Everglades National Park
Things to do for front-country visitors entering Everglades National Park from Florida City, part 2
Gumbo Limbo Trail
The entrance to the Gumbo Limbo trail in Everglades National park is just a few yards from that of the Anhinga trail. This half-mile paved footpath loop makes its way through beautiful Royal Palm hammock, formerly called Paradise Key. Look and listen. Check out the solution holes, places where acids from vegetation have eaten holes in the already-porous Miami oolite, another name for the limestone bedrock.
Feel how much cooler it is inside a shady hardwood hammock than out in the bright sun. During the summer, wet season, you can't help but notice the mosquitoes. You don't even have to look for them; they'll look for YOU. Some people think mosquitoes are useless disease vectors, having no redeeming purpose. Yet, they serve to pollinate plants. Without their activity, the Park's ecology would be out of balance.
Be on the lookout for lush ferns, gumbo limbo trees, pond apple, buttonwoods, wax myrtles, and strangler figs. Look also for alligators in a water hole along the trail. There's so much to see here. This place is nature's equivalent of a museum.
The gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), is one of those tropical species that refuses to stay on its side of the Tropic of Cancer. It is native to South Florida, an area as close to tropical as you'll find that's not technically tropical. My research shows the gumbo limbo occurs as far north as Cape Canaveral. Its sap is said to be an effective antidote to poisonwood, another plant of tropical hardwood hammocks.
As you stand in this hammock, imagine you were a Mikasuki or a Seminole living in the Everlgades in the 1800s, or even the 1900s for that matter. You can't very well build your dwelling in the sawgrass. It floods out there, plus you'd be exposed to the hot sun all day. A hardwood hammock would be your logical choice for a homesite. You'd first clear out the underbrush and build your dwelling in the clearing. It's relatively shady and cool in here in the hammock, yet the ground is high enough to be dry most of the time. What better spot in the glades to call home?
Now, that we've seen Royal Palm Hammock, let's head down the road to our next stop...a sub-tropical pine forest.
Pinelands, mile 7
On the way to Pinelands at mile 7, we'll pass the turn-off to Long Pine Key at mile 6, one of the two campgounds in the Park. We'll talk about Long Pine later when we talk about camping. I just mention it now for interest, so you'll know what the sign's about.
Pinelands is another one of those paved half-mile loops. Its purpose is to showcase the limestone pinelands, a rarity these days. To be clear, pinelands are not rare, but these limestone pinelands are. Here the trees survive growing on thin soil covering the bedrock. In many places, the pinnacle rock is exposed. Walking over this pinnacle rock is not easy, similar to walking over oyster beds.
These limestone pinelands used to be a lot more abundant. In fact, they once abounded along the elevated Atlantic Coast Ridge from Ft. Lauderdale to Florida City, then to the west to this very spot, along the area known as Long Pine Key. But high ground is much in demand in South Florida, as are pine trees. These areas were timbered, often ending up as shopping centers or subdivisions. If it weren't for the Park, there'd probably be no limestone pinelands left.
Among the pines and palmettos, plants of the temperate zone, you also find an assortment of tropical plants--poisonwood and gumbo limbo, to name two. Poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum) is related to poison ivy. A tree, it can grow as high as 25, even 35, feet. Its alkaloid resinous sap can cause severe dermatitis. Don't touch poisonwood, or stand under it after a rainstorm. Water dripping from the tree carries the soluble sap. Any of these drips that get on you could cause problems. They say the crushed leaves from the gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba) is a natural antidote to poisonwood.
The pinelands are shaped by fire. The pines and palmettos here are certainly adapted to it. Fire usually doesn't kill them. Slash pine, or Dade pines, as these are sometimes called, grow well in burnt areas left by fire. And not too long after a piney woods fire, you'll see the green shoots of blackened palmetto filling the forest with its fresh, alive color. If it weren't for fire, the pinelands would disappear as broad-leafed hardwoods slowly took over the forest.
Leaving Pinelands, before we come to our next stop, we have to go over the "summit." Fortunately, there's a pass here to make our way easier. It was only six or eight thousand years ago that south Florida emerged from the sea. At these elevations, seems as if a few melting ice cubes somewhere might put it back under.
Pa-hay-okee Overlook, mile 13
This is one of my favorite spots in the Everglades. A wooden tower about two to three stories tall provides a strategic view of the River of Grass.
Pahokee, where I grew up, is a small Everglades town nestled on the east shore of Lake Okeechobee. Its name seems to be a derivative of Pa-hay-okee. We always said the name meant "grassy waters." When you look out here from the tower, you learn the true meaning of the name--endless sun-drenched sawgrass stretching out as far as the eye can see.
Imagine what people must have thought the first time they tried to cross this unforgiving terrain. The Indians (a widely used, yet inaccurate misnomer traced to Columbus' idea of where he thought he was) traversed the shallow grassy waters standing in long, thin dugout canoes which they poled along.
Paddling a canoe through this stuff one day, it dawned on me why they stood and poled rather than sat and paddled. Sitting down, you can't see over the sawgrass. Plus, your knuckles and the backs of your hands get chewed up by the sawgrass almost every time you stroke. When I first realized how silly it was for me to be sitting and paddling through sawgrass, a smile crossed my face. "I should have known," I thought. In all the pictures I've seen, and in all I've read about the 'glades, did I ever once see a picture of, or even read about, a true 'glades inhabitant paddling through the sawgrass? No. They were always standing and poling--for GOOD reason, I now know.
It's useful to pay attention to cultural details. Artifacts--in this case, long, narrow dugouts powered by long poles--give archeologists insights into cultures which have passed away. I got my insight into the culture of these 'glades inhabitants when I tried to do what they did--traverse the grassy waters.
The adventurous side of me wants to cross this broad expanse of sawgrass one day--either in a dugout or a glades skiff--a small, narrow watercraft made of plywood--the lumberyard answer to a dug-out canoe. Why, some would ask? If they don't know, I can't tell them. If they do know, I don't HAVE to tell them.
Since you're poking around the FloridaAdventuring web site, maybe you understand. Maybe you've felt that unsettled twitch inside when you see a geographical challenge. Maybe, like me, you'd also want to cross it. Cross it because...well, just "because it's there."
But first, I'll need to build a glades skiff. Glen Simmons tells how in his book: Gladesmen: Gator Hunters, Moonshiners, and Skiffers. Glen, an old gator hunter himself, co-wrote a book with anthropologist Laura Ogden about life in the Everglades in the 1930s. It's an interesting read if you like the Everglades. And it's the only place I've ever found complete plans for how to make a glades skiff, a relic of days gone by. It seems a shame that such a useful craft should fade into history.
The trip I have in mind is from U.S. Highway 41 to the Pa-hay-okee overlook, about 23 statute miles, as the crow flies. Doesn't sound like much when you up and say it--"just 23 miles." I've been enough places, however, to know that crows have the advantage over us that walk the earth, and 23 miles across the Everglades is much greater challenge for a land-bound, two-legged predator, than for some flit-winged, airborne crow.
Mahogany Hammock, mile 20
This half-mile boardwalk takes you through a hardwood hammock. Take your time. Listen, as well as look.
From this distant view of Mahogany hammock, notice the Poisonwood tree in the right foreground.
Check out this huge mahogany tree in the hammock.
Here is a picturesque stand of Paurotis palms. Other than a few places in the Big Cypress, Paurotis palms are not found in this country outside the Park. Outside our country, they occur only in a few places in Cuba and Central America.
Continued in part 3
Return from things to do in Everglades National Park for front-country visitors entering from Florida City, part 2 to National Parks in Florida