Crossing the Everglades on the Florida Trail
No matter what preconceived ocean you have about the Florida Trail and especially the Everglades, I am here to tell you that the Everglades are an awesome experience. I traversed it northbound in late December of 2022.
The Everglades are Probably not What You Think They Are
Unless you have been there, your image of the Everglades probably comes from movies. And movies tend to over dramatize certain things to set a mood or feeling. And the first thing people think about when they hear Everglades is the word swamp.
And any self-respecting movie set in a swamp is going to try to scare you. The swamps are wet. Swamps are dark. The swamps are filled with creatures ready to kill you. Unless you were born in a swamp you will get lost in mere minutes.
At least that’s what Hollywood wants you to think.
I have driven through the Everglades several times on both Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley. And my preconceived notion was that because I see the canals on the side of the road filled to the brim with alligators, that the Everglades must be overpopulated with alligators.
But I never bothered to set foot into the interior of the Everglades. Hollywood told me it wasn’t safe. But the Florida Trail Association told me it was AOK.
So I decided to take their word for it.
All Everglades are not Equal
The Everglades have two major ecosystems: Cypress and pine/palmetto.
The cypress ecosystems have two sub types that we care about: dome and strand.
Domes are where there is a concentration of very large cypress trees surrounded by smaller ones. The canopy is dome shaped.
Strands are where the cypress trees are smaller and spaced out. Think in terms of a field of trees instead of a forest.
If there are cypress trees growing, then there is likely standing water.
If there are pine trees, then the ground will most likely be dry soil. And the trees will usually be surrounded by saw palmetto or sometimes cabbage palm. Pine trees can be found in standing water, but unless the soil dries out they will eventually die. There are many dead pine trees in the Everglades.
You can usually see through the canopy at least a half a mile, so looking at the treetops far away will sometimes give you a clue as to what the ground is like ahead of you or how far away you are from the next pine island you have been waiting for.
It’s Full of Yucky Water, Right?
The Big Cypress National Preserve name alone implies lots of water. But you may be surprised at how pleasant the water actually is.
Florida is filled with many rivers. Some of them that are spring-fed are crystal clear for a hundred miles. Other rivers that flow from more stagnant sources are very brown and very dark.
It is tannic acid that leeches out from leaves and other vegetative material that stain slow-moving water with an extremely dark coffee-like color. This is the kind of water Hollywood wants to fill the Everglades with.
But the water you actually find is quite clear. It is on par with some of the better lakes in Florida. When you collect it there is a very yellowish tinge, but not unappealing at all. The taste is very good with no odors. The other surprise is that the water is generally quite cool and refreshing.
But where the terrain cannot figure out if it wants to be standing water or dry land, it can be some very sticky gumbo mud. Water levels rise and fall from season to season and year to year. The sections of trail that are submerged, muddy, or dry can actually shift quite a bit.
At the time I crossed, the deepest sections were mid-thigh and probably totaled only 200 yards or so in length. About 10% was less than an inch of standing water in goopy gumbo mud. About 10% was knee deep. And the rest was mid-calf deep.
The the deeper sections with sandy bottoms were really a treat to walk through. The muck and roots would slow you down just because you had to work harder to keep your balance. The goopy mud slowed you down because it was at times like walking on slippery ice.
Thirty Miles of This?
Give or take, yes. Within a mile of the Oasis Visitor Center, you will be getting your feet wet. But you start out in a mostly pine palmetto ecosystem.
For the first roughly 20 miles it is a pleasant variety of pines and Cypress with an emphasis on pines. There are several official campsites plus many more unofficial places where you can camp. You could probably camp every mile or two if you wanted.
But roughly 2/3 across the Everglades, situation changes drastically. From mile 20.9 to within the last mile before I-75, it is essentially all water.
In the last nine miles there are only three campsites, Oak Hill Camp, Thank God Island, and Ivy Camp. The first two are separated by 3.6 miles of completely submerged terrain. There are two small pine islands that the trail goes next to, but they are so densely vegetated that you can’t actually get on to them.
This is the one section that probably scares people the most. Where the first 20 miles you could do an average of about 2 mph, on these last 9 miles you literally are doing less than one mile per hour for most of it.
The only problem I faced as a solo hiker, was finishing the one liter water bottle that I can easily reach, and having to struggle to get to the other bottles. I had to loosen my back straps as far as they would go and get a little rubbery to reach them. In a group this would be no big deal. You will not be taking your pack off for about 4 hours.
Swamps Have Scary Monsters
True. But remember, the Everglades are different than your Hollywood swamps. The Everglades do have alligators, water moccasins, bears and panthers. But you are likely to never see any of them except for a water moccasin.
Bears and panthers in this part of Florida don’t like people. Their sightings are rare.
Alligators prefer deep and open water where they can swim freely. The cypress domes and strands are like an obstacle course for alligators. You will see hundreds of them in and along the canals bordering the Everglades, but are not likely to see them in the middle.
Cottonmouths. Oh, yes, cotton mouths, or water moccasins. They love to hang out anywhere it is even remotely wet. And the Everglades are their favorite habitat.
But the worst predator of all has to be the mosquito. As soon as the sky turns orange they fill the skies and hunt you down like easy prey. If you can keep moving they are not too bad. But they know eventually you have to stop.
One other thing that I consider a scary monster are called solution holes. The foundation of most of Florida is limestone. And when the different densities of limestone dissolve unevenly they form circular holes.
When the holes are above ground they are kind of neat looking. But when they are underwater and completely filled in with soft silky mush, they are more like a bear trap.
You are going slowly enough in the water that they don’t really present a serious threat. You are not likely to break any bones. But there is the distinct possibility of taking a slip into the drink. Or worse, a slip in the mud.
Pick One Emotion
I like to try and summarize each section of a hike by a single emotion. And the whole time I was in the wading sections of the trail, I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Everything seemed new and fresh, even after the 10, 000th cypress tree I touched.
So I guess that word would have to be amazement. I was amazed at how excited I was. I would stop and look at the more interesting bromeliads growing on the trees.
I would get excited at each new water section wondering just how deep this one would be or if it would be warm or cool. Would it be a strand or would it be a dome? The domes are much more fun because you feel smaller and less significant. They feel more like a swamp and not just a wet field.
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