Places We Visit in Florida
FORT MYERS, FLORIDAFort Myers, built on the shoreline of the Caloosahatchee River, is perhaps best known as the gateway city to a group of islands with miles of white-sand Florida beaches. The largest and best-known of these is Sanibel Island.
Thomas Edison built his winter home and laboratory in Fort Myers in 1885 and enticed his friend, Henry Ford, to build a home next door in 1916. Both homes are now open to the public for tours, and Edison’s extensive botanical gardens include 1,700 plants from 400 species from six continents.
DING DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGEThe variety of habitats in this 7,600-acre wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, part of a larger wildlife refuge complex, supports a stunning abundance and diversity of flora and fauna. This region includes the largest undeveloped mangrove swamp in the United States, tropical hardwood forests, freshwater marshes, endangered seagrass beds and open areas of both fresh and saltwater.
The refuge is home to more than 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, 32 species of mammals and 240 species of birds. Visitors can explore by foot, kayak and bike and possibly see roseate spoonbills filtering food from the shallow estuaries, the heads of loggerhead turtles breaking the surface of the waters in the bay and, if we are extremely lucky, spot manatees languidly feeding in the shallows.
The refuge takes its name from a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who created the blue goose image that is the symbol of the entire National Wildlife Refuge system.
BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVEThis 729,000-acre preserve is contiguous with Everglades National Park and was originally supposed to be included in the boundaries of the park. However, the purchase of the land didn’t come through in time and the park moved forward without this diverse region in 1947. The Big Cypress National Preserve was eventually created in 1973 as the first National Preserve in the United States.
This delay worked to the advantage of the local Miccosukee and Seminole tribes, as public and political sentiment shifted over those decades. Whereas they were not allowed traditional access to Everglades National Park, they are able to continue living in and using the resources of the preserve.
This landscape that is larger than Rhode Island offers boundless recreational opportunities including swamp tours, miles of hiking and biking trails, canoe routes and campgrounds. It is also home to abundant wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for alligators, birds, and a flash of the elusive Florida panther.
TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS WILDLIFE REFUGEThis 35,000-acre maze of islands, mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds and tropical hardwood forests represents what much of the Florida coast looked like before human development altered much of the shoreline into the hotel-lined, sandy beaches that are so familiar today.
The refuge protects one of the largest mangrove systems in the world - 232 square miles of critical habitat for Florida manatees, Kemp’s ridley, Atlantic loggerhead and green sea turtles, great barracuda, the goliath grouper which can weigh up to 900 pounds, and the beautiful roseate spoonbill.
ROOKERY BAY NATIONAL ESTUARINE RESEARCH RESERVEThis reserve is at the northern end of Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Refuge and encompasses approximately 110,000 acres of pristine mangrove forest and the associated upland forests. The reserve is a base for ecological research, environmental education programs for kids and adults, and offers exquisite tourism activities like sea kayaking and boat tours in the mangroves.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
"Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it."
—President Harry Truman
In the 1800s, the Everglades ecosystem was twice its current size and it drained the southern one-third of the state of Florida. Despite its appearance, it is not a stagnant body of water. It is often called the “River of Grass,” as it is actually a slow-moving river that is 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, creeping along at a speed of 100 feet per day. This slow flow is the result of a lack of topographic variation – the tallest point in the Everglades is a 20-foot-tall shell mound created by the native Calusa people.
Established in 1947, Everglades National Park was the first national park in the U.S. to be created specifically to protect a fragile ecosystem rather than grand vistas or dramatic geologic features.
KEY LARGO / KEY WESTThe sleepy, warm, tropical nature of Key Largo has long made it an inspiration for songs and movies. Key Largo is the only coastal barrier reef in the United States and the home of the second-largest artificial reef in the world. In fact, the island itself was once a coral reef until it became fossilized millennia ago.
Key West is where Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, lived in the 1930s, and where Hemingway wrote some of his most influential books. Their home is now a popular museum. Key West is far more developed than Key Largo and has a population of more than 24,000 compared to fewer than 10,000 on Key Largo. It is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States and is the end of the road for U.S. Highway 1.
BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARKIt is rare to find an abundant natural wonderland so close to a major American city. At the tip of the Florida Keys, Biscayne National Park is a mere 20 miles from Miami, but is home to sea turtles, manatees, tropical fish, colorful birds and the northernmost living coral reef in the U.S. Ninety-five percent of the park is water, inviting visitors to sail, snorkel, dive, fish and kayak. In addition to the natural wonders, there is a rich human history in this park as well. Human habitation reaches back at least 10,000 years when the Florida peninsula was probably twice as wide as it is today due to lower sea levels. While evidence of these early peoples is likely submerged under the waters of the bay, plentiful middens and other archaeological sites were left by Indigenous communities beginning about 2,500 years ago. Over time these populations, known as the Tequesta, began to separate into distinct cultures that relied on fishing and other marine resources. The arrival of Europeans in the 1500s was the beginning of the end for the Tequesta, who were killed off by diseases and harsh treatment by the settlers. The Seminole and Miccosukee who call this region home today are descended from Creeks who moved in from Georgia and Alabama.
NATIONAL KEY DEER WILDLIFE REFUGEIt would be difficult to find a cuter deer than the endangered Key deer. This diminutive subspecies of the white-tailed deer is about the size of a large dog at adulthood. Fawns can be the size of a Chihuahua. They can only be found in southern Florida, and the 25 islands in this refuge constitute the core of their habitat.
The National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge was established in 1957 when their population had dropped to fewer than 100 individuals due to poaching and habitat loss. Although they are still listed as endangered, there are now close to 1,000 Key deer.
Hurricanes and rising sea levels due to climate change are major threats to the Key deer and the 20 other endangered species found in the refuge. The deer rely on freshwater marshes for survival, and hurricanes and sea level rise can cause those marshes to get inundated with saltwater.
DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARKTo call this national park “off the beaten path” would not only be tragically cliché, but also a dramatic understatement. Approximately 60,000 people visit the Dry Tortugas every year – slightly more visitors than Yellowstone National Park receives on two average summer days. It is the 6th least-visited national park in the U.S.
Located 70 miles west of Key West, the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas are the most isolated of the Florida Keys, and this remote location keeps visitors to a minimum. Float plane, ferry or private boat are the only ways to reach the park, which is 99% water.
The Dry Tortugas National Park protects a mind-boggling wealth of historical and biological treasures.
The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to see the Dry Tortugas. He christened the islands “Las Tortugas” in the year 1513 after hunting 160 sea turtles – an act that would get him in a lot of trouble today. The “Dry” part of the name came later, as a warning to mariners about the lack of freshwater on the limestone islands.
The main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean passes by the Dry Tortugas, so it soon became clear that these islands were in a strategic location for trade with the new American colonies, and defense of the entrance to the Gulf. Spain controlled Florida and these islands until the British gained control in 1763.
Unfortunately, these islands are a hazard to ships due to their low profile above the water (the highest point is a 10-foot-tall bump on Loggerhead Key) and abundant sandbars and coral reefs below the surface. Since the first recorded shipwreck in 1622, hundreds of vessels have sunk in the area, making this a prized destination for treasure hunters and scuba divers. The original shipwreck, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, went down carrying a treasure made up of “pieces of eight,” emeralds and other valuables that was worth $450 million when it was discovered by treasure hunters in 1989.
The fledgling United States took control of Florida and the Dry Tortugas in 1822. In 1825, the government built the first lighthouse on Garden Key to improve navigation through the islands. It proved to be too short and dim, however, so a new lighthouse was bult on Loggerhead Key that is still in use today.
In recognition of the strategic location of the Tortugas, the United States began construction on Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, in 1825. Although it never served as a fort despite 30 years of construction, it was used by the Union as a military prison during the Civil War and later held three of the men convicted of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It also holds the distinction of being the largest masonry fortification in North America. It’s six-sided walls contain a staggering 16 million bricks!
In addition to the historic value, this national park protects abundant natural wonders as well. The beaches of the Dry Tortugas still provide nesting sites for loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles, and the reefs teem with 400 species of colorful fish and over 30 species of coral.
Being 70 miles of open ocean away from the nearest land, these islands are also an important stopover for migrating birds. Over 300 species can be seen in the Dry Tortugas over the course of the year, with 200 species visiting in February through late May.