Hey, stop this train!

After so many days of being on the road we knew it was time to find a place to stop and spend at least a week. After researching our options we decided to try out the Value Place extended stay hotel chain that is located in a number of Florida cities. Lakeland, Florida, seemed like a centrally-located city with enough surrounding options to keep us occupied for a week. It is also close to our friends from Virginia, the Clendenin’s, who spend the winter months here in their RV.

Friday morning before leaving Fort Pierce, we spent some time in the downtown area, which included a visit to the Manatee Education Center. Besides the indoor and outdoor exhibits we had an opportunity to watch a group of manatees hovering just beneath the surface of the water in the ditch behind the center. The manatees like the ditch because it is an outlet from a city utility plant. The water flowing into the ditch from the plant is warmer than the surrounding water and manatees crave warmth (I know how they feel)! One of the things we learned about manatees is that the leading cause of death for them is pneumonia. They don’t have a thick skin nor a high metabolism to help them stay warm.

Leaving the Manatee Education Center we took a short drive across the inlet to check out the nearby beaches. The beaches on the Atlantic side of Florida are different from the Gulf coast beaches. It was a windy day, rather chilly, and the waves were rolling in. Standing there in the wind reminded me of other beach visits over the years in places like Virginia Beach, VA, or Ocean City, Maryland. It seems like whenever I’m there it’s cold and windy and I want to just get somewhere warm like it was when we were at the Everglades. Still a lot warmer, though, than it would have been in Virginia or Maryland.

On our drive across Florida to reach Lakeland from Fort Pierce we stayed off the major interstates to get a better feel for what Florida is really like. Lots of cattle ranches and orange groves and orange juice processing plants to look at.

Here in Lakeland we are enjoying the chance to get our bearings and know that we don’t have to pack up the car again until Friday. Saturday we got on our bikes and explored the Lake-to-Lake bicycle route.

Lakeland is appropriately named. There are multitudes of small lakes in and around the city.
Lake Hollingsworth, first lake on the Lake-to-Lake route.

Lake Morton, close to downtown.

Hollis Gardens, close to downtown.

Yesterday we attended church with our friends, the Clendenin’s and got a tour of the area where they live in Polk City, which is a small town close to Lakeland. Today we are catching up on some business and taking time to figure out where things are around the city. Our hotel offers internet, but we have found it to be frustratingly unreliable. We are now happily working on our computers using the great wireless service that is offered for free at the Lakeland Public library.

Either a cold front has moved into the state or it just isn’t as warm here as it was in southern Florida. Our bikes are on the car and if it warms up enough this afternoon we will explore another bike trail here in town. Meanwhile, it is nice to have a few days to know we don’t have to be on the move and that we have a stove where we can cook actual dinners.

Everglades to Fort Pierce by way of Lake Okeechobee

We didn’t intend to be in Fort Pierce tonight, but our adventures in Florida have often led us to places that we hadn’t necessarily thought of visiting. The 3 days that we spent in the Everglades were like that. Until a conversation last Saturday with our friends, the Marshall’s, we weren’t thinking that the Everglades would be somewhere we would go during our time in Florida. I can’t believe that we almost missed going there. It was a fantastic 3 days, with so much more to share about than I will have time for here. But I’ll give a quick rundown just so you’ll know that we didn’t get eaten by alligators and are still alive and well.

Alligators, alligators, alligators. I kept pleading with Lee that we just HAD to go through the Everglades because I really wanted to see alligators. And see alligators we did. During the 3 days there were many places we stopped to view them. They like to lay out in the sun next to ditches, as well as sometimes when we would see them floating in the canals like half-submerged logs. At no time did we ever see one that looked like it had enough energy to even care one bit that a bunch of tourists were there gawking and taking pictures. Notice in the third picture that this is a whole nest of alligators!

Our tour of the Everglades started at the western end and included time in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which adjoins Everglades National Park in the northeast. One of the activities here (besides stopping at roadside viewing areas to see alligators and at visitor centers to watch educational videos about the park and preserve) was to hike a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail that goes through the preserve from north to south.

It was an interesting surface to walk on, not rocky like trails we are familiar with in the Shenandoah, but often rough terrain where the limestone bedrock was eroded and pitted.
“Lee picking his way over the perilous pitted limestone path”

Our first night was spent at a nice, but rather pricey, motel in Everglades City. When we realized that we would want to spend more than one night, we decided to try our first campout of the trip and stay at the Monument Lake campground we had seen earlier in the day while driving through the preserve, not far from Everglades City. Even without having planned on camping out we found that we had all we needed to make it a pleasant experience.

Sunrise over Monument Lake the morning after our campout.

Early morning walk near the campground.

Since we weren’t prepared for campsite cooking we did go into town and enjoy a nice seafood dinner at a local restaurant. My dinner included a cup of delicious stone crab soup. We learned that stone crabs are harvested locally in the bay and that it is illegal to capture and keep the whole crab. Instead, only one claw is cut off and the crab is put back in the water. If done correctly, the crab will regenerate a new claw for the next hungry tourist.

A lot of what we learned about the Everglades was on a boat tour that we took from the park visitor center at Everglades City. The boat tour also provided the thrilling experience of watching a pod of dolphins race up to our boat and swim and play, jumping and rolling in the waves made by the boat’s wake. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a camera with a shutter fast enough to catch a picture of the dolphins.
Lee on the boat before departing the dock.

Two of us on the boat.

And we wouldn’t want to leave the western end of the Everglades without showing you the picture we took at the Ochopee Post Office, which is between Everglades City and the Monument Lake campground. It is the smallest post office in the US, but only in the size of the building. The postmistress said that it is a busy post office and not on the list of post offices planned for closure by the US Postal Service. Of course, it’s busy with all of us tourists who stop and get postcards of the cute, little building.

Midway through our Everglades experience we enjoyed a 15-mile bike ride through the area of the park called Shark River Slough. It should have been called Alligator River Slough, since alligators were visible everywhere along the ditches, but obviously no sharks in the middle of the everglades. And, as in so many of the other areas of the park, clouds of herons, egrets, wood storks, ibis, and anhingas, to name a few, were everywhere. What I found particularly interesting about this trail is that it was an asphalt road built to carry tourists by tram on a circular route with a stop midway at an observation tower. The bikes were allowed to share the road by pedaling in the opposite direction of the trams and then pulling over and stopping whenever a tram was approaching.

Observation tower at Shark Valley

Our overnight stay Tuesday night was at a motel in Florida City, which is at the eastern edge of the Everglades. Wednesday morning we took a short side trip to Biscayne National Park which is within viewing distance of Miami across the Bay. It is also the northernmost part of the Florida Keys. We didn’t take time to drive down into the Keys, but, hey, you can’t do everything.

Before saying goodby to the Everglades, we drove in through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and found a picnic area for lunch at Long Pine Key. After lunch we walked on a trail through the pines that came out on the shore of a small lake.

Wednesday night found us camping again, this time at a Corps of Engineers campground in the town of Pahokee on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Don’t you just love the names of the places in Florida? Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the continental US (bonus points for knowing what the largest one is). Herbert Hoover Dike was built around the lake in the 1930’s for flood protection. There is a paved and off-road trail called the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) atop the dike. And wouldn’t you know it, but our intrepid travelers had to get their bikes off the car and see what it was like to pedal the LOST trail.

Pretty hard to get lost on it, that’s for sure.

So tonight, as I mentioned, we are in Fort Pierce, on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida. This area is known as the “Treasure Coast” from a number of ships of Spanish galleons that wrecked off the coast during the 17th and 18th centuries. We don’t plan to dive for sunken treasures, but as this adventure continues, who knows what treasures await us.