29 Jul Why south Florida should absolutely be on your family’s travel bucket list
It was the third time the little red rental car came to a sudden stop at the side of Florida’s Highway 41. This time, it was an enormous bird perched above the roadside canal crying out for us to stop and take its picture. As the sun slipped lower, it spread its wings wide and then wider, as if to reward my erratic driving habits with a dazzle of dew drops raining down and wrapped in the gold of twilight.
All was silent but the clicks of the camera as it stepped to the left, stepped to the right, drying its mighty wings with a dance.
“Anhinga!” my husband whispered.
“Cool.” My daughter replied.
We hadn’t even made it to our first official destination outside of Miami International Airport and, just by driving a portion of the “Tamiami Trail” across the southern peninsula, we’d already managed to check off several creatures from our “Most Wanted” Florida animal sightings list. In the alligator category, we’d already counted eight. And in the days ahead we’d add dolphins, herons, pelicans, ibis, tarpon, parrotfish, stingrays, sea turtles, a barracuda, and an iguana—just to name a few.
For the family that wants to paddle, pedal, snorkel, or hike its way through a wild paradise, the southernmost part of the southernmost state in the continental U.S. calls. It’s there in the biggest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River that you’ll find the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, earth’s third largest barrier reef, hardwood hammocks, cypress domes, and the legendary “River of Grass.”
Here’s just a glimpse of the wildlife and wonders your family can enjoy in south Florida.
Big Cypress National Preserve
This 729,000-acre designated swampland at the heart of the southern peninsula is home to Florida panthers, American alligators, deer, black bears, egrets, herons, and the Big Cypress fox squirrel. The 1 to 2 feet of fresh water that covers the ground here most of the year is essential to the health of the Florida Everglades that border it to the south. Though it may be soggy and boggy below, vibrant air plants like bromeliads and wild orchids cling to the tree boughs above. When you visit, look for the trees’ “knees” that rise up beside the cypress just high enough to access air above the water during swampy seasons. We call them “tree snorkels.”
Everglades National Park
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance all wrapped up in one, and it’s the only place on earth where you may spot an alligator and an American crocodile on the same outing. As the third largest national park in the U.S., Everglades is home to several diverse ecosystems including fresh water sloughs, mangroves, hardwood hammocks, and estuaries. The inventory of animals in the Everglades seems endless, with beloved manatees and pilot whales passing through, bottlenose dolphins at play, and more than 300 species of birds on the wing and in the water.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Running parallel to the Florida Keys from Biscayne Bay all the way to Dry Tortugas National Park (70 miles west of Key West), the National Marine Sanctuary protects one of earth’s largest barrier reef systems. Here you’ll find more than 500 species of fish living among 50 types of coral, including brain coral, staghorn coral, lettuce coral, and more. And of the seven types of sea turtles found on earth, five swim in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Here’s hoping that your family gets the chance to join them!
Featured family-friendly adventures in the Everglades and south Florida: