Discovering Old Florida:
From Alligator Alley
To Everglades City
By Susan J. Young
Several times a year, I drive across Alligator Alley, better known to non-Floridians as Interstate 75, an east-west toll road that traverses the Everglades and surrounding wetlands.
It’s distinguishable because of the high chain link fences on either side and the expressway "underpasses for wildlife" – designed to keep them from peril in crossing the road.
This is home to Florida’s elusive, endangered panther (shown at left*); there are reportedly only 50-70 remaining in the wild.
Fortunately, this part of Florida is not under the developers' gaze, as most of it is protected parkland and wetlands.
Multiple species of birds, as well as deer, bear, raccoons, other mammals and a ton of alligators reside here.
Much of the natural, protected wilderness is within the Big Cypress National Preserve (239-695-1201 or www.nps.gov/bicy). And, to the south lies Everglades National Park (239-695-3311 or www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm), with entrances on both the east and west side of the state.
Gators Along the Canals
You’ll likely see wildlife if you simply drive across I-75. Just keep your eyes pealed. Drive safely and pay attention to roadway conditions, first and foremost.
But a quick glimpse into nearby trees and along the canals adjacent to the roadway can reveal interesting sights. I’ve spotted hawks, herons, egrets, cormorants and a host of other birds on this 90 minute crossing from Greater Fort Lauderdale to Naples.
Seeing birds on the crossing can be hit or miss. Either they're out in great numbers (as was the case on my last trip just a month ago), or the whole landscape seems desolate without any.
The likelihood of bird sightings depends on time of day, time of year, and weather conditions.
As for gators, my experience on multiple crossing shows that your best chance of viewing the reptiles is on the east-to-west crossing on I-75, not in the reverse direction.
That's because the safe “lines of sight” from I-75 to the adjacent waterways eastbound are often not that advantageous; the roadway is too high in many places to see clearly and quickly to the canal banks.
But on the westbound side, the canals are positioned better for viewing. In fact, I always have fun quickly “counting” the gators on the westbound trip. On a few trips I've spotted more than 100 on the crossing.
Gators sun on the banks if it’s warm and sunny. If it's overcast and cold, you likely won't have much viewing success. Late morning when the sun is really nice and warm is a good time for gator spotting.
But you have to look quick and know what you're looking for -- something that appears to be a dark log on the bank, most often. You may also see a few swimming -- their snouts and perhaps a twitch of the tail in the water being the only clues that you've seen a gator.
Above all, drivers must be aware of road traffic. Be safe! Don't jeopardize your safety or that of your auto companions just to spot a gator. Drive 55 mph not 70 mph. And let your companions or kids in the car do the spotting.
If you really want to peruse the waterways for gators, pull the car over into a safe spot along a canal -- such as the roadway rest area's and boat launches -- where the whole family can get out to take a look. Again, though, be aware of road traffic if you're not in a designated pull-off area.
South to Everglades City
On my dozen or so trips across I-75 in the past few years, I've always viewed the sign for State Road 29 leading south to Everglades City. It had been nearly a decade since I've visited this sleepy "Old Florida" city on the edge of the Everglades.
So in November 2007, I opted to get off and take a look. Everglades City lies about 25 miles south of I-75. It's the last vestige of civilization in a ruggedly natural locale.
The roadway is long and straight (see photo at left*) with little if any civilization along the way. It seems as if you’re entering the Twilight Zone!
The earliest settlers known to inhabit the area around Everglades City and neighboring Chokoloskee were Calusa Indians. Their civilization flourished in the Southwest Florida area 2,000 years ago.
Today, the eco-sights around Everglades City remain relatively unchanged from ancient times. The city and its environs are surrounded by Everglades National Park, the Ten Thousand Islands, Big Cypress National Preserve, Collier-Seminole State Park and the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (239-695-4593 or www.floridastateparks.org/fakahatcheestrand/137).
Surrounded by Florida's wilderness, Everglades City even today fields "character," a carry-over from its pioneer roots. The first modern day settler to Everglades City arrived in 1868. And, in 1889, George Storter, Jr. of Alabama bought the area for $800.
By 1920, not much had changed. The town was still a small fishing village. Then, in 1923, Baron G. Collier, a New York advertising industry millionaire, began buying land in what would later become Collier County (the county that's now home to Naples, Marco Island and, of course, Everglades City)
He and others recognized that a road was needed for travel between Tampa and Miami. So Everglades City, due to its location, became the center of the "Tamiami Trail" road building project. It turned the sleepy fishing village into a boomtown.
And when the federal government ran into delays, the "ever-modest" Baron Collier offered to finish the road through the Everglades cypress swamps in return for the new county being named after him.
The Tamiami Trail (the roadway is in the background of this eco-shot to the right*) was opened to great fanfare in 1928.
Everglades City, known in those days simply as Everglade, also served as the county seat until the 1960s.
The county seat was subsequently moved to Naples in 1961 after Everglades City sustained sizable damage from Hurricane Donna in 1960.
As you drive most of the way south from I-75 to Everglades City you'll reach the intersection of Route 29 with the east-west Tamiami Trail or Route 41. This two-lane roadway, now a secondary roadway route through the Everglades (most traffic is now on I-75), is designated as a U.S. Scenic Byway and Florida Scenic Highway.
Take time to stop at the Visitor’s Center (shown at left*) on the corner.
Pick up tourist brochures and definitely ask for the free map of Everglades City. It's great for your self-driving tour.
Also, feel free to ask questions of the visitor representative on duty. You'll learn about such activities as airboat rides, swamp tours, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and Everglades National Park access. You'll also find restrooms here.
Then head further south just a few miles to Everglades City. Today, the city seems relatively quiet. Following the boom of the Tamiami Trail project and the transfer of the county seat to Naples, Everglades City slipped back into a sleepier, albeit quirkier mode, for many years.
In the 20th century, the destination became a jumping off point for outdoor adventurers; a haven for those with wanderlust; home to quirky characters who shunned civilization; a escapism enclave for high-powered celebrities; and even a base for smugglers for a time.
All that has only helped add to this tiny city's edge-of-civilization mystique.
Driving Through History
Today, though, Everglades City isn't as "sleepy" as I recall from my visit a decade ago.
Driving by the city's welcome sign (at right*) and through the city, you'll find a surge of new construction - both individual homes and multi-family dwellings.
Thankfully, though, many vestiges of the past remain including the small-town atmosphere.
At a local gas station, I stopped to buy gas and when I went in to pay, several residents and the clerk were simply “shooting the breeze.” No one really cared whether anyone was waiting to check out. The locals continued their conversation until it was, well, "done."
In Everglades City, one should know that things still happen in their own good time. Rushing isn’t in the vocabulary.
Using our easy-to-follow Visitor Center Map, I toured the heart of the town in search of many of the historic buildings I had visited in the past. One roundabout led to City Hall (see photo below*).
For those seeking historic perspective, the town’s old laundry building just up the street is now the small Museum of the Everglades (239-695-0008 or www.colliermuseum.com), 105 W. Broadway.
The Museum of the Everglades, at right, is a good place to start your Everglades City exploration.*
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the museum showcases the history of the Everglades region.
Permanent exhibits showcase Collier's influence and how he transformed a wilderness area into a 1920s era town.
The museum also features other artifacts, photos and historical documents that showcase the city’s rich history. Admission is free, but donations are accepted (and a nice gesture).
Overnighting in Everglades City
Nearby are two other historic sites – both interesting to view. They're also places you might stay, if you opt to overnight. I should preface this section by saying that overnight rooms in the area – outside of a few motels or B&Bs – are not prolific.
Yes, you’ll find small places to stay, but not huge hotel chain properties or resorts. Many travelers who prefer premium or upscale accommodations opt to stay in the Naples or Marco Island areas and simply visit Everglades City on a day trip.
That said, one good lodging option if you really want the flavor of the city’s past is the Everglades City Rod & Gun Club (shown above*). A classic Old Florida historic site, it's just a two-block walk from the museum.
Located along the Barron River, this former Storter family home became the Rod & Gun Club in 1925. The facility quickly developed a reputation as “the gathering place” for hunting and fishing enthusiasts.
Many were celebrities – among them, Ernest Hemingway and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Other guests over the years have included Gypsy Rose Lee, Jack Nicklaus, Danny Glover, Sean Connery and a host of other notables
Today, the lodge's public rooms still exude touches of that rustic club-like atmosphere with decor that features deep wood paneling, grouper and tarpon trophies, and deer and gator skins.
The dining room is constructed of pecky cypress.
Guests also enjoy a common "grand screen porch" with white wicker porch furniture. It overlooks the river.
This historic and rustic property (shown in another view at left*) is up front with guests, noting that the property isn't designed to cater to everyone -- but is definitely a good choice for those with a passion for history.
On-site amenities, in addition to the lodge's restaurant, include a pool, bicycle rentals, and tennis courts.
When I visited in the 1990s, our small group of journalists was hurriedly taken into the club as a “treat,” and whisked in and out quickly.
We were told that only members were allowed. Whether or not it was truly "off limits," (or perhaps just portrayed that way by our PR hosts of the era), it was all a bit thrillingly clandestine, we mused.
Now, a sign outside boldly proclaims, “Visitors Welcome.” So times have changed. You might stop in for a meal or a just a quick look-see.
If you choose to stay, cottage accommodatons (with air conditioning and private baths) are priced at $95 to $140 depending on the season. But in a lodging blast from the past: only cash and checks are accepted, not credit cards.
Just up from the Rod & Gun Club, is another historic site -- an old bank building. Today, it’s the Everglades Spa and Lodge (239-695-3151 or www.bankoftheeverglades.com), 201 W. Broadway.
Shown at right in the shadow of some extremely tall palm trees,* the lodge's “suite names” are a hoot. You might stay in the Mortgage Department (see photo at left*) or book the Trust Department.
Rates range from $110 to $135 nightly for one or two persons in a suite with a private bath. Breakfast is included.
For more than two persons (over the age of seven) in one unit, the lodge charges a $15 to $25 additional fee to help cover the additional breakfast required.
Suites feature wireless Internet, a full or mini-kitchen, complimentary breakfast, and water filtered through an on-site Culligan Water Filtration System. There is an extensive downstairs library for guests to use as well.
A day spa, Spa-Fari (www.spa-fari.com), also operates on the grounds; spa reservations are required for services.
The town’s old recreation center is now part of the Ivey House Bed & Breakfast (239-695-3299, 877-567-0679 or www.iveyhouse.com).
Open year-round, this nonsmoking B&B offers several types of accommodations including poolside inn rooms, lodge rooms, and a cottage.
The lodge was a boarding house in the 1920's.
At presstime, rates for one or two in a room were $85 nightly on the off-season. Peak season rates were $140-$200. Rates include breakfast. Guests pay $15 extra per night for a third or fourth person in the room.
For an extra fee, the lodge also offers day and overnight guided adventures via canoes, kayaks, and motorboats from November through mid-April. The lodge also rents out canoes/kayaks, camping equipment, and shuttle services for "do it yourself" explorers. Ivey House guests receive a 20% discount on rentals and day guided adventures. .
For all the accommodations options, visit the Web site of the Greater Naples, Marco Island and Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.paradisecoast.com.
Stone Crab Capital
On the dining side, you’ll find a host of choices. Why? With the passage of a ban on gill net fishing in 1994 in Florida, many mullet fishermen turned their attention to stone crabbing or tourism related endeavors.
Today, Everglades City calls itself the "Stone Crab Capital of the World."
The city's numerous stone crab processing facilities provide ample supplies of this fresh Florida delicacy to restaurants in town and all along Florida’s coast during the annual stone crab season; that's Oct. 15 through May 15.
The first weekend in February each year, the town is a abuzz with activity and crabs (see a mouthwatering plate of crab at right*). That's when the Everglades City Seafood Festival (www.evergladesseafoodfestival.com) gets under way.
The 2008 festival dates are Feb. 1-3. Expect crowds but also fresh seafood, country music and arts & crafts.
But if you arrive at other times of the year, even out of stone crab season, you'll have a plethora of fresh fish and other seafood from which to choose. Local seafood restaurants line the Barron River and along thoroughfares within Everglades City.
But beyond historic structures and dining, people come to Everglades City as the gateway to the many natural areas surrounding the city.
Among them is Everglades National Park, the only sub-tropical preserve in North America. The park is also part of the largest wetlands ecosystem in the United States.
The park contains both temperate and tropical plant eco-systems including sawgrass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, rare orchids, pinelands, and hardwood hammocks, as well as marine and estuarine environments.
Known for its rich bird life, particularly large wading birds such as the rare roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and a variety of egrets, the park is also the only place in the world where fresh-water alligators and salt-water crocodiles exist in the same eco-area.
One easy way to spot which reptile is which? Here's a hint. Crocodiles (one is seen at left*) have a pointed snout, while alligators a rounded one.
Everglades National Park has been designated a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.
The park and its surrounding preserve areas are home to 2,000 species of plants, many extremely rare, more than 200 species of birds and over 160 animal species. Native orchids are seen at right.*
This isn’t a drive-through national park like many others in the U.S. You basically drive just a few hundred feet from Route 29 to park and visit the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center, which features an educational display area and restrooms.
Basically this park's "highways" are its "waterways."
You might launch your canoe or kayak from the center’s docks. Quiet paddling is an excellent way to get close up to wildlife including manatees, bottle nosed dolphin, bald eagles, osprey, roseate spoonbill, woodstork, pelicans and much more.
Above, park rangers discuss options with visitors.*
For die-hard paddlers, the Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile waterway trail connecting Everglades City and Flamingo.
At right, paddlers set out in search of wildlife and serenity in South Florida.
This waterway may also be traversed by small motorboat, a popular adventure for fishermen.
Catches might include snook, tarpon, redfish, trout or pompano.
But most visitors who travel to Everglades City, just hop aboard a guided boat trip operated by Everglades National Park Boat Tours (239-695-2591)
Tours are generally offered daily, but check with the operator before making the drive to Everglades City.
These 90-minute tours take travelers via boat into the mangrove estuaries of the Ten Thousand Islands section of the park (see photo of the watery terrain at left*).
Tours run approximately every half hour 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
Bring sunscreen, a hat, a bottle of water and mosquito repellent with DEET. I got eaten alive on one of these tours a few years back.
A long-sleeved cotton shirt and pants are also recommended -- despite the heat much of the year.
One reason? Don't think you'll avoid mosquitos or flies just because it's winter. Remember, the Everglades are basically a swamp with water, water everywhere.
Along the national park's outskirts, numerous private tour operators provide airboat (see photo at right*) and swamp buggy excursions.
If you go on an airboat or buggy ride, you’ll traverse sawgrass plains, swamps and hardwood hammocks that comprise the Everglades ecosystem. Adjacent preserve lands also offer the chance for ranger-led or self guided tour opportunities.
For example, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is home to the epiphytic ghost orchid, which became famous through Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.”
The Friends of Fakahatchee (239-695-4593) offer guided swamp walks and canoe trips for a fee. Call for the latest offerings; most are seasonal.
As noted, if you really want to go to land’s end, head further south of the Everglades National Park entrance to Chokoloskee Island.
At the tip of the island, you'll discover the Historic Smallwood Store museum (at left*) which re-creates an actual trading post, store and post office that opened there in 1906.
Opened by C. S. "Ted" Smallwood, the store served the native Americans and pioneers who made their living from hunting, fishing and faming in the wild areas of the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.
Smallwood remained postmaster until his retirement in 1941. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, this museum features an extensive collection of books, including the well-known trilogy by author Peter Mathiessen, including Killing Mr. Watson, about the story of Ed Watson, an infamous Ten Thousand Islands resident gunned down at the store by townspeople after rumors of murders and other ill deeds.
Admission is $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and kids 12 and under are admitted free.
Everglades City and its attractions make an interesting day trip from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Naples or Marco Island.
You will likely spot gators along Alligator Alley on the morning trip over, tour the town with a map from the visitors' center, see the Everglades via boat, kayak (as at right*) or canoe, enjoy a fresh seafood meal, and explore the local museum.
Progress marches forward -- and Everglades City is no exception. Still, this compact city retains a sense of its pioneering past, small-town atmosphere and independent spirit. It's a bit of Old Florida lost in time.
Thankfully, the Everglades, 10,000 Islands and other protected areas lie at the city's limits -- blessedly keeping the march of civilization at bay. Here, birds, gators and the Florida panther rule. For More Information
The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau
800-688-3600 or 239-225-1013
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young; the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau; the United States National Park Service; Florida State Parks; and other tourism businesses in Everglades City. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.