When I was researching my science thriller WAKE UP MISSING, I spent a lot of time exploring the Florida Everglades, where the story is set. With my notebook, camera, and usually at least one of my kids, I went kayaking with alligators and hiking in some of Florida’s most gorgeous, remote (and also snake-filled) wilderness. Now that the book is out, I find that I can’t quite let go of my love for this place, so I convinced my family to join me on another Everglades adventure during our vacation last week.
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is the jumping off point for a fifteen-mile bike ride that loops through the Everglades and promises lots of wildlife encounters. We showed up bright and early one morning and set off on our bikes. It wasn’t long before we had our first encounter.
Mama alligator- note her striped babies in the background!
Because the bike path runs right along the water, we scared up some incredible birds, including an enormous blue heron that burst from the weeds just a few feet away from us as we were riding past. And of course, the alligators were everywhere.
When I say they were everywhere…I do mean everywhere. Including sprawled over the bike path. We saw this one from quite a distance.
The older man who rented us our bikes had warned us this might happen. “Just ride past them,” he said. “They won’t bother you.”
“It’s okay to do that?” I asked. “Even if they’re right on the path and there’s not much room?”
“If you’d feel better, you can get off your bike and walk it with the bike between you two,” he said. “But the alligator won’t care either way.”
The alligator in the photo above was on its way back into the high grass by the time we rode up to it.
After a few more miles, we got pretty comfortable “just riding past.”
Just before the halfway point on the Shark Valley Loop Road, there’s an observation tower. We parked our bikes and walked up to enjoy the view of the Everglades from above.
When we were just starting out on our ride, one of the regulars warned us that the return trip would be a lot more challenging with the wind against us. She was right; the last eight miles felt like twenty, but we were rewarded with one last surprise at the end of the trail — another mother alligator with her babies all around her (and on top of her, too!)
If anyone is spending time in South Florida and considering this bike ride, I can’t recommend it enough. If bringing your own bikes is an option, you’ll want to do that. (The rentals are just cruising bikes with no gears.) But either way, it’s a spectacular way to see a truly amazing environment. If you want to rent bikes, get there early. We arrived right at 8:30 and all was well, but by the time we returned from our ride at noon, the parking lot was full, and there was a waiting list for rental bikes.Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a camera.
You may want to bring snacks, too, but don’t leave them in the bike basket when you go up to the observation tower. When we returned to our bikes, they were covered in birds who’d made quick work of our granola bars – unwrapping and devouring them – and were about to make off with my sunglasses, too. We were impressed with their resourcefulness and decided that a few granola bars was a small price to pay for three hours of fresh air, exercise, and wonder.