2021 Western Ohio Bicycle Adventure

June 2021

The year 2020 would have been the 32nd annual riding of The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure – (GOBA) – a week-long cycling and camping adventure across a varying part of Ohio that our brother-in-law had fully participated in over its entire history, and which we had joined him and his wife for the past decade.  However, the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020-2021 cancelled the 2020 running, and in 2021, a smaller, more conservative running, relabeled WOBA, was offered as a temporary replacement.

This year’s rides would start in the western Ohio town of Sydney on Sunday (Father’s Day) with a 53-mile ride in 93-degree heat. The ride was organized as a looping figure-8 and the heat and hills were wearing on the 350 participants. At the end of the ride, back in Sydney, we showered at the Fairgrounds and drove to the town of Wapakoneta – home to The Neil Armstrong Museum, where we set up our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Monday was a day of strong winds and another 55-miles laid out over a large loop, and Tuesday we cycled 51-miles along country roads surrounded by corn and soybeans. After our rides each day, we would explore local businesses, such as The Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen and Five Vines Winery outside of Wapakoneta. After Tuesday’s ride, we drove to the town of Versailles – home to the annual “Chicken Festival” – where we set up our tents at Heritage Park.

Wednesday, we decided to cut our ride short and stopped for a proper sit-down breakfast at Sideliners after a short 22-miles.  We then used the day to again pack up and move to the town of Troy where we camped near the banks of the Great Miami River and had time to explore their historic downtown, including the local library, bakery, and the Moeller Brewery. Thursday, we rode 45-miles through Piqua and past historic old remnants of the Ohio Canal system. Friday was another 43-miles, partly along River Bike paths.  However, upon returning to camp, an earlier drizzle convinced us to pack up our tents and head to my brother-in-law’s house located only 30-miles away.

Downtown Troy

Saturday, we arose early and biked into the town of Tipp City where we joined the final leg of the adventure and stopped for breakfast at a favorite spot.  After we rode back home, we had put in another 19-miles along the beautiful riverside path along the Great Miami River.

With another weeklong bicycle adventure  “in the books” and nearly 300 miles behind us, we took the occasion to celebrate with a toast and a cold glass of beer.

South Dakota – Part 3

On Wednesday morning, we checked out of our hotel in Custer and began the drive to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower, (Yes – the Devil’s Tower of “Close Encounters” fame). Along the way we pass Jewel Cave National Monument and small herds of deer and alpaca. As we leave the Black Hills and head into Wyoming, the landscape becomes dotted with old “nodding donkey” oil wells and an isolation of few cars and fewer people.  We arrive at Devil’s Tower National Monument (again, no one at the entrance station), leave our car at the lot located at its base, and begin a 1.3-mile hike that circumnavigates it. The views looking up at the volcanic columnar joints of rock, and then viewing the opposing panoramas make the hike a must-do experience. After our hike, we stop and shop at the local Trading Post and begin our trip back to South Dakota along I-90 East to the town of Spearfish and past the documented Vore Buffalo Jump where buffalo were supposed to have been driven over the cliff to harvest them. We take the recommended drive down Spearfish Valley Scenic Byway stopping to view Bridal Veil Falls and watch the local fly fishermen before continuing our journey into Savoy where we picnicked and hiked 1.1-miles into the river valley to Spearfish Falls.

Then, it was onto the famous “Wild West” town of Deadwood.  Deadwood is well known for its old Western history, and for the fact that “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot dead at a poker game there in 1876. His poker hand, which he supposedly held at the time of his death, has become known as the dead man’s hand: two pairs; black aces and eights. The town was made even more popular after the HBO series, “Deadwood” was aired. In Deadwood, we visited the “Visitor’s Center”, and then toured the Mount Moriah Cemetery where both Hickok and his true love, Martha “Calamity” Jane are buried.  Around their gravestones are an assortment of mementos left by admirers, including bullets, coins, flowers, and painted stones. Next, we checked into our hotel at “The Mineral Palace”, a conglomeration of old buildings located on Main Street and home to one of the many casinos populating the way.  A stroll down Main Street brought us past the old Bullock Hotel, the Gem Saloon, and to Saloon #10 where Hickok was killed. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for souvenirs and tasting spirits from the Deadwood Distillery before heading to a fantastic steak dinner at the Gem Restaurant in the Mineral Palace.

Thursday morning, we were up early and headed to the town of Sturgis – home to the world’s largest summer motorcycle rally, and then beyond to Bear Butte State Park.  Bear Butte is a hallowed Native American site, and we took the occasion to hike 1100 feet, (4462 feet elevation) up a 2-mile trail for the awesome 360-degree view.  After hiking back down and visiting with a local chief at the historical center, we drove onto Rapid City where the downtown is populated with life-sized statues of every president of the United States, located on every street corner.  After sightseeing the town, we were back in the car and into the Badlands where we briefly reentered the Park to see bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats as the sun set on the horizon.  That night, we again stayed in the town of Wall and re-visited Wall Drug for last-minute shopping before enjoying dinner at the Badland’s Saloon.

Friday morning, we made one last drive through Badland’s National Park as the sun came up over the horizon.  The early journey rewarded us with sightings of Pronghorns, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Mountain Goats and even a few Bunny Rabbits!  We returned to the Wall hotel for breakfast before checking out and heading east on I-90 back towards Sioux Falls.  Along the way, we made a stop at the Minuteman Delta-01 Missile site, but it was closed.

Further along we stopped in the town of Mitchell, home of the famous Corn Palace.  The Corn Palace hosts ½ million visitors per year, is of a Moorish design with minarets, and is completely covered and decorated with murals made from corn cobs, husks, and stalks of 12 different colors that are changed out annually. The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892, rebuilt in 1905, and remodeled in 1921 and serves as the Region’s premier location for basketball tournaments, graduations, etc. Then, it was onto Sioux City where we went downtown to visit Hotel Phillip – converted from the historical Sioux Falls National Bank built in 1918, with the impressive vault, (complete with its 16-ton doors and 24 x 3-inch bolts), still in place in the hotel’s lobby as an entrance to The Treasury – a modern bar and eatery. Since it was too early for its bar to open, we wandered across the street to the Woodgrain Brewery for lunch before returning to The Treasury for cocktails. The, we returned our car to the airport before checking into our hotel for our last night in South Dakota.

South Dakota – Part 2

The Black Hills represent an uplift and exposure of older, harder sediments to the surface. These exposed granites form the basis for the carvings of Mount Rushmore and The Crazy Horse Monument.  The geographic high caused water runoff to the east to seriously erode the softer, uplifted prairie sediments giving rise to the erosive canyons of the Badlands. A geologic map clearly shows the natural consequence of this uplift. The “Black Hills” get their name from the native Lakota Tribe who referred to the area by its dark appearance due to the tree-covered mountains at a distance.

Early Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed back to Mount Rushmore for a day viewing, only to be met by 31-degree weather and freezing sleet! At Mount Rushmore, we hiked in a cold rain to the base of the rubble pile, referred to as “The President’s Trail.” From there, we could see each President’s carved face up-close.  We then shopped at the Visitor’s Center and reviewed the museum of the memorial’s construction, as the Governor prepared for a Press Conference outside to announce the “Opening of the State” in time for Tourist Season which would begin on Memorial Day! Mount Rushmore was a huge project that began in 1927 and was supposed to take 5-years and $500,000 to complete.  It was proposed by the South Dakota State Historian to include Native Americans and American Frontiersmen, but when it was funded and directed by the Federal Government and they assigned famous sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to the Project, it was changed to include only the faces of four U.S. Presidents. Controversy and delays plagued the Project which ended up taking 14 years and over $1 million dollar to complete. 400 workers climbed 700 stairs every day to punch in on a time clock before being lowered by cables over the 500-foot face of the mountain to begin work using crude chisels and dynamite. The area below the faces included a camp and power generation for everything that they would need. As defects in the rock were discovered, Borglum would move the faces around and reposition them on a huge scale model that would be updated and used for measurements to guide the carving. Technically, the land belongs to the Native American Indigenous Tribes, however no movement to return it has yet taken place. 

After visiting Mount Rushmore, we drove to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial where we toured the Indian Museum of North America and its huge collection of art and artifacts from more than 300 Native American tribes and took a bus trip to the base of the carving. The memorial, which occupies a 600-foot-tall mountain, commemorates the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, and is dedicated to preserving and sharing the living history and culture of all Native Americans. This incredible memorial, which is still under construction, is 2nd and 3rd Generation family-owned and privately funded and will likely take 100+ years to reach completion. The family of the original sculptor wants to preserve the original intent of the memorial and does not trust allowing it to fall under Government funding or control. 

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, we made a short trip to Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park is about 10 miles north of the town of Hot Springs and was made a National Park in 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt. Wind Cave was the U.S.’s 7th National Park and the first cave in the world to be designated a National Park The dry cave was discovered by the Bingham Brothers in 1881 when they heard wind rushing out from a small hole in the ground. The cave was then opened to visitors in 1892 and tourists explored by candlelight. After we descended ~200ft down roughhewn steps, we observed calcite formations known as “boxwork”, which are extremely rare, as well as “moon’s milk” and “popcorn” formations. We explored a small part of the extensive cave network before we rode an elevator back to the surface.

After returning to the hotel, we took some time to relax in the hot tub before showering and have dinner again at the Buglin’s Bull.

On Tuesday, we drove to Custer State Park, and, as had been the occurrence on most of this trip, there was no one at the open park entrance. We drove along the Wilderness Loop until we came upon a small group of wild burros that had descended from abandoned miners’ stock from over 100 years ago. They were clearly looking for a handout, but we rolled-up our windows and moved slowly along.  Along the journey, we saw baby bison and a herd of pronghorns before we arrived at the Visitor’s Center to register for a Day Pass and collect a few maps.  After stopping for passing groups of Bighorn Sheep, we finally turned onto the 37-mile-long Needles Highway where we came upon several wild Turkeys with a large male spreading his tail feathers for show.  The road grew narrower and twisty and became limited to automobiles and small trucks only.

Eventually, we came upon the Mountain Pinnacles and Iron Rock Tunnel – the first tunnel as one heads northwest through the Pinnacles.  This road was cut and was considered as a possible site for the Mount Rushmore sculpture, but after inspection was deemed too unstable. These tunnels are only fit for 1 vehicle passing through at a time, and the walls miss our car by less than 1-foot!  Next, we reach the famous Needles Eye Tunnel – a narrow crack that has been tunneled at the base that barely fits our Dodge Charger through, and only after we are sure no traffic is approaching from the other direction. After passing through the “eye of the Needle” we come upon Sylvan Lake and stop for a bite of lunch before embarking on a hike around the lake, where snow and ice are still present in the shadows of the granite pillars. We then take the Needles highway back into the center of Custer Park where we explored scenic valleys, seldom traveled dirt roads, and charred hills from recent forest fires. At the edge of the park, we came upon a huge herd of bison (over 1000 head) coming slowly down from the high country heading for the rich valleys of the park, many with young calves in-tow. 

After watching the Bison, we exit Custer Park and head toward the town of Hot Springs – an old 1800’s town with a multitude of natural hot springs, a national cemetery, and the state’s largest Veterans Hospital. A local BBQ stand won over our temptation, and we stopped for a small beef brisket snack and conversation with the owner, before getting back on the road for the trip back to our hotel in Custer.

South Dakota

Part 1

It is April 2021, and the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic that has kept everyone from traveling is beginning to come under control. Although International travel is still nearly impossible, travel within the United States has become a possibility, especially if one has been vaccinated against the virus, as Julie and Rocky were with 2 Moderna shots in January and February.  Therefore, it seemed appropriate to travel somewhere where we had never gone and where we could enjoy the great outdoors without crowds.  South Dakota seemed to be just the right place.

South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming are parts of the country a bit “off-the-grid” and the home of numerous spectacular landscapes, animals, parks, and attractions. We decided to fly American Airlines from our home in Florida on Saturday, May 1st, 2021, through Charlotte to Sioux Falls, S.D. and pick up a rental car to use for sightseeing. The trip took most of the day, but upon our arrival in Sioux Falls at ~4:00pm, we were pleasantly surprised by 1) 93-degree temperatures, and 2) the Enterprise Car Rental Agent, as we were upgraded at no charge to a Dodge Charger.  We then sought to drive west ~290 miles to the town of Wall where we had motel reservations. Since the speed limit on I-90 is 80 mph, the trip was fast and enjoyable with sightings of deer, pheasants, and extensive prairies (The author of “Little House on the Prairie”, Laura Engels Wilders, home is marked here), giving way to hills, wind farms, and Minuteman silos. After passing the town of “1880” we arrived in Wall and checked into our motel.  Quickly freshening up, we traveled to the old town center for a late dinner but found most shops already closed for the evening. Instead, we grabbed dinner in The Badlands Saloon, where we talked with locals at the bar. After a pleasant evening, we called it night and prepared for exploring the Badlands the next morning.

The famous Wall Drug Store

Sunday morning, the sun came up early, and after getting a “grab-and-go” breakfast from the motel and checking out, we set off for the nearby Pinnacles Gate Entrance to The Badlands National Park. The temperature was now in the 50’s, as we went to the nearby Pinnacles Overlook.  From there we could see a few Bison roaming near the Sage Creek Run Road, so we headed down to look.  After watching the Bison, we traveled further down the Sage Creek Run Road, taking in several overlooks with views into the Badlands, before finally reaching the Robert’s Prairie Dog Town where thousands of Prairie Dogs scurry about chattering and yelping their “all clear” signals. We then returned to the main road stopping to take pictures of Mountain Goats and more Bison.

Upon traveling deeper into the park, we stopped at Ancient Hunter’s Overlook, and then at Yellow Mounds Overlook where the rising sun delivered stunning colors of the geologic layers. Here we saw more Mountain Goats and our first group of Bighorn Sheep. We continued through the park stopping at each overlook and enjoying the variety of park animals until we got to a short hike along the Fossil Exhibit Trail – a boardwalk that highlights fossils derived from different ages of local sediments. 

We then hiked the Saddle Pass Trail through eroded Badlands’ terrain, until we returned to our car and drove to the Cedar Pass Gift Shop and visited the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center.  From here, we hiked the Cliff Shelf Trail and tackled the Notch Trail, which included a somewhat climb and return descent on an unstable trail ladder. After a lunch snack at the car, we hiked the Door Trail and explored the views from the Windows Trail. 

We then exited the park at its eastern end and began the western trip back to the town of Custer. Along the way, we stopped to look at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Visitor Center, but it was closed on Sunday.  Upon traveling back through Wall, we visited the tourist attraction “Wall Drug”, which is a series of stores that sell nearly everything one could think of and also sells 5-cent coffee!  In the back, they have a huge historical collection, and “protect” it with a very realistic T-Rex who comes to animated, mechanical life every hour! After shopping, we continued to the town of Custer, which is located near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.  After checking in to our motel, we had dinner at the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant before heading over to Mount Rushmore for its evening lighting of the memorial. Every night, the lights illuminate the faces of the four presidents until 11:00pm. We then returned to the motel for a welcomed night’s sleep.

“Yardi” Gras – 2021

February 14 2021

February 2021 found New Orleans still deeply in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic, putting the city in the difficult decision of having to cancel all Mardi Gras Parades, and even closing the downtown’s bars and restricting access to Bourbon Street.  However, in the typical “can do” and forward-looking spirit of New Orleans, Mardi Gras would still be celebrated, and the colorful revelry would simply move to a different forum.  One of the most novel concepts was to replace Mardi Gras Floats with Houses decorated to resemble the colorful, whimsical artistic mobile structures – e.g., “Yardi” Gras.  This concept turned out to be so popular, (over 3000 houses in New Orleans registered to an indexed map), that the idea and celebration has moved across the country – and even the world – and is highly likely to be an annual event with growing recognition and awards.  In fact, it was already apparent in New Orleans this year that paid tours of “Yardi” Gras homes for in-town tourists were already underway. This also had a great knock-on impact on the float-building and decoration Industry, as MG artists and companies were now being employed to design and decorate houses rather that floats.

Since Mardi Gras Day 2021 in New Orleans fell on a day of record low temperatures, (26 degrees F), and dangerous conditions, we ventured out on the milder Sunday before Lundi Gras to capture some of the locally decorated houses and were not disappointed.  Enjoy the small subset of the ~70 houses that we observed pictured here!

Endymeow 2021 – Cat Practice – 1809 Magazine St
MF – Mignon Faget – Butterflies of Winter – House # 7 – 3801 Magazine St
The Night Tripper – House Float 1 – Honoring Dr John – 1834 Toludano St
Dr John – A Mural by Artist MTO – French Graffiti – 1801 Toludano St
The Circus “Animal House” – Kern Studio – 5531 St Charles St
A MUSE-ing Garden – Krewe of Muses – 2800 St Charles St
Queen Jubilee – House Float #5 – Krewe of Red Beans – 2701 St Charles St
Queen Jubilee – House Float #5 – Krewe of Red Beans – 2701 St Charles St
Dr John – Lets Make it a Better World – 1629 Coliseum Dr
Dino Gras – Brontosaurus – Kern Studio – 5809 St Charles St
Dino Gras – Triceratops- Kern Studio – 5809 St Charles St
The Fly – Kern Studios – St Charles & Webster St
The Fly – with Nick Saban – Kern Studios – St Charles & Webster St
Mystic Krewe of Unicorns – 4500 St Charles
Live to Ride – St Charles & 4th St

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 4 – The Dry Tortugas

January 2021

Thursday morning, we rose early and gathered in one car to hear down to the Ferry Terminal to park and check in for our trip on “The Yankee Freedom” – a 250-passenger (but only carries 175) Ferry under contract to the National Park Service to take passengers to the Dry Tortugas located 70 miles west of Key West. Boat or Seaplane is the only way to get to this National Park and the 2-hour Ferry ride offers glimpses of sea turtles grazing and a myriad of sailing vessels.  The Ferry trip includes a breakfast, and a lunch once we arrive at the Island.  It also provides snorkeling gear and serves as the only source of fresh water and for restrooms for the visitors to the island.

The Yankee Freedom Ferry

The Dry Tortugas are a series of small islands (once 11, but today only 7), that has an interesting history starting with their discovery by Ponce De Leon in 1513, and their naming for both the lack of any fresh water and for the large numbers of sea turtles that nested there. The current islands are:

  • Loggerhead Key, which is the largest island, has the highest elevation at 10 ft, and is home to the Dry Tortugas lighthouse.
  • Garden Key, with Fort Jefferson and the (currently missing) Garden Key lighthouse located east of Loggerhead Key and the second largest island.
  • Bush Key, formerly named Hog Island because of the hogs that were raised there to provide fresh meat for the prisoners at Fort Jefferson, and which was currently attached to Garden Key via a sandbar. The island is the third largest and is the site of a large tern rookery, and is off-limits for half of the year.
  • Long Key is located at the eastern end of Bush Key.
  • Hospital Key, so called because a hospital for the inmates of Fort Jefferson during the Yellow Fever epidemics had been built there in the 1870s. The island was formerly called Sand Key. It lies about 1 ½ miles northeast of Garden Key and Bush Key.
  • Middle Key, which lies 1 ½ miles east of Hospital key and is not always above sea level.
  • East Key located a mile east of Middle Key.

The area is known for its treacherous reefs, and in 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn ships and guide them toward safety. At the time shipwrecks were common, and with underwater wrecks dating back to the 1600s, the Dry Tortugas currently possess one of the richest concentrations of shipwrecks in North America. It is also because of these large reefs surrounding the Tortugas that the U.S. was able to establish one of the most strategic harbors in U.S. history, and the largest all-masonry fort in the United States, Fort Jefferson. Construction of the fort began in 1846, and although it was never finished after 30 years, the bastion remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. With its 15-inch Rodman smoothbores guns, weighing 25 tons each, a crew of seven men could fire a 432-pound projectile a distance of three miles. The fort was later was used as a prison until abandoned in 1874, after suffering numerous bouts and high death rates from yellow fever and scurvy. Dr. Samuel Mudd, famous for being the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth for a broken leg in the wake of the Lincoln assassination, was imprisoned here until early 1869. Also imprisoned was a leader of the “Chicago Conspiracy”, Englishman George St. Leger Grenfell, who is supposed to have drowned having escaped in a small boat. During the 1880s, the Navy established a base in the Dry Tortugas, and it subsequently set up a coaling (refueling) and a wireless (radio) station there as well. During World War I, a seaplane base was established in the islands, but it was abandoned soon thereafter.

From 1903 until 1939 the Carnegie Institution of Washington operated the Marine Biology Laboratory on Loggerhead Key. Through the years, over 150 researchers used the facilities to perform a wide range of research. The laboratory operated here, except for World War 1, until its closure in 1939. Fort Jefferson National Monument was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992 by an act of Congress.

Fort Jefferson Sullyway on Dry Tortugas National Park

After we explored the fort and walked to Bush Island to see the rookery, we went snorkeling in the waters off the southern beach and explored the coral platforms and sea life along the moat wall. After lunch, it soon began time to board the Ferry for the trip back, which was uneventful. That night we picked up salads, but we could not use the hotel’s pool or hot tub, since unbeknownst to us, the night before, at around midnight, a car being chased by the police crashed through the hotel’s fence and pool bar demolishing the gazebo, bar, and part of the hot tub.  Instead, we relaxed with a game of cards before beginning to pack our things for the next day’s long trip home.

15-inch Rodman smoothbores guns
The Jefferson Fort Moat
One of the Two Powder Magazines
6 View of Bush Key and Long Key
Shells on Bush Key
Julie Snorkeling off South Beach
A Two-foot Horse Conch
A Six-inch Sea Biscuit

Friday morning, we checked out of the hotel and drove east an hour to the “Island Fish Company” for breakfast before beginning the additional 5-hour drive to our home in Indialantic.

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 3 – The Lower Keys

January 2021

Tuesday morning, we were up for a hotel bag breakfast in the Hampton’s empty dining area before checking out and continuing our journey south by car to the southern end of Scout Key at Mile Marker 35 where we parked our cars to begin our next biking journey to the southwest.  Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that Julie’s rear bike tire was flat, so we pumped it up, saw that the leak was “slow” and began our journey anyways. The wind was still 17-20 mph in our faces as we rode over the bridge into Big Pine Key.  Immediately we saw signs saying to “watch for Key Deer” as Big Pine Key serves as a National Wildlife Refuge for them. 

Lower Keys Map

The National Key Deer Refuge was established to protect and preserve the endangered Key Deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys. Although surrounded by salt water, it is the freshwater that helps to determine which species live and thrive in the variety of habitats. The endangered Key Deer is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer. Poaching, road-kill, and habitat loss had reduced the number of Key Deer to only a few dozen animals by the 1950’s, but establishment of the Refuge and subsequent listing of the deer as endangered in 1967 has allowed for protection and a dramatic recovery of the species.

We turned our bikes left down Long Beach Road into the Refuge and rode 2.5 miles to the end of the road looking at the wildlife and soon came upon a small herd of 5 Key Deer foraging on the edge of the mangroves. After watching them for a while, we returned to U.S. 1 and stopped at the local marina to air-up Julie’s tire, use the restrooms, and then continue our journey. In this area, we rode on the shoulder of U.S. 1 as the entire route was fenced and every driveway and cross street was “cattle-guarded” to prevent deer from migrating or getting on the road.  Once we entered the center of town on Big Pine Key, we came across Big Pine Bicycle Shop and decided to get Julie’s tire fixed. While they replaced her tube, they gave us a temporary “loaner” bike and we went to the nearby “Keys Café” for coffee.  By the time we finished and returned, the repair was complete, and we resumed our journey – now heading almost due west with the northwest wind on our shoulder. After crossing short bridges to Little Torch Key and Middle Torch Key, we rode over a high-rise bridge onto Summerland Key where the were greeted with a wonderful paved away-from-the-highway bike route along “Old State Road 4A”. 

Key Deer in Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key

State Road 4A was the first Overseas Highway which consisted of two roadway segments (a north segment at Key Largo, and a south segment from No Name Key to Key West) completed in 1928. In the 1930’s, World War I veterans were sent as part of the Emergency Relief Administration to work on new bridges to close all of the gaps that remained between the Keys.  However, the 1935 Labor Day hurricane killed more that 400 of the workers and their families and severely damaged the highway and the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway. The local county (Monroe) voted to only rebuild a highway, and conversion of the Bahia Honda trestle and building of connecting bridges began again.  In 1938, the last connecting piece – a toll road between Matecumbe Key to Big Pine Key – created the first continuous road from Miami to Key West. During World War II, the Overseas Highway was straightened and moved leaving portions of State Road 4A abandoned, part of the local streets or available as a bicycling route.

This part of the bike path was excellent, quiet, and picturesque, and at the end of Summerland Key, it crossed over onto a dedicated bridge to Cudjoe Key, where it then crossed back to another excellent section of SR 4A.  At the western end of Cudjoe Key one could see the blimp, “Fat Albert”, still tethered off to the north. “Fat Albert” was supposed to be ending its 33-year flight history recently but appears to still be stationed there by popular demand. The blimp is a Tethered Aerostat Radar System, (TARS, in military-speak), and was part of an Air Force’s Drug-interdiction program that monitored the Mexico/U.S. border as well as the Florida Straits. The various “Fat Alberts” have been the subject of many stories in the Florida Keys, including numerous crashes in 1989, 1993 and 1994, and breaking free of its tether, drifting over the Everglades, and crashing there, as well. However, the most incredulous story was in 1991 when the blimp broke free and a fisherman connected the loose end of the tether to his fishing boat thinking he would tow it back to shore.  Instead, he and his mates were taken airborne and dumped into water uninjured near Mud Key.  Only when an Air Force F-4 Fighter shot down the blimp with an air-to-air missile did the boat settle back to the water’s surface, little worse-for-wear, leaving the boat’s captain happy to have gotten it back in one-piece.

The TARS Fat Albert Blimp on Cudjoe Key

West of Cudjoe Key, a dedicated bridge takes us onto Sugarloaf Key and along to Mile Marker 20 where we stopped for lunch at Mangrove Mama’s – a quaint and kitschy mom-and-pop restaurant with an outdoor patio.  After lunch, we began the 15-mile ride back to the car, but this time with a tailwind making the ride much shorter. When we got back to the cars, we loaded up the bike and made the drive to our hotel in Key West – The Hilton Garden Inn (Mile Marker 4) – located at the east end of Key West island, 4-miles from downtown. After checking-in, we caught the hotel shuttle downtown to the front of the Waterfront Brewery and explored downtown and parts of Duval Street. The day’s 36-mile bike ride and the enduring wind chill was rapidly wearing us down, so we ducked onto a restaurant patio with heaters where we had a meal of shrimp and conch fritters and salads.  After eating, we strolled through the shops before returning to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Lunch at Mangrove Mama’s
Welcome to Key West Sign
The Old Key West Custom House

Wednesday morning, we rose early and set off east from the hotel on our bikes onto the most completed section of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. The weather was beautiful and along the way we were “buzzed” by military jets doing “touch-and-go’s” at the adjacent Naval base (Boca Chita Field), and passed many people out for a jog, waiting for the bus, or riding their bikes to work.  We rode to Sugarloaf Key at Mile Marker 15 where “Baby’s Coffee Shop” is located.  This was obviously an immensely popular spot with commuters, and the “socially distanced” ordering line filled the small store.  After getting coffee and bagel meals, we ate outside on picnic tables before beginning our journey back. When we arrived back in Key West, we continued riding our bikes along the southern route around the island next to Roosevelt Boulevard (A1A) and continued along the seawall and historic streets until we came to The Southernmost Point in the United States, which is marked by a large red buoy. Here we joined a short queue to get our pictures taken, and then rode the rest of the way around the northern side of the island until we arrived back at the hotel. We cleaned-up from the day’s 30-mile bike ride and caught the hotel shuttle downtown where we walked the waterfront marinas and shops, stopped for drinks and appetizers, and explored the busy Mallory Square tourists’ area.  That evening, after returning to the hotel by shuttle, we drove to the store for next-day supplies and to pick-up sandwiches for dinner before returning to the hotel bar for drinks and a few games of cards. Today ended of trip’s bicycling part with a total of over 180 miles over 5-days, covering most of the Florida Keys Heritage Trail by bicycle, traveling both north and south!

Breakfast at Babys Coffee
The Southernmost Point in the United States
Harry Trumans Little White House
Former First National Bank Building in Key West

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 2 – The Middle Keys

January 2021

Monday morning, we returned to “The Midway Café” for breakfast which was much busier with local workmen who frequent the place.  After breakfast, we gathered our belongings and checked out of our rooms and drove south to a parking area, (Mile Marker 50), located beside the biking path.  Although the spaces were full, we parked on the grass (with the permission of a local police officer) and began cycling south into Marathon. We had planned to ride to Pigeon Key via a refurbished part of the old Flagler Bridge but were informed that that part was still under construction and was not yet open. We started off anyways and had only covered ~1.5 miles when black clouds arose, and a huge rainstorm appeared on the southern horizon heading straight for us. We ducked for cover at a nearby service station and waited for the worst to blow by, and then cycled back to the cars in a light rain. We decided to instead, drive south and explore, while waiting for the weather to improve.

Middle Keys Map

At the southern end of Marathon Key, (mile marker 47), is the famous “Seven Mile Bridge”. This was originally a railroad bridge and part of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) to Key West. However, when the railroad bridge was damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, (200 mph winds and the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere), the line was sold to the United States Government, which then refurbished the Seven Mile Bridge, along with many other railroad bridges, for automobile use. In 1935 the bridge was widened for two-way traffic with a swing span to allow passage of boats in the Moser Channel of the Intracoastal Waterway. The swing span was located just south of where the bridge crosses Pigeon Key, a small island in the middle of the span that was used as a work camp for Flagler’s railroad construction crews. Then, in 1960, Hurricane Donna caused further damage and necessitating a more permanent solution. The current road bridge east of the historic bridge was constructed from 1978 to 1982. Today, much of the original bridge still exists, although the swing span has been removed. The 2.2-mile section to Pigeon Key, used as a fishing pier and long open to motorized vehicles to give access to the key, was closed to motorized traffic in 2008 after the unsupported sections began to sag. In 2014, the Florida Department of Transportation approved a $77 million plan to restore the old bridge. By 2017 the pedestrian section was closed, with extensive repairs predicted to be finished by about late 2021.

The Seven Mile Bridge

South of the Seven Mile Bridge is a series of small keys, (Little Duck, Missouri, and Ohio Keys), all connected by short bridges and accompanied by fishing/biking bridges located immediately east of U.S. 1, although not all of them are currently open. To the east of U.S. 1, connecting Bahia Honda Key to the Spanish Harbor Keys is the historic Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge also built by Henry Flagler as part of the FEC’s Overseas Railroad. In 1904 Flagler started what everybody considered a folly: the extension of the FEC Railroad to Key West which would later be known as the Overseas Railroad. At the time of its completion, it was considered the eighth wonder of the world, and was the most daring infrastructure ever built exclusively with private funds. The first train arrived in Key West on January 21, 1912 with Flagler arriving himself the next day. Flagler died soon after, and the railroad required significant maintenance due to storms and corrosion. Again, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed much of the line, and FEC sought abandonment of the project. Instead, the parts south of Dade County were purchased by the State of Florida and converted for highway use in 1938. However, the Bahia Honda channel was the deepest (28 ft) and instead of using concrete arches that supported all the other bridges, it was built with steel trusses high above the wave peaks.  Since these railroad trusses were too narrow for two-lane automobile traffic, rather than rebuilding the bridge, the State redecked the top of the structure for use as the Overseas Highway. It must have been a harrowing automobile crossing high in the air atop those rusting steel trusses from 1940-1970! Thankfully, a new four-lane bridge was later built and opened in 1972, a few hundred yards northwest of the old bridge replacing the former route of U.S. 1. Two of the original truss spans were then removed – one near the east end to allow boat traffic to pass through Bahia Honda Channel without the danger of falling debris from the old bridge and the other at the westernmost end to prevent pedestrians from accessing unsafe parts of the bridge. It is a misconception that the trusses were removed to facilitate traffic for boats needing higher vertical clearance, as the new bridge has roughly the same vertical clearance of about 20 feet as the old bridge had. Today, the original bridge has fallen into a serious state of disrepair, (signs are posted on the bridge warning boat traffic to watch for falling debris), but all the sections have remained standing (not counting the two that were removed). The easternmost section has remained open to pedestrian traffic and is maintained by Bahia Honda State Park and provides a scenic overview of the area.

The old Flagler Railroad Trestle past Honda Bahia Key
The Flagler Railroad Trestle converted on top for Autos

We continued driving to Mile Marker 30 on Big Pine Key where we turned the car around and returned to Bahia Honda State Park (Mile Marker 36). Here we visited the gift shop, explored the beaches, and examined corals and sponges that had washed up, and then unloaded our bikes to begin a ride out of the park north to the northeastern tip of Little Duck Key, (Mile Marker 40 – the southwestern end of the Seven Mile Bridge). After returning and biking every part of Bahia Honda State Park, we loaded up and returned to Marathon where we stopped at a bayside restaurant called “Porky’s” for lobster tacos, wine, and beer.  By now, the wind had grown to 30 mph gusts, so we drove to a beautiful oceanfront public beach at “Sombrero Beach” where we walked through the water and collected shells, glass, and coral.  Then we drove back to U.S. 1 for a little quick shopping before checking into our Hampton Inn Hotel at Mile Marker 53 on Marathon Key. The hotel had a small deck overlooking the ocean, a tiki bar and hot tub – which we took advantage of to sooth the “wind burn” of the blustery day, even though we only rode 16 miles.  That night, we ordered pizza delivered and played several rounds of cards before calling it a night.

On the Beach at Bahia Honda State Park
Jellyfish at Bahia Honda State Park
Biking the dedicated Biking Bridge
The old US 1 Highway Bridge
Waterfowl in the Lagoons
Wall Mural at Sombrero Beach.
Hotel Signpost in Marathon
Pam & Rocky in Hot Tub at Hamption Inn

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 1 – The Upper Keys

January 2021

2020-2021 were “years of the pandemic” and with all international travel cancelled and domestic tour groups deemed “unsafe” for “Social Distancing”, we began to consider exploring places closer to home and in a more personal way. When the 2020 Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure was cancelled in April of 2020, we became serious about planning a “self-sagging” bicycling trip to explore the Florida Keys.  Rocky had not visited the Keys for over 45 years and Julie had only been to Key West once. We decided to get hotel rooms at strategic locations along the route for evening overnights, and to use the intervening days to explore the areas north and south of our hotels by bicycle. Much of route is part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (FKOHT) and features more than 90 linear miles of existing trail paved in segments along a planned 106-mile corridor from Key Largo (mile marker 107) to Key West (mile marker 0) with no fees. The Heritage Trail is a mix of “Old US 1” Highway road and bridges, old paved and restored railroad bridges, paved utility service trails and road-side bike paths. The FKOHT is a multi-use bicycle and pedestrian resource that serves as a recreational and alternative transportation corridor for the Florida Keys. It parallels U.S. Highway 1, which is designated as a National Scenic Highway and All-American Road and will eventually incorporate 23 of the historic Flagler Railroad bridges, although only about half of them are currently accessible to the public.

Upper Keys Mao

Since we live over 5-hours away from Key Largo, we planned the trip to take 8-days with travel.  At the last minute, my wife’s cycle-enthusiastic sister and brother-in-law from Ohio decided to drive down and join us on the adventure.  We left our house with two cars and 4 bicycles on Friday and made the drive to Key Largo where we visited the Key Largo Visitor’s Center, had a taco & nacho lunch on the dock at “Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill Restaurant”, and then entered and explored John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the country. The weather was too chilly and windy for us to enter the water that day, but we explored the many beaches and hiking & nature trails by foot before leaving to check into our hotel, the nearby Hampton Inn, (mile marker 102), with its own bayside beach, and pool. That night we took a quick swim before walking to Alfredo’s Restaurant for a shrimp meal and then relaxing with wine and a lively game of cards back at the hotel.

Welcome to the Florida Keys
Cannon at John Pennekamp State Park

Saturday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel at 7:30am, checked-out, and then boarded our bicycles to explore the Heritage Trail traveling south. The trail here was a paved path off from the road that took us over three restored bridges dedicated to fishing, pedestrians, and bicycles. The trail then moved slightly east on to “old US 1” in Tavemier, where a series of ocean-side estates with peacocks and private ocean access dominated.  It was clear that this area had suffered previous hurricane damage as entire tracks of former housing complexes were now large vacant lots.  While cycling, our next night’s hotel, “The Sands of Islamorada” (located at mile marker 80), called to inquire about our “check-in”, and since by then we were already on Upper Matecumbe Key and only 2-miles away, we rode to there and completed the required paperwork. We then turned around and began the ride back and soon passed again the Hurricane Memorial at mile marker 81.5. The Hurricane Monument on Islamorada relates the experience of the devastating 1935 Labor Day storm and serves as the burial place for the ashes of many of those who died.  

Biking the Heritage Trail
The Memorial in Islamorada to 400 lives Lost in 1935

Islamorada was reached by the Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in 1907 and served as the headquarters area for the over 600 World War I veterans that were sent to Lower Matecumbe camps in 1934 to work on building the automotive bridges that would connect the islands as the Overseas Highway. The island had been originally settled by the Russell Family in 1850 who grew pineapples, melons and tomatoes for transporting north.  In the 1870’s, the Pinder Family took a land grant in the center of the island. When Henry Flagler’s Chief Railway Engineer, William J. Krome, reached the island, he built a home there, but needed to give the town a name to justify having a Railway Station and chose “Island Home” after Pinder’s boat. The island’s produce industry flourished until the railway was completed to Key West in 1912 and inexpensive pineapples and limes began being transported in railway cars from Cuba via ship to Key West where they we taken up the East Coast.  After that, Islamorada’s industry focused on tourism and fishing.

Channel view from Biking Bridge

We continue back to mile marker 82 to eat lunch at the “Lorelei Restaurant” where we sat bayside on the dock watching 3-5 ft tarpon cruising by, and people-watching customers arriving by car, boat and even seaplane! We then biked back to our cars still at the hotel at mile-marker 102, before loading-up and driving south to our Islamorada hotel. However, Saturday night traffic on U.S. 1 in the keys was very heavy, and the drive took over an hour before we reached our destination. “The Sands of Islamorada” is a completely remodeled and modernized version of a 9-room “mom-and-pop beach motel” located ocean-side in Islamorada. The owners live on-site and only staff the office for limited hours, but they were attentive and accommodating, and their pool with dual hot tubs were accented by their 8-McCaw enclosure and local 3-ft long iguanas. After showers and settling, we all walked 3-blocks south to “The Lazy Days Restaurant” – a “hopping” place where we luckily got the only remaining table outside during “happy hour”.  Here we enjoyed drinks, calamari, conch fritters and a large brie cheese-platter covered with lingonberries. At their nearby dock, one could feed the gathering tarpon or get up-close to the resting pelicans.  After dinner, we relaxed in the hotel’s hot tub and recounted our first day’s 44-mile ride.

Lunch at Lorelei Restaurant
McCaws at Sands of Islamorada Inn
Local Iguana Climbing Tree
Pelicans Resting after Hunting Fish

On Sunday, our plan included eating breakfast at the “Midway Café” located just ¼-mile north of the hotel on U.S. 1, and then bicycling south.  After a large breakfast outside among the many locals that eat there, we assembled at the hotel and set off south and, after a series of small bridges, the trail exited once again onto old U.S. 1, this time on the west side of the road, and again served as the access road for the local estates along the bays of the Gulf of Mexico side. Since it was Sunday morning, the trails and paths were full of “morning walkers” enjoying the weather, getting exercise, and walking their dogs. After crossing a high-rise bridge, we arrived at the town of “Layton” where we took a quick break. From there, the bike trail got very bumpy and was in serious disrepair for a way before we reached Long Key and the Long Key State Park entrance. South of that, at mile marker 71, the bike path entered the ocean-side Long Key Pedestrian Bridge – the second-longest bridge of Henry Flagler’s railroad. Along the bridge there are twenty cantilevered fishing platforms, (“bump-outs”), added to each side to provide space for both fishing and bicycles. Although this part of the route demands riding slow to avoid pedestrians, it was enjoyable watching all the families fishing and having a fun day on the bridge. We continued south along the path on mostly excellent bridges and paths past Conch Key, Little Duck Key and Grassy Key into Marathon Key, including where the path went west into the mangroves following the Utility service path. Along the way, we stopped to check-out different restaurant menus before turning around at mile marker 53, and then stopping for lunch at “The Island Fish Company” located bayside at mile marker 54.  The restaurant had a special Sunday lunch menu that included shrimp tacos and margaritas. It was not crowded, and we sat on the dock overlooking the water and enjoying the sun. On the way back, we retraced our path except for the “bumpy” section which we avoided.  We stopped for drinks and a bathroom break at a convenience store in Layton and explored Anne’s Beach along a lovely boardwalk at Mile Marker 73, and then road back to the hotel using the bike paths. All together, we cycled over 54 miles, and at the hotel, we met some northern visitors and enjoyed the hot tub.  That night, we returned to “The Lazy Days” for Happy-Hour drinks and eats before returning to the hotel room for wine and another game of cards.

4-6 ft Tarpon hanging around Dock

Exploring the Everglades

September 2020

Bicycling & Exploring Florida’s Everglades National Park

The year 2020 was one where the international travel limitations imposed by the Covid-19 Pandemic refocused our adventurous glances to domestic locations that we had not yet explored. Only hours away from our Florida home is the Everglades National Park – a place that neither of us had visited or ventured into previously.  And so, after a bit of hurried planning, we decided to load our bicycles and head for the Park’s Eastern Entrances to learn what we could and to explore this national wonder.

Everglades Trip Locations Map

The Park’s history extends back to the 1800’s and early 1900’s when the only human residents of the region were local Native Tribes. The early European settlers viewed the region as a wasteland full of mosquitoes and useless for development.  Most of the area is characterized by an immense, flat, limestone plateau with less than a few feet elevation variation, populated by extensive grasses, sparse hammocks of trees and bushes, and covered by ~1-4 feet of water.  The water is really a 100-mile wide river that slowly flows south into Florida Bay, providing the habitat for various species of birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, and providing the source of fresh water for both the recharging of Florida’s aquifers and for Florida Bay. As Florida’s population grew and development capabilities progressed, the water supply to the Everglades was diverted via irrigation and canals to the ocean to create more farmable land.  In 1945, the problem had gotten so bad that the dry, central Everglades’ grasses caught fire and destroyed a large part of the ecosystem.  In response, the Everglades National Park was created in 1947, and since then, a comprehensive restoration project has been underway to restore the historic natural flow of water to the region, and to remove non-native and invasive species.  Today, it is encouraging to see the return of nesting birds and wildlife to the region.

Sunday morning, we rose early and headed in the car to the Park’s most northeastern entrance at “Shark Valley”.  Shark Valley is actually a long, wide, shallow valley, only a few feet deep, that extends from northeast to southwest across the Park, and that empties into Florida Bay. The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center is located 30 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, and we parked and unloaded our bicycles when we arrived. Here is located a 15-mile-long loop on paved road through the “fresh-water prairie”, with an observation tower at halfway point.  The route is shared by a tour-tram that circles the same loop every hour.  As we rode, we observed birds (cormorants, ibis, anhingas and blue herons), turtles and a few small snakes, but no alligators.  At the Tower, we climbed to the Observation Deck to look out over a vast vista of sawgrasses as far as the eye could see.  The ride was hot and steamy in the mid-day Florida sun, and at the end we visited the Visitor’s Center there for a cold drink and to learn more about the area’s history. After inspecting the area’s other trails the (Bobcat Boardwalk and the Otter Cave Hammock Trail – which was under water), we headed east out of the park through the water Control District to a local Pit Bar-B-Q outdoor place where a cold beer and local pulled pork made for an excellent lunch.

Biking the Everglades
Anhinga Drying his Wings
Anhinga Upset with Us
Observation Tower at Shark Valley
Blue Heron Looking for a Meal

After lunch, we headed south to the Park’s most southeast entrance at the Ernest E. Coe Visitor’s Center located 11 miles from Homestead – an area that was devastated during Category-5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The Visitor’s Center has a gift shop and excellent displays, but its Parking Lot is under renovation getting ready for the “winter rush” of visitors and the hourly free tram that they run from there to The Royal Palm Visitor Center located ~8 miles away.  After our visit, we headed towards the Royal Palm Center and were intrigued by a sign to the “Nike Missile Center”!  We headed down an old, small paved road past denuded limestone covered with ~1-foot of water with a mound of dirt in the distance.  Apparently, the area had been used for growing the non-native Brazilian Pepper Plant which has been nearly impossible to eradicate.  Therefore, they removed everything above the limestone and secluded it for some number of years in a last effort to eliminate it from the area.  Someday, the thin soil layer will be returned to the carbonate plateau. 

After traveling ~10-miles down this road and passing a South Florida Boy Scout Camp, we came upon a set of pink buildings that were locked up with a dozen Government vehicles parked outside. It turns out that these Administration Buildings were the entrance to the site of the HM69 Nike Hercules Missile Center that once housed nuclear warhead surface-to-air missiles.  The warheads are gone, but the barns used to hide them are still there, as is a fully restored Nike Surface-to-Air Missile. Because of the shallow water table and limestone base, the idea of silos was replaced with 3 barns, including 4 bunkers of 6 missiles each, as well as dormitories and guard dog kennels – and, of course, many, many alligators! Although the site was closed the day we were there, it is opened for public viewing with a ranger in the late Fall and early winter. For more information, visit the site: https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/historyculture/hm69.htm

Excerpts from their site:

HM69 Nike Missile Base – A Relic of The Cold War

Everglades National Park houses one of the best-preserved relics of the Cold War in Florida, a historic Nike Hercules missile site called “Alpha Battery” or “HM69”.

The site remains virtually the same as it was when official use of the site ended in 1979. Construction of the site by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was completed in 1965, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. At the time, the nation’s air defenses were positioned to protect against a possible Soviet air attack over the North Pole and thus, this and other anti-aircraft missile sites were established to protect against a possible air attack from the south. The Nike Hercules missile site was listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior Register of Historic Places on July 27, 2004 as a Historic District.

The area includes 3 missile barns, a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel, barracks, 2 Nike Hercules missiles, and various support elements. HM69 was also significant because of the technology employed. The South Florida Nike Hercules sites were integrated with Hawk missile sites to provide an all altitude defensive capability around South Florida. Approximately 140 soldiers staffed the 3 above-ground missile barns of HM69 to protect against an air attack from Cuba. The personnel of HM69, along with the members of other South Florida unites, received the Army Meritorious Unit Commendation which was one of the few times that it was awarded for deterrence rather than engagement with the enemy.

Visitors may visit the site most days between early December and late March. There is an open house program, as well as Ranger-guided tours. Our visitor programs fluctuate due to seasonal changes and staffing capability. Please check with the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center or view the park’s calendar for scheduled programs at the site.

Nike Missile Base Administration Offices
Nike Missile Base from the Air

After sidetracking to explore the Nike Missile Site, we completed our journey to the Royal Palm Visitor’s Center to check out the trails there.  The Center was closed, but we made note of the local trails that were located there in preparation for our return visit the next day. We then drove to scout out the area and trails at Long Pine Key. The Camping Area there was also closed, but the region looked to be a good place to explore by bicycle when we returned. 

From there, we traveled west on the Main Park Road to a short boardwalk at Rock Reef Pass – one on the highest elevations in the Park – 3-4 feet above sea level! Here we could observe the ibis’ hunting in the grasses and the Florida Garfish swimming in the shallow water.  Then, we traveled to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook which provided a boardwalk to a raised platform that overlooked the extensive freshwater Marl Prairie.

After that, we headed back east out of the park just in time to meet a storm that brought wind and heavy rain to our drive.  We arrived at our hotel – the Hampton Inn in Homestead at about 5:30pm, where we enjoyed a hot shower, a lite dinner, and a bottle of red wine.

Monday morning, after an early hot breakfast, we headed back to the Royal Palm Visitor’s Center to watch the sun rise and look for wildlife.  The Royal Palm Visitor’s Center was originally located among a grove of royal palm trees, but they were wiped out with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. We walked the Anhinga Trail – a wonderful boardwalk loop that winds out over the hammocks and sawgrass prairie.  Immediately we came upon several enormous grasshoppers that were mating, and along the side of the trail we saw three different 5-7’ alligators resting warily. The sawgrass marsh was full of birds and small fish peacefully hunting as the sun rose over the horizon.

Giant Grasshoppers Mating
Everglades Alligator

Next, we headed back to Long Pine Key – a two lane limestone track that winds through the pinewood forest for a few miles on some of the higher and dryer land.  We unloaded our bicycles and entered at Gate #4 and rode for some distance, but it soon became apparent that the prior evening’s rains had flooded sections of the trail and that the mosquitos were in full attack mode. When the trail became almost impassable, we finally turned around and decided to look for other adventures. After returning to the car, we decided to explore the deserted campgrounds on bike, checking out the lake, the campsites and the new outdoor theater awaiting their eventual re-opening for campers. Then, after loading up our bikes, we drove to the boardwalk at Mahogany Hammock – an area that is still home to a giant Mahogany tree and a tangle of Strangler Fig trees and pairs of nesting owls.

Flooded Long Pine Key Trail

Our next stop was West Lake which was said to have a lovely looped boardwalk through the mangroves and out over the lake. The area was renown to be popular with boaters and picnickers, but we had yet to see another person all day. We set off one direction on the loop marveling at the boardwalk built through the nearly impenetrable mangrove forest and listening to the frogs and fish startled by our presence. However, just before reaching the lake, the boardwalk was closed, and we could see that it was heavily damaged up ahead.  We circled back and took the other direction around the loop which went all the way out onto the lake before it was also closed, but it did provide an excellent view of the twisted, broken and contorted remains of the lake portion of the boardwalk.  Apparently, Hurricane Irma in 2017 drove huge waves in the small lake that destroyed anything built over the open water.

Garfish in the Shallow Water
Damaged Boardwalk at West Lake

After West Lake, we continued southwest on the Main Park Road until we arrived at the entrance of the Snake Bight Trail which would take us to a scenic Florida Bay viewpoint. We parked on the roadside, unloaded our bikes and began to ride down the trail.  However, it soon became apparent that this trail had not been maintained as we had to fight encroaching bushes, downed trees, and the ever-present mud and mosquitos.  Apparently, this end of the park is only principally visited by campers, boaters and hikers in Florida’s winter months of December-February, and the Park does not dedicate many resources to it out-of-season. Therefore, we again decided that discretion was the better choice, turned around and went in search of other areas to explore. Along our journey traveling southwest, we had hoped to explore a paved road and trail to Bear Lake, but this lane was clearly so overgrown that we did not even attempt to enter it.

Finally, we reached the end of the Main Park Road at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center located on the shores of Florida Bay. This Visitor’s Center was also destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and it is currently being rebuilt and is scheduled to reopen in 2021.  The construction workers were the first people we had seen all day. In the parking lot, we unloaded our bikes and rode the lovey Guy Bradley trail along Florida Bay’s shore until we reached the Eco-Center Campgrounds.  Here there were mowed camping pads, an amphitheater, restrooms, and a series of Eco-Tents – all set-up and waiting for visitors – of which there were none! We rode back to the Visitor’s Center and checked out the adjacent marina and store where we stopped for a snack. The Marina was open and provides fuel, supplies, rentals, and boat tours to visitors. In one section of the marina were a half-dozen manatees snuggling up near a water runoff outlet and we watched them for awhile before biking back to the car, loading up, and beginning the trip back through the park.

Ibis at Florida Bay
Manatees at Flamingo Marina

Upon exiting the park, it was still early afternoon, and we decided to head east 18-miles to Biscayne National Park, located on Florida’s East Coast between Key Biscayne and Key Largo.  The Park encompasses a mainland mangrove shoreline, the shallow Biscayne Bay, the surrounding islands, living coral reefs and a large number of shipwrecks. It was established as a National Monument in 1968 and became a National Park in 1980. It was designated a park to protect both the terrestrial and undersea life in the region. The Park was open, but Hurricane Teddy located offshore had brought huge tides and waves to the region flooding most of the shoreline and boardwalks.  We walked the fishing pier and explored the Park’s store before leaving for dinner carry-out from Chili’s, a hot shower and packing for our return trip home in the morning.

Map of Biscayne National Park
Biscayne Park Visitor’s Center