Monday, February 20, 2006

The Everglades

We are at the park service's Monument campground along US41, in the Big Cypress National Preserve (map). This 729,000 acre preserve, the first in the National Park system, is really something of an adjunct to the Everglades National Park immediately to the south, although somewhat less restrictive in terms of human activities and impact. Earlier today we attempted to stop at the Shark Valley visitor center in the Everglades Park, about 20 miles east of here, but the Presidents' Day weekend crowd made it impossible -- the parking lot was full to overflowing, and the ranger at the gate informed us there was no room for us. We could have parked in a large lot about a mile west of the entrance and ridden our bikes back, but we decided that the huge crowd would mean a long wait for the interpretive tour/tram ride out to the observation tower, and we just did not want to fight the crowds.

We did stop in at the interpretive center for Big Cypress five miles east of here, and found it quite informative. They also called ahead for us and found out that there were only six campsites open here, so we came right over and were off the road before 2pm. As we were leaving the visitor center, three giant tour buses were disgorging their passengers.

We left Key West yesterday morning right at checkout time, 11am. It took most of the morning to get loaded up, and we took the opportunity to dump our tanks on the way out of Boyd's. I did, finally, get a chance to jump in the pool just before we left, and it was actually quite pleasant. I think Boyd's could be a very nice place (as far as commercial parks go) if the spaces were not quite so tightly packed. We scoped out a few of the nicer water-front sites, in case we end up going back there.

Apparently, my last blog post left many readers with the impression that we did not care for Key West. The place did grow on us, and, ironically, the Conch Tour Train ride was actually quite informative and helped us to ferret out some of the simpler charms of Old Town. (We have found, actually, that the Old Town Trolley tours, who operate the Conch Train, have been very informative and pleasant in several cities where we have taken them -- one of the few "tourist" activities which we now actively seek out.) We certainly would not have made the effort to come to Key West if we did not think some of what it offers would be interesting to us, and we were not disappointed. My rant on Saturday was really a lament that so many places that are otherwise beautiful and interesting on their own merits have fallen victim to the relentless envelopment of generic commercial enterprise. It is hard for us to imagine how, for example, a place like Key West is made better by the addition of a Hard Rock Cafe, a Coach store, or an Outback Steak House.

Saturday night we did manage to make the bus schedules work for us and took the Orange route into town for a most excellent dinner at Antonia's, a white-tablecloth Italian place that came well recommended. Our observation on Duval street both Friday and Saturday nights was that, to really savor Key West, one needs to be quartered within walking distance, and this is our other lament about Boyd's and also the overcrowding that has caused the keys to legislate RV's into tiny corners of the islands. We definitely would like to return to Key West, perhaps some October for Fantasy Fest, but we need to figure out how to get Odyssey within walking distance of Duval Street. So any conchs reading this with 39' of driveway near Old Town, drop me a note. We'll gladly give you the money we'd be forking over to Boyd's.

Our plan called for us to spend Sunday night at the Elks Lodge in Tavernier, just outside of Key Largo. On our way out to the keys, we saw the lodge and noticed that the dozen or so camp sites were in the back of the lodge, right on the water, and thought that would make a lovely stay, especially for the $20 they wanted per night, which included water and electricity. We were even thinking of extending for a night or two, if they had room. On our arrival, though, they showed us the only space they had left, which was behind a wooden gate on the side of the lodge, nose-to-tail with another rig, and facing the highway. On top of that, we would have to squeeze in under a low tree, which also would block our satellite access. We quickly decided that $20 for electricity we didn't need on an otherwise crappy site was not worth it, so we said no thanks and pressed on back to the mainland.

We returned from Key Largo via the Card Sound Causeway, which assessed us a $1.50 toll, but was a less crowded and more pleasant drive than US1, and afforded us a view of a very different type of key, much more wooded than the others. We turned off Card Sound Road onto US1 for barely a block when we then turned onto Florida 997, which heads due north. We briefly toyed with the idea of turning west into the main entrance of the Everglades, where we knew there were two park service campgrounds. However, we could not reach anyone to tell us if they were full or not, and I knew that hurricane Katrina had done a lot of damage in Flamingo, the community in the park at the end of the road. In hindsight, seeing how crowded the park was at the much smaller Shark Valley area, I am glad we did not drive that way, as I am sure the campgrounds were full, especially now knowing that the Flamingo campground is open only to part of its normal capacity.

Instead we continued due north to the intersection with US41, where the Miccosukee indian tribe operates a casino (map), listed in our Casino Camping directory. A brief stop at the security desk yielded a free overnight parking pass, and we slipped in between a couple of power-line boom trucks that were lined up with a dozen of their brethren from around the country, part of the ongoing hurricane recovery operation. There were a good number of other rigs in the "raccoon" lot (the northwest lot where the tribe wants large vehicles to park), but the boom trucks gave us quite a bit of privacy and anonymity for the night, at least until they fired up at 5:30 in the morning to start their day. Hurricanes, and their concomitant recovery operations, do not respect federal holidays.

The casino, like many other recreational opportunities in south Florida, was absolutely packed for the holiday weekend. At one point, we scanned the floor to see if we could spot even a single available slot machine, and none was to be found. We don't game, so this was not an issue for us, but the crowd also meant that the nice white-tablecloth restaurant had a one-hour waiting list, even as early as 6:30. We were too hungry to wait, so we did the buffet instead, which was passable, and remarkably uncrowded.

Since our big plan to visit the Everglades today was foiled, we will make another attempt at the Gulf Coast visitor center tomorrow, at the northwest corner of the park near Everglades City. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this nice spot to overnight and wait out the crowds, since there are no park service campgrounds at the Gulf Coast entrance, and I am guessing the commercial parks are full up tonight. Also, Louise is feeling crummy, possibly coming down with a cold, so an early stop today was in order. Assuming she feels better in the morning, we will continue west and drop in to the Everglades from there.

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