Miami is a paradise. Pristine waters kiss fine white beaches under a year round sun. South Florida is the universal symbol of tranquility and relaxation for many. However South Florida isn’t known as an adventurers paradise. At a maximum elevation of a mere 6 feet above sea level, it lacks the majestic mountains of the west, the rolling hills of Georgia and the Carolinas just a few states away, and the dramatic Texas landscape just across the Gulf of Mexico. However what Florida lacks it makes up for in it’s diverse and one of a kind ecosystem, giving way to a landscape and an outdoor experience that is unrivaled in any part of the world.
This past spring I had a revelation. I wanted to see South Florida’s wild side. I wanted to find adventure in the flat wilderness of the swamps of the Everglades, get up and personal with a gator, and power my way through the thick mangroves of Biscayne Bay. What I discovered this summer is Miami is an ever-changing landscape that allows one to have an unparalleled experience with nature. A true wild adventure is behind every corner here, you just need to know where to look.
Oleta River State Park
Located in the heart of Biscayne Bay, Oleta River State Park offers miles of fine and challenging mountain biking and kayak trails that run alongside the pristine shoreline through thick mangroves. Herons, Pelicans, and Egrets nest in the thick vines while manatees and the occasional dolphin swim through the roots. My kayaking trip took me
through the mangrove trails, and into the open waters of Biscayne Bay where the oncoming winds prove a formidable challenge as we slid across the sandbar and onto the beaches of one of the small mangrove islands.The islands are small forests in themselves and offer small trails inland that can make someone forget they are still in fact in the heart of the city. Beyond the waters, Oleta offers miles of challenging mountain bike routes that go deep into the forests while others can opt for paved novice routes that run parallel to the waters. For those who have little or no experience in the outdoor skills, Oleta offers safe protected log cabins and campsites, some accessible by canoe that offer a safe place for a first experience before launching a larger expedition down south.
A mere thirty minute drive from the Florida International University campus is the lush paved trail known as Shark Valley. Shark Valley is a 15 mile loop along the tip of the Everglades where alligators roam free along the waterways and nature is as up close and personal as ever.The loop is accessible in three ways. By bicycle, by tram, or by foot. Any bicycle is welcomed and bike rentals run at $8.00 an hour Halfway up the loop is a watchtower that when climbed provides an awe inspiring vista across the vast swamps. At the edge of the watchtower are several hiking trails that go to the border of the wild everglades.
Animals are in abundance here. The seven mile ride to the watchtower runs parallel to a natural canal where gators are ever-present. The alligators are generally docile and there have been no reported attacks in the valley, yet, they are continuously crossing the road, and the bikes are generally whisking by a mere three feet or less from a ten foot animal. Other than the gator, great blue herons, egrets, falcons, and storks line and nest in the trees. One of the pleasures of Shark Valley is riding out in the early morning before the large crowds arrive and having an empty road while watching the daily movement of life in a part of South Florida that is so close and yet so removed from anything else.
Farther past Shark Valley is the heart of the swamplands. The Everglades. Although explored in the comfort of an airboat, car, or organized trails, those looking for a wild experience can explore the many backcountry sites far removed from civilization. The canoe trails in the everglades are dotted with chickee hut platforms, ground sites and beach sites, many accessible only by the constricted waterways. Many of these sites lack campground amenities such as showers or running water and a basic understanding of camp construction is a must. However these sites offer a true wilderness experience as they are isolated from the organized campgrounds and it is possible to only see a couple or less tents at a time. Backcountry camping requires obtaining a permit the day before or the day of the start of the trip and basic navigational skills are a must, however it provides an authentic experience in the midst of the swamps.
The range of adventure in South Florida is vast, and the small sample of outdoor experiences isn’t even a mere tip of what the land has to offer. What makes South Florida so unique is it’s accessibility. Trails, paths, and waterways are clearly marked, and pristine waters offer a glimpse of a diverse ecosystem that is uniquely ours. Of course it requires the same level of protection and anybody enjoying our lands should treat it with dignity and respect. A true adventure requires a leap into the daring and unknown, but it also requires a sense of preservation and thoughtfulness. Keep our lands clean, and explore on!