“Storms are nature’s way of evening out the odds.”
~ Anthony T. Hincks
Recently, I took a nostalgic trip to a place I once called home and I can confirm, yes, Flamingo is open in Everglades National Park. Time and hurricanes have weathered the destination and much work needs to be done. Flamingo Marina is under new management, Guest Services, Inc., who is investing what needs to be done to create a destination worthy of the magnificent Everglades.
Greek mythology birthed the phoenix, a bird that lives for centuries then when it dies, it regenerates and rises anew from the ashes. In my world, the Florida version of a phoenix is a flamingo. Specifically, deep in the heart of Everglades National Park, a small town called Flamingo is rising from the ruins caused by three hurricanes.
At the End of the Road
Accessible through the park’s main entrance in Homestead and at the end of a 38-mile road at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula sits Flamingo. An outpost established during the late 1800s where Gladesmen lived off the land. As to how Flamingo earned it’s name, I’ve heard two tales.
When it came time to name the town, the inhabitants decided between End of the World because it was only accessible by water, and Flamingo. Obviously, the latter was chosen, and the two thoughts are it was chosen either for the beautiful, pink leggy bird or that the resident homes on stilts reminded others of the beautiful, pink leggy bird. Today it is a destination for park visitors with a National Park Service (NPS) visitor center, marina with boat ramps, tours, rentals, provisions, and campground.
Located in the country’s largest subtropical wilderness, Flamingo provides access to world-class fishing in Florida Bay and the Everglades backcountry including Whitewater Bay. It is the terminus of the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway paddling trail, bird-watcher’s haven, and an outdoorsman’s/outdoorswoman’s dream.
My History of Flamingo Lodge and Marina
My story and experience in Flamingo is unique to me and many others who had the opportunity to live and work there have their own stories. I spent more than three years working in Flamingo for a park management company and departed at the end of 2000 to begin a new life in Sarasota. I left behind a husband, friends, and an opportunity few people dream about, living in a national park.
The original Flamingo complex opened in 1959. It included the marina, restaurant, lodge, gas station, and NPS visitor center, was designed by NPS architect Cecil Doty. It was part of the NPS’s Mission 66 program, a 10-year plan to expand visitor services in anticipation of its 50th anniversary in 1966.
When I lived and worked there, it was called Flamingo Lodge & Marina in Everglades National Park. About 35 people lived there year-round, mostly staff of the park management company and a handful of National Park Service staff and their families. It takes a special breed of people to live there year-round. The mosquitoes are typically horrendous during the summer with more than 40 species with the salt marsh mosquito being the most aggressive. There is comfort in knowing only the female mosquitoes bite.
The lodge consisted of five lodge buildings housing a total of 102 rooms, 24 cottages, and the main lodge building where visitors checked in. The main lodge had a breezeway with grills and swimming pool which was eventually filled in during the early 2000s due to damage to the pool and it was less expensive to fill it in rather than repairing it.
Hurricanes Change the Visitor Experience
I began working seasonally in Flamingo in the mid-90s, a few years following 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Although Flamingo was barely impacted by the Category 5 storm, other areas of the park were, including the entrance. It’s my understanding, the park management company’s contract was up and rather than sending out a request for proposal for a new, long-term contract, the National Park Service was occupied with recovery efforts and granted a short contract extension. Then another short extension. And another.
For whatever reason, the NPS issued short-term contracts with the park management company meaning the company did not want to make significant repairs to infrastructure if a return on investment was not guaranteed. The way to guarantee an ROI was a long-term contract.
The facilities opened in 1959 and although they are the property of the National Park Service, the park management company takes some responsibility in maintaining facilities they manage. This often meant putting on bandages to hold things together versus replacing it. Or, purchasing used items rather than new ones.
The summer of 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma ripped through Flamingo with damaging winds and storm surge. What was once a thriving day-trip and overnight facility was nearly destroyed. I had lived and worked in the lodge and due to significant damage, it was razed in 2009. Today, nature has reclaimed the area with grass, trees, and wildlife.
My former husband passed away unexpectedly in 2008 and I made the trip to say goodbye. It was a heartbreaking visit and the bright spot was seeing how the facility adapted and became a day-use area with limited visitor services. Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017 and once again, Flamingo was damaged and visitor services were closed.
A New Era for Flamingo
November 15, 2017, Guest Services, Inc., entered a 20-year contract with the NPS to operate visitor services at Flamingo and Long Pine Key Campground. GSI, operating as Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park, offers visitors a host of services and activities to enhance their experience. And, based on the new amenities and renovations they have already done within a year, they are serious.
These sightseeing trips into the backcountry and up the Buttonwood Canal on a new boat called the Bald Eagle II and Florida Bay trips on a new, two-story boat called the Sea Hawk, each accommodating 49 passengers. Kayak, canoe, and pontoon boat rentals are available along with houseboat rentals in brand new boats. Bicycles are available, too. New fuel tanks were installed and fuel service is available, although pricey, somewhere around $4+ per gallon.
The marina store has been renovated and is stocked with needs for anglers, adventurers and campers including frozen bait, food, and souvenirs. A food truck serves hot meals. GSI manages the Flamingo Campground for tent camping in A Loop, the walk-in area and group camping and T-Loop for recreational vehicles. The rest rooms have showers and powered by solar panels. Tent sites include fire rings and picnic tables.
Anticipated the first quarter of 2019 is the opening of 20 eco-tents near the group camping area. Units will be on platforms and decked out with comfortable amenities including bed lines and will be near rest rooms. A Flamingo Lodge and Cottage Campus is the works in the location of the original Flamingo Lodge. It will consist of 24 elevated cottages constructed with 100 percent recyclable steel shipping containers on reinforced concrete structures. Cottages will have views of Florida Bay and modern amenities including electricity, water, VOIP phone, and high-speed internet.
A 4,000-square-foot multiuse facility will house a 60-seat restaurant and bar, gift shop, registration desk, rest rooms, and phone charging station. The design will incorporate Mission 66 and Miami Modern architecture.
The National Park Service Flamingo Visitor Center is undergoing renovations with an anticipated completion date in the early 2020s. A temporary visitor center is located in the lawn in front of the original visitor center complete with clean rest rooms. Interpretive rangers offer educational programs at various times throughout the day.
During my November visit, the full moon’s glow lit my way as I walked through the campground. Every so often I stopped to admire the moon rising over Florida Bay while listening to the buzz of chirping insects. An intoxicating scent from the blooming moonflowers, like scents of jasmine and citrus blossoms, combined with a hint of the earthy notes of the River of Grass, perfumed the air. The evening was near-perfect, and I cried.
Over the course of nearly 25 years I have seen the beauty of Flamingo but more often, I have seen it battered and bruised. I have experienced great sadness in the Everglades. My tears that night were for the peace in knowing Flamingo is regenerating and rising into something stronger and more beautiful. Others will have an opportunity see what journalist and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas saw, “There are no other Everglades in the world.”
View additional photos from my November 2018 visit to Flamingo in Everglades National Park on my Flickr stream.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Flamingo in Everglades National Park
Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park
1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy.
Homestead, Fla. 33034
Tel: (855) 708-2207
The Marina Store is open 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily. Boat tours are offered throughout the day. It is advised to book reservations in advance for boat tours and the campground. Cell phone service is limited but AT&T service is excellent in Flamingo.
Admission into Everglades National Park is additional.
Effective January 10, 2019, Everglades National Park entrance fees will increase to provide additional funding for infrastructure and maintenance needs to enhance the visitor experience.
Entrance fees for vehicle or vessel: $30
Entrance fee per motorcycle: $25
Entrance fee per pedestrian/cyclist/human-powered paddle-craft: $15
Annual park pass: $55
Admission is free for America the Beautiful Pass Holders
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to support this blog, my traveling habit, and my special-needs dog.