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Florida’s forces of nature


This story originally appeared in the Sunday, February 24, 2008 edition of The Kansas City Star

WHEN TO VISIT

Winter and early spring are optimal times to visit Everglades National Park. From December through April, the dry season, temperatures range from an average of 53 to 77 degrees. Visitation is higher at this time of year, too. Many ranger programs and tours are offered.

Between May and November, the rainy season, temperatures reach an average of 90 degrees with high humidity. Expect afternoon thunderstorms and bugs, bugs, bugs. Park visitation is lower at this time of year, so not all ranger programs and tours are available.

WEB SITES

Beyond the National Park Service's Everglades site (nps.gov/ever), check out:

Fodor's online has a chapter on Shark Valley describing bicycle and tram tours. tinyurl.com/yssvwr.

The Tropical Everglades Visitor Association offers maps and links for recreation, tours and attractions. tropicaleverglades.com.

TripAdvisor details attractions. tinyurl.com/2hk7do.

| Roger Petterson, The Associated Press

BIRD WATCH

I didn't see all 400 species, but I'm sure I saw dozens. Here are a few I spotted, mostly near Shark Valley and Taylor Slough.

Herons: Blue, great white and tricolored. Wading birds, commonly seen.

Egrets: Long-legged white wading birds. Common.

White ibises: Long-legged wading bird with an orange beak. Common.

Woodstork: Large wading bird that finds fish by touch, not sight. Endangered, not commonly observed.

Double-crested cormorant: Brown-and-gray-feathered diving bird with bright blue-green eyes. Common.

Purple gallinule: Water bird with purplish-blue head. Commonly seen except in summer.

Anhinga: Black wetland bird with sharp yellow bill. Abundant along Anhinga Trail near Royal Palm visitor center.

TRAVELER'S CHECK | EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK

Getting there

Everglades National Park is on the southern tip of Florida, south and west of Miami. The park headquarters are about 10 miles southwest of Florida City and Homestead.

Round-trip, restricted airfare between Kansas City and Miami recently ran from about $140.

Getting in

For motorists, a seven-day permit costs $10 per vehicle. Pedestrians and bicyclists pay $5 for a seven-day pass. Children 16 and younger are admitted free. Annual passes, valid for 12 months from the date of purchase, cost $25.

If you're planning to visit several national parks in the next year, an America the Beautiful annual pass costs $80 and permits access to national parks and other federal recreation areas. Call 1-888-ASK-USGS or see store.usgs.gov/pass.

A lifetime senior pass for citizens or permanent residents 62 and older costs $10. Lifetime passes for permanently disabled Americans are free.

Getting around

Canoers and kayakers have access to much of the park that hikers and motorists will never see. That doesn't mean you won't see plenty by land.

The Main Park Road, Florida 9336, stretches 38 miles along the park's southern side from the Ernest F. Coe visitor center to Flamingo on the Florida Bay.

U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail Scenic Highway, runs along the park's northern edge, accessing the Shark Valley visitor center and tram tour. It continues west through Big Cypress National Preserve to the Gulf Coast. Everglades City and the Gulf Coast visitor center are south of Highway 41 on Florida 29.

Where to stay

No lodging is available in the park.

National Park Service campsites are available at Long Pine Key, near the Coe visitor center, and Flamingo, near the Flamingo visitor center for $16 a night. The Long Pine Key campground is first-come, first-served. Reservations are encouraged for the Flamingo campground. Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov.

Backcountry camping permits cost $10 plus $2 a person per night. Hikers can reach some sites; others are accessible by boat. Call 239-695-2945 or check at the Flamingo or Gulf Coast visitor centers.

Many hotel and motel rooms are available in the Florida City and Homestead suburbs of Miami, convenient to the southern part of the park. Contact the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce at chamberinaction.com or 305-247-2332.

Where to eat

Food services are limited inside the park, so bring your own.

A small store at the Flamingo visitor center offers some groceries, sandwiches and snacks. Other visitor centers may have some snacks and vending machines.

Florida City and Homestead have many restaurant choices.

To learn more

Call 305-242-7700 or see nps.gov/ever.

| Allen Holder, The Star

CROCS VS. 'GATORS

Everglades visitors who don't see an alligator must not be trying. They can be found all over. But the park also is home to the rare American crocodile, which prefers brackish areas where fresh and salt waters mix. A few differences between alligators and crocodiles:

Alligator American crocodile

Snout Broad Narrow

Color Black Olive/brown

Teeth Upper teeth visible when jaws are closed. Upper and lower teeth both seen when jaws are closed.

Where to find them Southeastern U.S. and throughout the park. In the U.S., only in the southern tip of Florida. In the park, look near Flamingo visitor center at the southern end of Florida 9336.

Source: National Park Service

TALKS AND WALKS

Ranger-led activities are almost always a sure bet in national parks. Here are a few the National Park Service says you'll be able to find through early spring:

Anhinga Amble: Fifty-minute walk may yield sightings of alligators, turtles, anhinga and gar. 10:30 a.m. daily, 3:30 p.m. daily except Tuesday and Thursday.

Pinelands Walk: Hourlong walk through rare Everglades habitat that is home to the endangered Florida panther. 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

Full Moon Bike Hike: If you have a bike, rangers lead a 15-mile evening ride from the Shark Valley visitor center. Reservation required. 305-221-8776.

Tram tours: Privately operated two-hour ride from the Shark Valley visitor center into the "River of Grass" goes to the Shark Valley Observation Tower and back. On the hour daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. $15.25 for adults, $14.25 for seniors 62 and older, $9.25 for children 3-12. Reservations recommended. 305-221-8455 or sharkvalleytramtours.com.

On your own, start with these easy explorations:

Anhinga Trail: Wildlife is plentiful on the half-mile trail from the Royal Palm visitor center.

Gumbo Limbo Trail: Half-mile, paved trail leads into a thickly wooded area called a hammock.

Long Pine Key trails: More than 28 miles of connecting trails start at the Long Pine Key campground.

Mahogany Hammock: Half-mile boardwalk goes into another hammock with gumbo limbo and mahogany trees.

Kayaking and canoeing are popular options and provide a completely different park experience. Several canoe trails are offered on the southern side of the park, near Flamingo. Canoe rentals and guided boat tours also are offered through the Ten Thousand Islands area on the Gulf Coast. Call 239-695-2591.

| Allen Holder, The Star

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