Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Everglades National Park: Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails (Blog Hike #239)

Trails: Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails
Hike Location: Everglades National Park
Geographic Location: west of Florida CityFL
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: May 2008; some pics taken February 2001 and October 2014
Overview: A pair of very different, paved nature trails on the eastern edge of the Everglades.

Directions to the trailhead: From the southern terminus of Florida’s Turnpike in Florida City, take SR 9336 west.  SR 9336 becomes the main park road when it enters Everglades National Park.  Pass the Visitor Center, and pay the park entrance fee at the gatehouse.  Continue another 1.7 miles to Royal Palm Road and turn left on Royal Palm Rd.  Royal Palm Rd. ends at the large blacktop parking lot at Royal Palm, the trailhead for both of these trails.

The hike: Some national parks protect canyons, others protect mountains, and still others protect caves and waterfalls, but Everglades National Park protects life.  Many first time visitors to Everglades National Park fail to understand why a “swamp” would merit protection as a national park (it was not until 1947 that this park was finally established).  The early settlers failed to see the merits of this area, as over three-fourths of what used to be the Everglades have been drained for agricultural cultivation and suburban development.
            What remains is a still-vast 1.5 million acre wilderness that contains seven distinct wildlife habitats (most parks only contain one or two).  Those who want to get to know the park really well should pick up a copy of “A River of Grass” by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, still the best work available on the Everglades.  Everywhere you look something interesting and alive awaits your viewing, whether it be a bird, a fish, a turtle, an unusual plant, or the ever-present alligators.
            One of the best places to do this viewing is at Royal Palm, the first destination along the main park road.  Of course, very little can be seen through a car window, so you and everyone else will need to walk one of the many short trails here and elsewhere in the park in order to really see anything in the Everglades.  Two short paved trails depart from Royal Palm: the Anhinga Trail, which leads through a sawgrass slough (pronounced “slew”), and the Gumbo Limbo Trail, which leads through a heavily forested hammock.  Hiking both of these trails will give you a good introduction to the many-faceted Everglades.
Trailhead behind restroom building
            Begin behind the restroom building, where the Anhinga Trail heads left and the Gumbo Limbo Trail heads right.  The Anhinga Trail offers better wildlife viewing, so I hiked the Anhinga Trail first.  The blacktop trail starts along a dike separating a pond to the left and a forested marshy area to the right.  Immediately the wildlife show begins.  Schools of large black fish could be seen in the water on the left along with various sizes of alligators.  Contrary to popular belief, alligators do not normally attack humans, unless they are provoked.  If you see an alligator up ahead, chances are it will run back into the water before you get anywhere near it.  Just to be safe, MAKE SURE it runs back into the water before you get anywhere near it; if it doesn’t, choose a different path.
Anhinga bird near Anhinga Trail trailhead
            Soon you will reach the beginning of the boardwalk, and you will need to turn left to begin the boardwalk.  The long stringy plants that grow all along the boardwalk here are sawgrass.  You can touch the sawgrass, but do not grab and pull, or else you will learn why it is called sawgrass.  When I hiked this trail in mid-May, plenty of colorful red flowers were growing in the trees along this section of trail. These plants are called airplants because they seem to grow in the middle of the air; in fact, they get their nutrition from the tree.
Sawgrass prairie
            Where the boardwalk splits, take the left fork, which represents a short spur that dead-ends at an observation deck.  When I was hiking out along this boardwalk I noticed one of the large black fish mentioned above in the water and a large alligator partially hidden in the mud nearby.  While I was at the observation deck I heard a large splash behind me, and when I retraced my steps back to the main boardwalk the alligator had moved...and there was no fish!  There will be very few dull moments when hiking this trail, as the life cycles of the Everglades continue around you as you hike.
Large alligator in Everglades waters
            Back on the main boardwalk, the boardwalk heads out to the edge of Jerry’s Slough, the deepest water on this trail.  Here you will find your best chance to see wading birds, the most common of which are egrets and herons.  Make sure to bring a good camera so that you will return home with many captured memories.  I hiked this trail for the first time on a free day during a company trip in February 2001.  I enjoyed my experience, but the photos I took did not turn out well because the subject was too far away from me.  This experience compelled me to purchase a zoom lens camera, and when I finally returned in May 2008 with my “new” camera in hand, I took some of the best wildlife photos I have ever taken.
Jerry's Slough and observation deck
            The trail passes one more observation deck before the boardwalk ends at the east end of the blacktop dike.  Turn right to head back to the trailhead.  Keep your eyes open for things you had missed before and new things that had since moved into your field of vision.  On my second journey down this trail, I saw a pair of baby alligators (recognizable by their small size and the yellow stripes on their backs) swimming near their mother.  When you get back to the trailhead, angle left to begin the Gumbo Limbo Trail, another paved trail, which heads into the forest.
            This is a real jungle!  50 yards ago you were staring across a large sawgrass prairie, and now you are walking through a tight corridor bound by seemingly impenetrable walls of green and brown.  As such, the wildlife viewing opportunities are fewer, but there are still plenty of interesting things to see.  Small lizards run around everywhere, and many of unusual (for the rest of the country) plants can be seen, including the large gumbo limbos, the red peely-bark trees for which this trail is named.
Gumbo Limbo Trail
            0.2 miles after starting the Gumbo Limbo Trail, you will pass a solution hole on the right.  Although it rarely rears its head, the limestone bedrock lies only a few feet below the surface of the Everglades.  In places this bedrock collapses, perhaps due to a small cave, and a solution hole, a.k.a. sinkhole, is formed. The solution hole serves as a year-round storehouse of water, a supply much needed during the winter season when much of the park becomes dry.  Thus, you will more likely see wildlife in this area than in other sections of this trail.
            In another 0.2 miles the trail crosses a wide two-track gravel path.  This is the old Ingraham Highway which used to connect Florida City with the Gulf of Mexico.  These days the main park road and US 1 serve that purpose, but you drove on part of this old route when you drove in on Royal Palm Road.  Just past this crossing, the trail exits the forest at the southern end of the Royal Palm parking area, thus signaling the end of the hike.

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