It's Always an Adventure: Florida National Parks
Trip Dates: Tuesday, July 24th, 2018 - Sunday, July 29th, 2018
When I was younger, my Dad would take my brother and I camping and on all kinds of different outings. We'd always have the best times, even if they ended up with law enforcement of some sort getting involved. For example, did you know deciding to take a dirt bike and riding lawnmower out for a ride on state land is... against the law? I digress. The moral of the story is whenever we went with my Dad, we had this saying: "It's always an adventure with Dad..." and I'm really a firm believer that the "...it's always an adventure..."mentality has followed me, too! All of the adventuring I've been doing has led to quite a few predicaments and Florida was no different.
First we have to start with the backstory: Christa and I had planned to spend the week in between Peru and me starting work again exploring the three National Parks in Florida (Dry Tortugas, Biscayne, and Everglades). BUT, the fact we were literally stuck in Peru for nearly 24 hours put us in quite a pickle! Our flights from Cusco to Lima were cancelled and we couldn't get on another flight until the following day which meant we were missing our connecting flights to the States that night which meant we would be getting into Florida a day later than we had planned...
...which also meant we would miss the ferry out to Dry Tortugas National Park where we had plans to camp for two nights. BUT, everything happens for a reason. While we were stuck in Cusco, we scrambled to figure out our options for getting to Dry Tortugas; after all the island is nearly 70 miles west of Key West and we thought only accessible by the Yankee Freedom Ferry or a privately chartered boat. A phone call to Yankee Freedom expressing our predicament didn't go so well - the ferry was sold out until the following week and the only alternative was to take a seaplane. Mull that over for a second. A seaplane. Yep. When your entire point of going to Florida was to visit National Parks, you do whatever it takes to make it happen, including making a reservation for a seaplane. Read on...
We arrived in Florida on Tuesday by way of Fort Lauderdale, picked up our Mustang Convertible rental car (go big or go home!), and started heading south towards Key West. One of our first stops was the Southernmost Point Buoy - simply because I'm obsessed with random roadside attractions such as this. The Southernmost Point Buoy is an anchored concrete buoy in Key West that is all kinds of inaccurate. It's supposed to be marking the southernmost point in the continental United States but the true southernmost point in Florida (as well as in the continental United States) is actually 10 miles away at Ballast Key. Anyways, it's pretty cool that it's one of the most visited and photographed attractions in the United States! From the Buoy we drove to our accommodations for the evening... A boat!
I have been using Airbnb more and more lately because of the unique - and sometimes cheap - accommodation options that are on the site! With that being said, we rented a room on a yacht for the night! Obviously, because this trip was nothing but adventures, we got a phone call that the air conditioning on the yacht wasn't working and we were moved over to the sailboat instead. It all worked out because we got to go on a sunset sail with Charlie and a couple others staying on the boat! The sunset cruise on the Straycat was one of the highlights of the trip - between watching the sunset and anchoring and swimming in the ocean, it was a perfect evening and I highly recommend booking one of Charlie's rooms if you're up for a rather unique sleeping experience (I always am!) Two more awesome things - the boats are docked at a marina that has super clean showers AND the boats are within walking distance of Hogfish Bar & Grill, great for lunch/dinner and even better for ordering strawberry daiquiris to go!
Wednesday was spent searching high and low for a beach that we could lay out on and hop into the water when we got too hot. Funny thing about Key West is that even though it's surrounded by water, it isn't exactly surrounded by clear water. In fact, the water is murky, muddy, and quite frankly gross. Clearly we needed the beaches of Miami in Key West and faced a hard reality when that wasn't true. Luckily the hotel Christa booked for us in a pinch, Casa 325 on Duval Street, had a pool that we spent hours in. Florida humidity in the middle of summer is no joke! We rounded out Wednesday with some shopping, drinking, repacking, and preparing for what we had been waiting days for - our Florida National Park Tour was finally about to commence!
Key West Seaplane Adventures is located on the property of Key West International Airport and even offers free parking (bonus bell!) We arrived bright and early to check in and watched a brief video about the seaplane experience, National Park, and snorkeling guidelines. After that we met our pilot, Charlie, who got us all situated aboard the seaplane!!! The ride over was phenomenal; we were able to see shipwrecks, private islands, and most importantly: the picturesque blue water for miles and miles and miles. The plane ride was about 40 minutes in length, much much shorter than our alternative method of transportation: a 2-3 hour ferry ride. There were SO many highlights of the park, including but not limited to: the approach and landing at Dry Tortugas National Park. From having our hearts set on camping to having my heart crushed thinking I wasn't going to be able to visit one of the most remote parks in the National Park System, I was over the moon happy to see Fort Jefferson and the island of Dry Tortugas with my very own eyes - from the window of a seaplane nonetheless!
Since we only opted for the half day excursion, we hopped off the plane and immediately made our way around Fort Jefferson, taking in all the sites... and photo opportunities. Fort Jefferson is such a neat place filled with history. First, it's the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, consisting of over 16 million bricks. It was built to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North American and was later used as a prison during the Civil War, even though it was under construction! Another gem of knowledge - a little (and I mean little) dingy from Cuba made it's way to Dry Tortugas/Fort Jefferson and the 23 Cubans were granted asylum because until recently, the U.S. held a policy of “Wet Feet, Dry Land” for Cubans, which granted refugees automatic asylum if they made it to U.S. land before being intercepted. Given its proximity to Cuba, Dry Tortugas was a popular destination for a number of Cuban refugees. After exploring Fort Jefferson we made our way into the Visitor Center to stock up on our National Park swag. It was here that I was reminded of the saying "everything happens for a reason." Remember how we got stuck in Peru and missed our ferry Tuesday morning and thus couldn't camp? Well, it turns out the Yankee Freedom (the Official Key West
Ferry of the Dry Tortugas National Park) had engine difficulty and had not made the run from Key West to Dry Tortugas since Monday evening! No matter what, we were not destined to camp at Dry Tortugas and I'm actually somewhat thankful (I can't believe I'm saying that) we were stranded in Peru because it forced us to book the seaplane Sunday night before it filled up! So thankful. Yet another highlight was snorkeling around Fort Jefferson and in Dry Tortugas National Park. It was incredible; one of my first true experiences snorkeling in such blue, clear water. The shallow waters (5-15 feet) made snorkeling that much better... There were an abundance of colorful tropical fish and living coral that we got to see. After all, Dry Tortugas is a protected marine sanctuary. And the best part - complimentary fins, masks, and snorkels were provided by Key West Seaplane Adventures! I'll be recapping more about Dry Tortugas in a future blog post (with plenty more pictures) because it's in the running for my all-time favorite National Park!
The following day (Friday) we visited Biscayne National Park - another underrated remote park comprised mostly of water and located 21 miles east of Everglades National Park. I mean, the park is 95% water which meant we had to enlist the help of Harold with the Biscayne National Park Institute to get us out to one of the campgrounds via boat as there is no camping on the mainland. Although I would have preferred visited Boca Chita Key and seen the lighthouse, the institute was only taking campers to Elliott Key Friday morning. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be stranded on a deserted island, let me tell you...
Christa and I were the only two campers dropped off at Elliott Key around 9:30am Friday morning. We had the entire island to ourselves all day. We had gone from nonstop exploration in Peru to a remote island with nothing to do by enjoy the solitude. We tried snorkeling a bit but it wasn't quite as good as the waters of Dry Tortugas. We sweat, we slept, and we got bit by bugs. We watched an incredible sunset and discovered nearly three dozen lobsters enjoying golden hour. We went into our respective tents and tried to catch some zzz's in the heat and humidity. And then, at 9:46pm, we were joined by our first visitors who, it turned out, were there to stay as they had gigantic bright lights, generators, blaring music, five tents, way too many people, and no signs of caring it was after 10pm. Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep, learned some people are just inconsiderate, and quickly became even more eager to get off the island... I think our campsite reservation - which didn't exist because no one in their right mind camps in bug infested humid South Florida in the middle of July (they literally waive campsite fees from May 1 to September 30) - should have came with a free stay at the local mental institute because this adventure really challenged our mental strength.
Our return to land was triumphant to say the least. The ranger at the Visitor Center was SO nice and so helpful. I really would like to revisit this park to explore Boca Chita and the underwater trail the ranger told us about and Jones Lagoon. In fact, skip camping at Elliott Key altogether. Once we explored the other side of the island around dusk (when we thought the bugs might give us a break) we discovered the ocean side/beach was actually littered with garbage and debris from Hurricane Irma. And the locked deserted ranger station that's being air conditioned still makes me shake my head. At least there was running water and decent bathrooms... Check out all of the different experiences the Biscayne National Park Institute offers here.
Our third and final Florida National Park was the most well known - Everglades. Everglades is actually the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the National Park protects an unparalleled landscape that provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther. Did you know Everglades is the only place alligators and crocodiles cohabit. Alligators only thrive in fresh water because they can't digest salt although crocodiles can live in both fresh and salt water. The Everglades is unique because fresh water in the Florida Bay meets the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico, creating a perfect ecosystem for both animals to live together. Sadly, we didn't spend much time at Everglades and the time we did spend on the Coopertown Airboat Tour was a waste. Although we got to see some of the wetlands, we didn't see any wildlife on the tour... Luckily we had a decent Groupon.
Almost done... from Everglades we drove to South Beach to really conclude our three week long adventure in style. We had been through a lot and we deserved a little "treat yo'self" mentality! Insert 1 Hotel South Beach: voted one of the 10 Best Hotels in the US in 2017 by Condé Nast Traveler and our accommodation for our last night away from home. I've been in some nice hotels but watch out world, the 1 Hotel Brand is definitely the next up and coming five star luxury hotel brand. Their South Beach location was perfect and inspired by 600-feet of beach along the Atlantic Ocean and designed for comfort using reclaimed materials and it is naturally one-of-a-kind. Besides the commitment to sustainability, my favorite part was that every employee said "yes" to whatever you asked. The adults-only roof-top pool was awesome, the strawberry daiquiris were delicious, the poolside sushi may have upset my stomach but the bathroom was great and the beds were comfy, the beach was accessible post-checkout, and did I mention - every employee was so nice!
All in all, it was a summer filled with challenges, adventures, and experiences. It was a summer I'll remember for a lifetime! Especially reliving every moment as I sat in our all-psych staff meeting 8:00am Monday morning after I got home at 11:30pm Sunday night ;-) !