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How to do Snorkeling and Tent Camping in Key Largo and the Everglades

travel

Cheapness

Except for the $250 hotel in Miami, the trip was pretty reasonably priced. Flights from Madison Wisconsin are 300 - 400 dollars usually. And if you wait for Scott's Cheap Flights deals, much better even. We camped in a tent for four of the six nights, so that saved some money.

Top Ten Memories

For the 6 days we were in the state of Florida I kept a list of what felt weird or interesting about being in Florida:

  1. Crabgrass lawns. The environment is so harsh that crabgrass seems to be a good deliberate choice. The campus of MDC (Miami Dade College) was planted densely with crabgrass, exclusively.
  2. Rain and sun coexist more or less. The only kind of rain we ever saw was: sunny day, then a giant thundercloud would slide into place, emit rain for 15 minutes, slide away, and it was sunny again, the pavement steaming. Some rain fell every day almost.
  3. Golf ball sized snails crawl all over things. And the lizards are under eaves, on walls, running across roofs (both mouse size and rat size)
  4. The entire state is of course made from ancient pulverized shells and limestone. I tasted the soil in Coastal Prairie Trail, near Flamingo Florida. As expected it was similar to a box of baking soda and within a few seconds, a mild volcano issued from my mouth. It had a high pH taste on the tongue.
  5. The trees often have orchid or similar epiphytes.
  6. Near the campground we saw a lone Papaya tree, covered with green papayas. We expected to see more but never did.
  7. We saw a really weird multicolored bird almost get eaten by a alligator. The bird was hopping around the water's edge. The gator drifted closer, closer. The bird eventually froze. The gator left. We ID'd it at the ranger table back in the Anhinga Trail parking lot: it was a Gallinule Bird
  8. The mahogany tree clusters (in the Everglade fields) have a moat around them. It's generated as acidic water washes out and dissolves the limestone, making a watery trench.
  9. Anhinga Birds very plentiful and strange on their titular trail.
  10. Passing through the airport I lost my Covid mask ($2000 fine). Tried to buy one next to the candy bars in the vending machine but it was all out, so I found a mask on the carpet and wore it. It was an awesome navy blue thing. I looked very presidential.

Tent Camping

It was sun blasted and not pretty in the campground but I would do this again, maybe.

We pitched a tent in Flamingo and that was a good Everglades base for doing exploring for the next two days. The Everglades are nearly roadless: very inaccessible. The first exception is a road that crosses the whole state of Florida, from coast to coast, in a straight line, forming the north boundary of the Everglades National Park. The other road is a diagonal slash, starting from Robert Is Here and going more or less southwest, until it terminates at the ocean, near Flamingo Campground. Flamingo is where we chose to camp for two days in a tent.

The Flamingo Campground is sun-blasted. To shade loving northerners it felt very unpleasant during the day but that was okay: it forced us to stay out and about. And it took two days to try all of the one to two hour hikes in the park. And you probably will want to try them all because they are all different, the park consisting of five different biomes. Nearby was a glamping option that we couldn't afford. A group of four should consider it though. It's a cluster of nice looking yurts or wall tents of some type.

A store for Flamingo campground is within walking distance (like 10 minutes walk) and open from 7am to 7pm, stocked about the same as a 7-Eleven, roughly. It has beer, hot coffee. Behind this store there is an osprey nest on top of a twelve foot tall street light. There is also a fish cleaning screened porch where you can hang out in the afternoon as fisherfolk come in the afternoon. We watched someone gut a shark there and then, in complete violation of the law, they threw the guts into the water to attract crocodiles.

Snorkeling in the Florida Keys

We camped at King's Kamp in Key Largo. Highway 1 was fifty feet away but somehow we didn't notice it. The camping spots are all jammed together, like a very compact version of a KOA. The Kings Kamp vibe was sociable. It felt weird for a minute but we were cool with everything pretty quickly.

I think there is a tacit "don't talk politics" agreement around the Kamp. Some Trump voters seemed to be there but they weren't overt about it. And a mix of people felt welcome. There were campers with Spanish as a first language. Also some young couples. Also one group of African American women with a very futuristic tent. Also some Navy Seal types -- there for the scuba scene I perceived.

We tenters were probably 20% of the population. There was a white woman with a Maine license plate, maybe 70ish, down there by herself, reading in a chair in the evening or talking on the phone. She was using a tent, same as us. We gave here a thumbs up and she gave a shout out: "Tents Rock!".

The kamp is well run. The bathrooms were all good. Try to bring some long ropes to tie your tent to a tree or table, because the ground is unstake-a-ble: it's all gravel, all the way down.

The Snorkeling Part

Day One we just walked down from our tent to the dock at Kings Kamp and they had a little sand beach where older folks were comparing surgery scars and a few snowbirds were sneaking beers (no alcohol in public areas, officially). Hopes for underwater sights were low.

We put on our flippers and walked past the docked boats, out into the ocean there at the Kings Kamp dock. We snorkeled right along the shore. Lots of jet skis about a quarter mile away and the water slightly turbid. But we got our nature: we were soon snorkeling in and out of mangrove roots, peeking into crevices and finding marine life. Soon we saw a 14" angelfish, then a small barracuda. Eventually a parrot fish too. And the shoreline, under the water, had many many strange colors of sponges growing.

We saw some weird transparent fish that were 2" wide and 12" long. Eels? Transparent gar? Not sure.

Day Two we drove to John Pennekamp State Park. Go before 10am: this is a heavily used park. We anticipated diving from the shore again, but the snorkel tour boats had walk up tickets easily available. I wouldn't worry about reserving before you come down. If we can get a same day ticket right in the middle of Spring Break (March 19) you don't need to worry. Again, we were arriving in the first hour the park was open, still 9ish.

For $70 each we got passage on a concession boat that took us out 30 minutes til the shore was pretty far away, dropped anchor, and said "Jump in, everybody. I'll stay here for the next hour or so." And so we all went in and did whatever struck our fancy. So it was a couple dozen of us and we had this 300' by 100' area where the water was a dozen feet deep. I won't try to describe it but just picture Jacques Cousteau, minus the carnivores. Probably saw 20 different species of animals down there on the reef.

My hooded sunshirt hiked up my back so later on Meg was laughing because I had a 6" red band on the skin of my lower back for the rest of the trip.

Miami Art

We blew $200 and stayed in a Miami hotel for the last day.

The Wynwood neighborhood was pretty good. I recommend going way up to where the The Margulies Collection at the WAREhOUSE. The museum is okay, but walking around the rough neighborhood to see the painted walls of the school and some of the industrial buildings was cool. And there is a cozy vegetarian coffee shop there too, at Love Life Cafe

We took a couple photos of Miami sculptures.

It was at the hotel that I had my first ever $20 dollar drink: a small Gin & Tonic at the rooftop pool.

Guides

We got a lot of mileage out of Fodor's South Florida and Lonely Planet Miami and Area. Either one of these books would have been enough. Both came with useful maps. These books are easily found at the Madison Public Library.

Verdict on traveling to the state of Florida

I would go again. After thinking of Florida as a travel cliche for almost fifty years, I am glad we took the plunge. Meg and I greatly the unfashionable parts of Miami, the reef in Key Largo, and the Everglades flora and fauna.