Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movie Dome and Double Dome

Yesterday (Saturday) I met up with the Big Cypress Florida Trail Association group for some cypress dome exploration in Everglades National Park.  No, the Florida Trail does not go through this area, but we wanted to branch out and see something different with less hiking since it is definitely in the middle of wet season.  We met up at the park entrance in Homestead and carpooled to our first spot.  We first quickly walked the half mile Pineland Trail to see some tree snails.

We then headed over to another spot, parked on the side of the road and had to meander about a half mile over to Movie Dome.  I am not sure where the name came from, but I was told that park rangers lead tours here sometimes.

Approaching Movie Dome

The ground was very wet (thigh deep) and inconsistent so this was pretty difficult to traverse and a few people fell in.  As we entered the dome, my dad, a huge birder, immediately spotted a Barred Owl hanging out on a tree branch right in front of us.

He allowed us to gawk and him and take some pictures before flying off to find a more peaceful spot.  We explored the inside of the dome, saw some beautiful bromeliads, pond apples, and went for a swim.  

Center of Movie Dome

Pond Apple (edible but gross)

After exploring this dome we headed back to the cars to check out Double Dome.  This dome was right on the side of the road so we were able to enter it immediately.  It was completely different from Movie Dome. Double Dome had different weeds in the water and more ferns than bromeliads.  It was also filled with Butterfly Orchids, which are very common in this area.

Inside of Double Dome

Butterfly Orchids

We also saw wildlife here.  We saw 2 brown water snakes, a wasp nest and another Barred Owl.

We already plan to head back there in two weeks to explore 2 other domes so stay tuned for those pictures!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ghost Orchids

I guess my dad and I finally got caught up in all the hype about seeing a ghost orchid.  Ghost orchids are beautiful white orchids that only grow in a few areas of the world.  The Everglades being one of them.  They only bloom between June and August and one of the reasons they are so rare is that they can only be pollinated by the giant sphinx moth. Ghost orchids were also featured in the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean which was turned into the movie Adaptation starring Nicolas Cage.

We decided that this was our next "challenge".  Upon doing some research I came up empty handed because apparently, the location of ghost orchids is very secretive information.  I even found out that there is an Orchid Mafia in South Florida that feels it is their duty to protect these locations from orchid thieves.  During my research, I narrowed our search locations down to Fakahatchee Strand, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and Big Cypress.  So basically the entire Everglades.  I cannot divulge details but we eventually found out where to go.

We set out this past Thursday morning knowing we were in for a very wet hike.  Once we got to the bog the water was waist deep.

Our "tour guide" told us what to keep our eyes out for but even then they can still be difficult to find.  We found our first one after just a few minutes.

First Ghost Orchid of the Day

They are truly spectacular flowers!  I have seen many tropical, bright colored orchids but these are just incredible.  They are so delicate and detailed.  We realized we wanted to see many more.  After a few more minutes of searching around the swamp, we found another!

In all, we spent a few hours in this bog searching for ghost orchids and were lucky enough to find 10!  Here are some more photos:

Double Ghost

The only information I can give you if you want to see one for yourself is to head to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where they have a super ghost orchid plant on a tree visible from their boardwalk.  If you click the previous link, they keep their page updated on when it is blooming.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Florida Trail: Loop Road to Mystery Dome and an Alligator Encounter

This morning I went on a very memorable hike that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.

My dad and I met up with the Florida Trail Association Big Cypress group to go on a short hike led by Christopher.  The plan was to hike 1.7 miles on the FL Trail then veer off and explore a cypress dome he saw on Google Earth.  For those of you not familiar with the term 'cypress dome' it is essentially a group of larger cypress trees that grow in a circular cluster with the tallest being in the middle, therefore shaping it like a dome.  It also looks this way from an aerial perspective.

Group with Cypress Dome behind us to the Right

We met up with the group at the Eastern Loop Road junction with Tamiami Trail to carpool to the trail head.  As we were leaving, Chris said something about not getting our hopes up with ideas of seeing bears or panthers.  Not 5 minutes into the drive, we spot a huge Florida black bear in the middle of the road.  These sightings are usually brief but the brush on either side of the road was so thick that the bear had no choice but to run away from our cars in the opposite direction until he found a trail to get into the woods.  This allowed us a clear view of him for at least one minute.

Florida Black Bear on Loop Road

We regrouped at the trail head and started hiking in ankle to knee deep water covering the Florida Trail.  When my dad and I hiked this section in February it was the dry season so the trail didn't have nearly as much water as it does now.

Florida Trail at Loop Road Trailhead

Butterfly Orchids on Trail

About 1/3 of a mile in, someone just ahead of my dad noticed an alligator's tail on the side of the trail.  The gator was about 6 feet long.  My dad wanted to get a picture of it but got a little too close and the gator jumped causing us to all jump.  This made the water on the trail completely murky and we assumed the gator had gone off the trail to get away from us.  I picked up my foot to keep walking and just as it brushed up against something bumpy that was not a log, Chris started screaming, "It's between your legs! It's between your legs!"  Somehow I had ended up straddling the alligator when we all jumped!!  I leapt far off the trail as the gator took off.  After we calmed down and even laughed a little we kept going.  A minute later we ran into another gator on the trail, this one about 7-8 feet long.  This one was in no hurry to get out of our way so we went way around it.

Gator #2

Hiking on this section of the trail was difficult enough since you usually couldn't see where you were stepping and the ground was made up of limestone riddled with holes for your leg to fall into.  On top of stumbling through the water covered trail, we now had to keep a close eye out for gators and venomous snakes.  We finally reached the turnoff and then what Chris had labeled the "Mystery Dome".  The inside of the dome was filled with sawgrass (ouch), large cypress trees, and beautiful bromeliads.  Cypress Domes are magical!

Inside Mystery Dome

We made our way through the sawgrass to a clearing.  Here, the water got deeper inside and some group members decided a swim was in order.

Swimming in the Cypress Dome

By now it was starting to get very hot and buggy so we finished exploring the dome and headed back to the main trail to start the hike back to Loop Road.

Bromeliads just Outside the Dome

It was an incredible hike with a great trip leader.  Oh and my new trail name is Gator Rider.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mohonk Moutain House

This past weekend I visited upstate New York with my mom for the weekend.  The purpose of the trip was to attend Country Living Magazine's craft fair in Rhinebeck.  After the first day I had seen it all so the next day I took the rental car and headed over to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz.  First of all, it is very removed from everything on its own mountain.  It is a large sprawling hotel built in a 19th century Victorian castle.  Because of their exclusive reputation, it actually costs $25 just to get on to the property as a day hiker.

Yes, my mouth fell open too.

However, let me say, that I think it is worth it.  While you are not allowed to enter any of the buildings (what are we, peasants??) you have full access to the grounds for hiking.  This is certainly cheaper than paying for a $450/night hotel room or a $60 lunch, which are the other two ways to get onto the property.  When I arrived, I had to park at the bottom of the mountain then had the option of taking a shuttle 1.5 miles up to the main hotel or hiking up.  I decided to take the shuttle up and hike back to my car later.

Main Hotel on Mohonk Lake

There are many trails on the property, most of them being old, flat carriage roads.  Most of the trails begin at the main hotel.  I had read about a 45 minute rock scramble on the property called the Labyrinth that will eventually take you to Sky Top which is the highest point at Mohonk.  I was excited to attempt this, but because it had been raining and I wasn't wearing the proper shoes, I had to abandon this plan after 5 minutes and a near fall.

I decided to hike up the semi-steep path to Sky Top where there is also an observation tower.  The views it supplies are incredible and allows you to see into 6 different states.

I headed back down to hike the flat trail around the lake then headed back down to my car.  None of the trails at Mohonk are remotely difficult, except for the rock scrambles.  Overall, I'd say the views alone are worth the $25 entrance fee and I will probably return when I go up there next year.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Big Cypress: Tarpon Lake

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join the local Florida Trail Association chapter on a hike to Tarpon Lake within Big Cypress National Preserve for National Trails Day.  There isn't an actual trail that goes there, so the hike leader had previously bushwhacked his way into the Everglades and had saved his route in his GPS.  About 20 of us met at a new rest stop at Mile Marker 52 on Alligator Alley/I-75.  There are no facilities at this new recreation area, just parking and a boat ramp.  We had been warned previously that this was going to be a wet hike.  We headed into the cypress trees and eventually came to an old ATV trail.  ATVs were previously allowed in this section of Big Cypress but the environmentalists won out recently so they are no longer allowed.

We followed this wet ATV trail in water up to our shins for awhile before heading off onto another old, unmarked trail.  Along the way we saw bear, deer, raccoon, bobcat, alligator, and various bird tracks.

Bobcat tracks

Walking through deep water in the Everglades is like no other experience on Earth.  I highly suggest trying it! On these wet trails you will see the most amazing flora!

After about 2-2.5 miles, we arrived at Tarpon Lake.  It is one of the few deep lakes in the Everglades, meaning about 50-60 feet deep.

A few of us headed further into the swamp to look for orchids growing on trees, specifically the ghost orchid which blooms around this time of year.  Sadly, we didn't find any.

On our way back to the parking lot, our leader decided to take us a different way and we ended up having to walk through Sawgrass higher than our heads.  There's a reason it's called sawgrass and our bleeding wounds proved it lived up to its name.

Overall, it was a really great hike that I would love to do again in the future, minus the sawgrass.