Ready for a road trip on the wild side? Hop in the car and enjoy a leisurely ride along U.S. 41 for a road trip across the Everglades. Sure, you can take I-75, affectionately called Alligator Alley when driving between Naples and Miami, but U.S. 41 is a slice of old Florida.
Last month I took a trip down to Big Cypress National Preserve for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Python Challenge training. I had a couple extra hours to re-explore parts of U.S. 41, also called Tamiami Trail because it runs from Miami in the east to Tampa in the west, and I’m sharing my favorite stops along the road between Naples and Miami.
I admit, I haven’t stopped at every place and my list may be missing something really cool. If this is the case, drop me a line and let me know so I can be sure to add it to my places to visit soon.
About the drive across U.S. 41
This scenic route reflects Old Florida color dotted with must-see sights and if you’re lucky, conversations with some of the people behind the attraction. The drive runs through the Everglades ecosystem including through Big Cypress National Preserve and across the northern border of Everglades National Park.
Wildlife observation pullouts and airboat operators are bountiful along this drive through the Everglades and bird-watching is wonderful. I’ve seen anhinga, great egrets, wood storks and the gorgeous rosette spoonbill when driving through. Although it’s about a 2-hour drive between Miami and Naples, plan an easy-going pace to enjoy this wild experience.
Points Of Interest As You Drive From West To East
Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center – I recommend stopping here when driving east to enjoy the indoor and outdoor exhibits in order to acquaint yourself with Big Cypress National Preserve. An interactive display demonstrates the importance of water to the Swamp and a brief film offers a nice background about the area. A short boardwalk trail leads you along a mangrove canal where it may be possible to view birds, alligators, fish and turtles. (33000 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; Tel: 239-695-4758; www.nps.gov/bicy)
Smallest Post Office in the United States – Regular readers know I’m odd school and all about the lost art of the written word. Bottom line, I love mail. Originally built as an irrigation pipe shed, the Ochopee Post Office is seven feet wide by eight feet deep. The building became the town’s post office after a fire in 1953 burned the nearby general store which was home to the post office. It’s a small but mighty facility capable of carrying out standard postal needs for visitors and the community. If you’re all about bragging rights, this makes a perfect selfie stop for your Instagram or Facebook account. (38000 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; Tel: 239-695-2099)
Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe – If you time it right, plan on having a Florida Everglades lunch at this quirky eatery. Prices are a little high but you’re paying for the remoteness and experience so go all out in ordering the Swamp Combo which consisted of two fried frog legs, gator nuggets, crab cake, Indian fry bread, Joanie’s famous salsa and coleslaw. Save room and top it off with a slice of tart key lime pie, Musicians play for diners in the early afternoon. The restaurant’s posted hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday – Tuesday, however, I was told they may close earlier depending on how business levels. Your best bet is to give them a call. (39395 U.S. Highway 41, Ochopee; Tel: 239-695-2682; joaniesbluecrabcafe.com)
Skunk Ape Research Headquarters – You’ve heard of Bigfoot, right? Well, his smelly cousin, the Skunk Ape, calls the Florida Everglades home and you’ll probably smell him before seeing him. The hairy mammal, in which males are believed to grow to seven feet tall, are believed to be most active by the road at night in order to evade the mosquitoes. I don’t plan on searching for the Skunk Ape, but I did enjoy stopping at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters to learn more about this elusive creature. (40904 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; Tel: 239-695-2275; www.skunkape.biz)
Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery – He’s been called the next Ansel Adams, and for good reason. Acclaimed artist Clyde Butcher captures the beautiful essence of Florida’s wilderness with his dynamic black and white landscape photographs. Big Cypress Gallery displays Butcher’s images along with that of his photographer wife Niki. The photographer is famous for slogging through the Big Cypress waters to capture his dramatic images.
Throughout the year, visitors are invited to slog through the sometimes waist-deep waters around his gallery on guided tours. I spent my Valentine’s Day 2015 on one of these swamp walks and had a crazy-good time. A little wet, but good. As you can imagine, reservations are required for these guided walks. Visit the gallery website to learn when these walks are held. (52388 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee; Tel: 239-695-2428; www.clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com.
Miccosukee Indian Village – This living museum is the cultural center for the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida. Miccosukee demonstrate the arts and crafts they are known for, including doll making, beadwork and woodwork. Alligator shows explain how important the reptile is to the Miccosukee or heck, try your hand (or strength) with an alligator encounter! A visit to the Everglades is complete with a zippy airboat ride and I’m told the ones offered at the Miccosukee Indian Village are the best bang for the buck. (Mile Marker 35, Tamiami Trail, Miami; Tel: 305-552-8365; www.miccosukee.com/indian-village)
Everglades National Park, Shark Valley – Tamiami Trail offers two entry points into Everglades National Park, one is located in Everglades City and the other is Shark Valley. Come winter, Shark Valley is popular with visitors so if you can, arrive early so you can find a parking spot in the main lot rather than park on the side of U.S. 41. If you don’t bring one, bicycle rentals are available along with tram tours guided by a naturalist, some of which are National Park Service interpretive rangers.
The paved, 15-mile loop road is perfect for pedaling a bike or taking a walk (all or some) with a 45-foot high observation tower at the southern tip of the loop. On a clear day, you should be able to see 20 miles out. Shark Valley’s two-hour, open-air tram tour follows the paved road with a brief stop at the observation tower as well as stops along the way to demonstrate the Everglades ecosystem. Of course, there are stops for wildlife, including alligators. For additional information on the guided tours, contact Shark Valley Tram Tours (Tel: 305 221-8455; ) (Shark Valley Loop Road; Tel: (305) 221-8776; www.nps.gov/ever)
ValueJet Flight 592 Memorial – Yes, I realize this is a morbid one and I suppose it’s close to my heart for two reasons. One, travel is my industry and two, I was living and working in Everglades National Park the day the plane was crashed and was swallowed by the Everglades. On May 11, 1996, 110 passengers and crew perished in the Everglades when their plane en route from Miami to Atlanta. The ValueJet 592 Memorial was dedicated three years later with 110 concrete pillars, one for each life on that flight. Visiting the memorial is somber, yet peaceful. It’s located on the north side of U.S. 41, across a canal and is 11 miles west of Florida State Road 997.
Are ya ready for a road trip across the Everglades?