Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Southern Florida backroads road trip

I love Florida (where I live), and I love exploring. I love road trips, and I love nature. So this weekend at the SheCon conference when I heard about the Chevrolet Drive Green Challenge -- asking bloggers what they would do with a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid for a week -- I knew that I'd have to respond with a driving tour of my favorite backroads areas of southern Florida. The Tahoe Hybrid is perfect for natural areas because it's less polluting. If you're thinking about a Florida trip or want to get acquainted with some of Florida's more-natural or lesser-known areas, check out my grand plan!

Big Cypress National Preserve

Day One
. I'd gather my family and head west along the Tamiami Trail. The Tamiami Trail was named for the two cities that it connects -- Tampa and Miami. There are wonderful natural areas along this road, along with Miccosukee tribe settlements. My family would visit the Shark Valley Visitor Center of Everglades National Park (take the tram tour, or bike along the 16-mile paved path through the grasslands full of gators). Then we'd take the bumpy, unpaved and wild Loop Road (which the Tahoe could handle) in Big Cypress National Preserve to Sweetwater Strand, one of our favorite places to see gators and listen to birds. Farther down Tamiami Trail still within Big Cypress is a beautiful picnic area with a boardwalk -- a great place for lunch. My family would make a stop at famed photographer Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (if the mosquitoes weren't too bad), then pass the smallest post office in the United States and head south to Everglades City, where we'd stay in one of the nice inns there after watching the sun set on Florida Bay.

Day Two. After taking a boat tour of the bay, my family would continue west on Tamiami Trail to Marco Island, home of one of my favorite beaches in Florida -- Tigertail Beach. We'd watch the kayakers pull their kayaks across the water, caught by low tide, and watch oystercatchers and reddish egrets hunt for fish. After lunch, we'd head north to the Immokalee area and look for wildlife along the boardwalks of the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. We'd stay as late as we could for the best/most wildlife viewing chances (or until one of our sons got too tired and cranky), then drive about an hour and a half to Sanibel Island on the coast to crash at a beachside bungalow.

Sanibel Island

Day Three
. My family would play at the beach on Sanibel and look for shells, doing the "Sanibel stoop." We'd take the driving tour through the main tract of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where in the past we've spotted a yellow rat snake, horseshoe crabs and lots of bird species like black-necked stilts and magnificent frigatebirds. The wildlife refuge is one of the nation's birdwatching hotspots. The island shops and restaurants would be fun to explore during the afternoon, and then we'd take a sunset cruise in the Gulf of Mexico and see some of the other barrier islands. And we'd stay another night.

Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Day Four
. Reluctantly, my family would leave Sanibel in the morning. But we'd head east through Florida panther territory for a side trip to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. This is pretty, open country (not much like a tree-thick forest) and a great place to drive through to see the lay of the land. Maybe we'd see an endangered Everglades snail kite soaring over the slough or a rare crested caracara looking for prey. Driving northeast toward the Gulf again, we'd visit Myakka River State Park outside of Sarasota. Myakka is one of my favorite all-around state parks. My family would love to ride the Gator Gal (dubbed the world's largest airboat) on the lake and climb the Canopy Walkway. Then we'd camp in our tent or stay the night in one of the park's cabins.

Myakka River State Park

Day Five
. There are some really nice trails in Myakka, and so much to see in the park. But eventually, we'd leave the Myakka River area and drive east to the Peace River. Both rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico. My family would have to stop at the Canoe Outpost to do a paddling trip down the river. Many people get out of their canoes along the way to look for fossils -- and my husband and I have taken this trip twice and seen some amazing fossils other people have discovered, including jaw bone from a mastodon. We've also seen some of the biggest alligators on this stretch of the river! After our paddling trip, my family would drive east to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. We've spotted a couple of different kinds of snakes here, and alligators too. But the best thing we've seen at this park in the past is the beautiful night sky. Because the park is far from the light pollution of the coastal cities, Kissimmee Prairie is a favorite for stargazers and astronomy groups. So my family would have to camp here for the night and hope for a clear, dark sky.

Day Six. After waking up to the sound of birds singing in the morning, my family would hike some trails in the prairie, then pack up our tent and drive clockwise around the Lake Okeechobee to DuPuis Reserve, a forest with a wonderful scenic drive perfect for the Tahoe. My family would also get out and hike along the trails, hoping to spot a bald eagle or other bird of prey. There is a lot to see in the forest. When we were done exploring, we would drive south past the sugar cane fields back to our home. And probably collapse.

Day Seven. My family would be tired but happy after all that exploring through the backroads of southern Florida. Before turning in the Tahoe after a week of adventuring, maybe we'd take it on one last little trip, to the nearby Everglades buffer area just to see the sawgrass and the ospreys that look for fish that are so common in this part of the River of Grass.

Southern Florida is a region that is wonderfully rich in beautiful, diverse natural areas and history that you learn in the parks. I feel lucky to live here and near so many great places that, frankly, we're too busy with daily life to go see very often. So, yeah, I'd give the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid a workout covering all that territory. It would be an adventurous week with my family!

All images are my own.