and even residential cul-de-sacs) can be a risky adventure. For an enhanced outdoors experience where you might actually spot wildlife, check out some of the region's scenic back roads.
--Shark Valley: One of the most popular bike trails in the region, the 15-mile, flat paved loop road through the Shark River Slough is probably the best place in the entire region to see alligators in the wild. Many can be found in the canal that runs along the road directly behind the visitors' center, but there usually are plenty more lazing beneath the large observation tower located at the halfway point, and a few others scattered around the back side of the loop. Besides alligators, you are likely to see a rich variety of bird life: anhinga, cormorant, endangered wood stork, egret, great blue heron and many others. Occasionally, bicyclists spot otter and deer. Admission is $10 per vehicle, and the parking lot fills quickly on weekends and holidays, so some visitors park along Tamiami Trail. You can bring your own bike or rent one from the concessionaire (305-221-8455) for $8.50 per hour, but rental bikes are usually gone by 10 a.m. during peak periods. (Address: Everglades National Park, 36000 SW Eighth St., West Miami-Dade. 305-221-8455.)
--Loop road, Big Cypress National Preserve: This 27-mile rough road is a superb way to get close to wildlife and observe the ever-changing landscape of the Big Cypress swamp. Many bicyclists begin their trek at Monroe Station, the site of a 1920s filling station built to serve motorists on the fledgling Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), located about 4 miles west of the Oasis Visitor Center. From there, you can pedal the whole road, winding up at Forty Mile Bend, or just turn around whenever you feel like it. Along the way you will feel like part of a Clyde Butcher photograph, for this is where the famed nature photographer has shot many of his black-and-white masterpieces. You will pass through sawgrass prairie, pine forest and cypress strand. You might see gators, otters, bears and just about any kind of bird that winters in South Florida. You will encounter automobiles, but not that many, and pass private camps with airboats and other off-road vehicles. You also may greet hikers because the Loop Road marks the beginning of the Florida Trail, which extends for more than 1,000 miles north to the Florida Panhandle. (Address: Off Tamiami Trail midway between Miami and Naples, 239-695-4759 or 239-695-1201.)
This is an exciting (and loud) way to explore South Florida's wetlands and view wildlife without exerting yourself.
First-time visitors to South Florida will love it:
-- Coopertown Airboat Rides: Your party will roar through a sawgrass swamp past gators, colorful purple gallinules, and other Everglades creatures, pausing to hear the answers to FAQs from Jesse Kennon, the unofficial mayor of Coopertown, or one of his guides. After the tour, you can chow down on delicacies such as fried gator and frog legs, peruse a selection of kitschy gifts, and take photos of your family and friends holding a baby gator. Rides cost $22 for adults; $11 for children 7-11 and free for children under 7. (Address: 22700 SW Eighth St., West Miami-Dade. 305-226-6048.)
-- Sawgrass Recreation Park: Included in the price of your 30-minute Everglades airboat ride is a tour of the park's native and exotic wildlife exhibits, which change from week to week and could include anything from Florida panthers to snakes and iguanas. Some of the wildlife roams the property at will, so prepare to greet peacocks, ducks and other roving ambassadors. Admission is $19.50 plus tax for adults; $10 plus tax for children 4-12; free for children under 4. (Address: 1006 U.S. 27, Weston. 888-4-AIRBOAT,)
-- Everglades Holiday Park: After your tour aboard a covered airboat, you may meet the cast of Animal Planet's popular "Gator Boys" television show featuring Paul Bedard and his band of gator wrestlers who often film there. The park also is a popular bass tournament weigh-in site where you can see what anglers are catching in the Glades. Airboat rides cost $23.50 for adults; $12.50 for kids. (Address: 21940 Griffin Rd., West Broward. 954-434-8111.)
Walking hip-deep through a dark swamp that almost certainly harbors gators and snakes is not something most South Florida visitors or residents would do on their own. However, when accompanied by a park ranger or biologist, swamp walks don't seem so scary and are actually fun. Wear long pants, sturdy, closed-toed shoes, socks, and bring a walking stick, water and extra clothes.
-- Oasis Visitor Center, Big Cypress National Preserve: Rangers lead two-hour, "wet and wild" swamp walks on Sundays and Mondays beginning at 10 a.m., but be sure to make a reservation. You will learn about -- and step on -- the origins of cypress trees called "knees" that protrude from the mud. You will probably see gators and, for sure, come across all kinds of birds. And the best part is that all this outdoors education is free. (Address: 52105 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. 239-695-4758.)
-- Everglades National Park: Wade into a gator hole or a cypress dome on this two-hour slough slog guided by a park ranger. Pick up that spongy, greenish-white stuff floating in the water called periphyton and be prepared to be amazed at how good it smells -- kind of like Pine Sol, but without the bite. You'll learn why hydrology is such a big topic of debate in South Florida and how gators build their nests. The tour, offered daily, is free, but park admission is $10 per car. Reservations are required. (Address: 40001 SR 9336, Homestead. 305-242-7700.)
-- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: If you have read Susan Orlean's book, "The Ghost Orchid," or watched the movie, "Adaptation," based on the book, then you will want to join this wet hike into the region dubbed the "Amazon of North America." Members of the park's non-profit booster group Friends of Fakahatchee will lead you into a cool wetland shaded by royal palm and bald cypress that holds more native orchid and bromeliad species than anywhere in the U.S. You probably will see a gator or two, and if you are lucky, maybe a black bear or otter. Admission is $70 for non-members of Friends of Fakahatchee and $15 for accompanied youngsters. The tours are conducted the first, second and third Saturday of each month by reservation. (Address: 137 Coastline Dr., Copeland. 239-695-1023.)
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