The drive between Naples, Florida, and Miami is about 115 miles, and you can make the trip in a couple hours. But don’t rush things. The highway takes you through the heart of the Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve. This is a trip that offers unique and historical attractions that you want to stop and absorb.
The drive is along U.S. 41, otherwise known as Tamiami Trail, and for long-time Floridians, it is known as Old Alligator Alley. Much of the trip is two-lane highway with limited passing opportunities. So slow down and enjoy.
I recently drove the highway from Naples to Miami for the first time in many years. It used to be a long, lonely highway, with nothing but trees and grasslands on either side of the road. Today things have changed. You will find interesting places to visit all along the road.
1. Back To Nature In Everglades City
Our first stop is Everglades City. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, it had a nefarious reputation as a major port of entry for illegal pot and cocaine being smuggled in from South America. After a few residents got to spend time in federal prisons, the town’s focus turned to tourism. Today it is the airboat capital of South Florida.
No fewer than three airboat charter companies greet you as you come into town. They take tourists on trips through the Thousand Islands of the Everglades. Generally, the trips last about an hour and cost under $50 for adults and $25 for youngsters. Some of the outfitters also offer swamp buggy trips. Airboats are loud, so you’re not going to sneak up on birds and critters. Ear protection must be worn by all passengers.
2. Salt Marsh And Island Tours
The western entry to Everglades National Park is located in Everglades City. It offers boat tours and rents kayaks. Boat tours out of the national park are on large pontoon boats that can carry 30 to 40 people. The trips usually last about an hour and a half and take you through the mangrove forests offshore. You can rent a kayak and paddle yourself. You paddle in protected waters and the trip is not very strenuous unless the wind is blowing. With kayaks, you are more likely to quietly sneak up on wading shorebirds and wildlife.
3. Big Cypress National Preserve
The area on the north side of Old Alligator Alley is part of the Big Cypress National Preserve. It is hard to distinguish from the Everglades, except there are more trees, plus some hiking and camping. There are 12 campgrounds in the preserve, most of them suitable for RVs. There are primitive camps for backpackers with tents.
The preserve covers more than 720,000 acres. It has large seasonal shifts in its environment. From November to June there is little rainfall and the swamp turns into patchy dry grasslands with a few wetlands and ponds. Fish get concentrated in the ponds, making it an easy feast for wading birds. The best birding season in Big Cypress is during the winter months.
4. The Florida Panther
The preserve is the last remaining habitat of the endangered Florida panther. You aren’t likely to see one, as there are fewer than 130 panthers left in the wild, according to the most recent estimates. Their biggest threat is becoming roadkill. There are panther crossing signs at points along the highway. Slow down and be watchful. I had the experience years ago of having a panther dart across the road in front of me. Today just about every panther is collared and tracked by wildlife managers who are working feverishly to save the species.
5. Native American Villages
American Indian villages are found frequently along Old Alligator Alley. The Seminole and Miccosukee Native American Indians have long lived in the Everglades and Big Cypress areas. You will find history tours, gift shops, and, yes, more airboat rides.
Note: Because of COVID, most Native American venues are closed. When they reopen, the Miccosukee Village west of Miami offers fascinating insight into the history and way of life of the Everglades tribes.
6. The Smallest Post Office In The Country
Old Alligator Alley is home to the smallest post office in the United States. It is located along the road in the village of Ochopee, with barely room for one person to stand. It’s a frequent stop for tourists taking selfies and family pictures. The current postmaster has been greeting visitors for four years, and the most frequently purchased item is a $1 postcard that is already stamped and canceled. Most people jot quick notes and drop them in the mailbox by the front door.
7. Big Cypress Fine Art Gallery
One of the most interesting stops along Old Alligator Alley is the Big Cypress Gallery, featuring the photographic work of Florida photographer Clyde Butcher. Butcher has been shooting in the Everglades and Big Cypress for over 40 years. He shoots mainly black and white and is often referred to as the Ansel Adams of the Everglades. His gallery features his work and rotating exhibits of other photographers who specialize in the Everglades/Big Cypress areas.
The gallery also has two guest houses that you can rent for a stay in the swamp. There are guided swamp tours offered in the winter when the trails are more passable during the dry season.
8. The Oasis Visitor Center
This center is on the north side of the highway, about midway between Naples and Miami. It features a boardwalk where tourists congregate to view alligators in the roadside canal. They are seldom disappointed. The center also features a video presentation on the history of the Everglades region.
9. Shark Valley In Everglades National Park
Just off the highway near Miami is the National Park Service center known as Shark Valley. You can walk a paved path along a long drainage canal and be almost certain to see alligators. There are also tram rides back into the wilderness.
The short Bobcat Trail is along a boardwalk through a large stand of mangroves. This is a great birding opportunity during the winter and migratory months.
10. A Walk On The Wildside In Florida’s Everglades
Most visitors to the Everglades want to see alligators, and they won’t be disappointed. They are frequently viewed from boardwalks at roadside tourist centers. Other wildlife less commonly seen are black bears, American crocodiles, and the Florida panther mentioned above.
11. A Python World
In recent years the glades have been taken over by huge boa constrictors, Burmese pythons, which have decimated the smaller wildlife in the Everglades, devouring raccoons, rabbits, bobcats, even small alligators. They have quickly become the Everglades top predator.
The pythons are not native to the area, and the State of Florida has declared open season on them for hunters, who value the skin for such things as belts, shoes, handbags, and the like. The state even has bounties on pythons ranging from $50 to more than $100, depending on how big the python is. Professional python hunters are known to kill four or five of the snakes in a night of hunting.
Scientists say the pythons stem from former pets being released into the eastern Everglades around Miami. A female lays over 100 eggs at a time, and the population soon exploded. The highest concentration of pythons are found in the eastern side of the Everglades, but they have quickly spread throughout the ecosystem.
12. Florida’s River Of Grass
The common misconception of the Everglades is that it’s a huge, wet swamp. In reality, much of the wilderness drys out during the winter months, leaving a dry swamp bed. Some areas stay wet year-round, mostly in the southern glades. Marjorie Stoneham Douglas, the founder of the Save The Everglades movement, named it the River of Grass in her book of the same name.
There are vast miles of nothing but open grasslands, occasionally populated with trees in slightly elevated clusters known as hammocks.
The best time to visit is the winter season. Migratory birds are in residence, the afternoon rainstorms have abated, and there are fewer mosquitos.
The most important thing: Don’t be in a hurry. There are sites to see all along Old Alligator Alley. You will be awestruck by the vastness and unique nature of the grasslands.
The Everglades is a fragile ecosystem that has been threatened by the population growth of South Florida and the demand for water. Water from the north that once fed naturally into the glades is now diverted and pumped through long canals into the municipal water supplies of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Much of the land on the north side of the Everglades has been converted for agriculture, particularly sugarcane farming. This requires freshwater for irrigation that would have otherwise flowed into the Everglades.
The Everglades, at 1.5-million acres today, is about half its natural size. Combined with the reduction of freshwater flow from the north, the Everglades is facing an incursion of saltwater from the south. Sea-level rise is pushing tides from Florida Bay deeper into the lower Everglades, with the saltwater killing native swampland vegetation.
So, when you get the chance, stop, take your time, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve as you travel Aligator Alley.
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