News Column

Winter Is Prime Time to Explore South Florida

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It's that time of year when many South Florida homes become free hostels and houses of refuge for northern friends and relatives escaping the winter cold and the ravages of Super Storm Sandy. While the average out-of-town guest is happy to toast on the beach, some are looking for more adventurous outdoor activities.

South Florida's seasonally cool temperatures, dry skies and lack of insects open up quite a few possibilities that were unthinkable a couple of months ago. Camping, cycling, riding on an airboat, and slogging through swamps are just some of the possibilities if you turn your back on the beach and head west.

"For wildlife, January and February are the peak times," said Maria Thomson, a 13-year veteran ranger at Everglades National Park's Shark Valley. "Alligators, wading birds. Taking the tram or riding bikes, the wildlife is right there. You don't have to use binoculars and telescopes and the wildlife doesn't seem to be bothered by it. Here in the Everglades, once you start to discover the magic that is in this ecosystem, you start to go 'wow.'"

Along with Shark Valley, which hosts an average of 110,000 visitors annually, there are plenty other local adventures that are relatively cheap, fun, and effective in getting houseguests out from underfoot that are best undertaken between now and mid-April. Here are some suggestions:

CAMPING

Options range from urban to primitive for spending a night (or several) at a campground in South Florida. You can go to sleep to the haunting hoots of barred owls or stay up and watch television in an enclosed cabana. Some areas allow pets. By day, you can walk out of your tent and never see another human being until nightfall, or you can walk out of your tent to an open field where scores of model airplanes and helicopters are buzzing overhead. Your choice.

--Larry & Penny Thompson Park: Situated only a five-minute drive from Zoo Miami in South Miami-Dade, this park offers hiking and horse trails, a swimming pool, horseshoe pits, playground, and a sand volleyball court in addition to tent camping sites for $16.95 per night (up to four people in a tent). There is a bathhouse with toilets, showers and a laundry room, and for those who need even more of a break from the great outdoors, a cabana with a television, books and games. You must bring your own camping equipment, but if you forget something -- like the stakes for the tent -- you can buy it at Wal-Mart about 20 minutes away in Florida City. No pets allowed. (Address: 12451 SW 184th St. 305-232-1049)

--Markham Park: This west Broward site is the perfect campground for the hyperactive and those not seeking solitude in the wild. Besides 88 full-service campsites (water, sewer, electrical hook-ups, restrooms with showers), this park offers enough activities to keep you busy for a month. You can: fly remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters at a special airfield; join amateur astronomers for stargazing through telescopes at night; practice shooting your gun or bow; ride your mountain bike on 10 miles of trails; play tennis and racquetball; exhaust the youngsters at a playground; and walk your pooch in the 3{-acre Barkham at Markham dog park. All this for $30 per night for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county residents, plus a $1 pet registration fee. (Address: 16001 W. State Rd. 84, Sunrise. 954-357-8868.)

--Long Pine Key Campground: Ah, wilderness. It's not for everybody, but you don't know until you try. The 200 campsites located 6 miles in from Everglades National Park's Ernest Coe Visitor Center cannot be reserved in advance, but they are never full. The campground has a bathroom with water, but no showers and no electricity. There may be bugs, even in winter. You can bring pets, but keep them on a short leash: wildlife abounds here, including birds of prey, gators, and -- occasionally -- exotic Burmese pythons. You can hike or bike alone or join a group for a ranger-led talk or walk; paddle a canoe or kayak around the marked trail at Nine Mile Pond; and tour the historic Cold War Nike Missile site, among other things. Park admission is $10 per car, plus $16 per night for a campsite holding two tents with up to six people; $8 per night for seniors with Golden Age passes. (Address: Everglades National Park, near Homestead. 305-242-7873.)

CYCLING

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.)

AIRBOAT RIDES

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.)

SLOUGH SLOGS

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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