biking by don stap
Shortly before dawn I set out, heading west down a woodland trail. Within moments, the pine forest fills with birdsong and the first light of day. This is Everglades National Park, and I am not exploring on foot. I'm riding a bike.
Biking can be an intimate way to experience the landscape and wildlife of the nation's most famous wetlands. It's also a good way to escape the crowds. Several areas of the park are open to bicycles, including 14 miles of nature trails on Long Pine Key, the site of my own early-morning jaunt.
This area's main trail, approximately five miles west of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, is two wheel ruts cut into the limestone bedrock--an old access road created before the national park was established, in 1947. It winds through the shady pinewoods and intersects several paths that can be explored on foot. Dominated by slash pines and with an understory of more than 200 species of subtropical plants, the uplands habitat is the most diverse in the park. The scenery is wonderfully strange. Florida's limestone bedrock is exposed throughout much of the area, and the forest appears to be growing out of the floor of an ancient ocean--which is exactly the case.
To experience the essence of the Everglades, visitors can also ride a 15-mile paved loop road that starts at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, or explore the Old Ingraham Highway near the Royal Palm Visitor Center, a 22-mile round-trip ride. Both go through a freshwater marsh whose expanse of sawgrass stretches for miles in every direction. The Shark Valley loop offers easy riding, an observation tower at its midpoint, and the possibility of seeing alligators--oblivious to bikers--basking within feet of the path. It also attracts more people than the other bike trails, and many of them take the two-hour narrated tram ride that uses the same road.
On the Old Ingraham Highway, I was met with only the soughing of the wind through the sawgrass and the cries of red-shouldered hawks. From time to time I would pause to walk, but whenever I climbed back on my bike I realized once more the beauty of traveling this way: The pure, physical sensation of gliding forward gracefully through the landscape brought me ever closer to what that red-shouldered hawk must have felt as it soared above.
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