Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gone Coastal: Coastal Prairie Trail, Everglades National Park

The Coastal Prairie Trail is a single-track pathway that strikes out westward from the D-loop of Flamingo Campground, Everglades National Park, generally adhering to the route of an old wagon road plied before the establishment of the park by hardy and optimistic people seeking to gain from the unforgiving wilderness.  The southernmost mainland foot trail in the United States, this pathway continues out over seven miles to Clubhouse Beach, a marly shorefront on Florida Bay peppered with mangroves and shell fragments and the site of a backcountry campsite with famed sunset and sunrise views.

This trail has haunted my list of unobtained Florida destinations for many years.  There it sits, a taunting dashed line on my maps, far, far away from my Gainesville home.  I had already failed one attempt at traversing its siren path, when in late December 2002 an ill-fated camping trip to the Everglades was cut substantially short.  Suffice it to say I spent that Christmas day on my couch, sipping codeine-laced syrup while attempting to survive pneumonia.  I didn't watch any comedies because laughing made it feel like something was about to tear loose in my right lung.  Ah, sweet memories.

It seems almost every winter since then I've tried to plan the several days and fourteen-hour total drive needed to walk this forlorn trail, but fates successfully disrupted in enterprising ways.  Alternators failed the evening before.  Ill-timed illnesses were contracted.  Mysterious winter storms caused plans to be cancelled.  Two years ago the husband's parents both suffered unrelated debilitating hip-related incidents at the same time that resulted in me being left to tend four dogs by myself for over a month.  Last year my own father's health problems intervened. 

This year, 2013, I put my foot down and said, no more, cruel fates!  I shall achieve this goal!  And lo and behold, I wasn't struck by lightening.  More importantly, things actually began to work out.  Beautiful weather was in the forecast, low humidity and very tolerable highs.  No last minute emergencies arose, either mechanical or medical.  And so, the first light of dawn of Friday morning found me rolling southward, the proverbial wind at my sails and anticipation in my heart.

Many hours later I set up my base camp at the front-country Long Pine Key campground, surrounded by the pine rockland habitat of the eastern Everglades.  As explained by a park ranger at the evening program, Long Pine Key is an isolated island of relative uplands surrounded by seasonally flooded marl prairie, cypress, and freshwater sloughs.  As the extreme southwest extension of the limestone ridge that lines the southeast coast of Florida, it represents the largest unaltered remnant of the South Florida slash pine forests that once flourished on the Miami ridge where high-rises, subdivision, and tomato fields now sprawl.  While not the favorite domainof the Florida panther, they definitely do utilize the habitat that surrounds the campground.  Later that night I enjoyed a bike ride along the paved park roads, gliding along in the bright moonlight while fantasizing about a panther sighting.

As the skies lightened the next morning I was up and driving southwest on the main park road towards Flamingo.  A glorious sunrise flashed across the sawgrass prairie, but I did not stop, for anticipation drove me ever forward.  By 7:30 I had reached the back of D-loop and stood slathering on sunscreen as I faced the trailhead signage for Coastal Prairie.  With one last check of my water supply and snacks, I grabbed my faithful walking stick and lit out into the West. 

Dried marl trail about 8:00 AM
I quickly realized just how well my luck was finally working for this trip.  The footpath consists of a thick layer of a material colloquially known as "marl" atop a limestone bedrock.  Marl is a somewhat antiquated term (yes, that's the geologist bleeding out) but essentially denotes a material that has substantial components of both calcium carbonate fines and siliciclastic silts and clays.  In practical terms, when this stuff is wet, its a fiercely slick mud and when its dry it does a good job of imitating concrete. I managed to arrive when it was closer to the concrete-like phase, so walking was good, but thousands upon thousands of hardened footprints, some several inches deep, were a constant reminder of the difficulty this trail would pose in the wet season. 

Bleached bones
I learned from the literature that the park had on hand that the coastal prairie itself is sort of a by-product of hurricane activity.  As the storm surge washes over the shore and the mangrove forest, it deposits layers of salty mud on these open areas, stifling all but the hardiest of plants.  At several sections of the trail, the sun-whitened skeleton forests gave mute testimony to past storms.

Trail through the buttonwood forest, fairly easy to imagine the old road here.

Although the trail does traverse substantial sections of coastal prairie, it also spends considerable time below the splotchy shade of forests of buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), a close relative of the true mangroves.  I read that one way people attempted to make a living in this wilderness was preparing charcoal from buttonwood trees.  The forest itself in the dry season had a feel of places much farther west, and reminded me at times of the oak groves of the California coastal chaparral. 

Wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum)

Along the trail I encountered a blooming example of another reason humans trekked into this harsh environment.  At first the the wild cotton plant, like it's domesticated descendants, was exploited for the fibers that surround its seeds.  According to a ranger, its said that the itinerant pickers planted as many seeds as they picked, looking towards job security.  Later, in the 1930's, the WPA sent teams of workers into the Everglades wilderness to eradicate wild cotton, as it was believed to constitute an agricultural threat to cultivated varieties.  The effort wasn't completely successful, but close enough.  Wild cotton is now extremely rare, and is classified as an endangered species in Florida.

Salt tolerant and not so salt tolerant.
The main ground covers of the coastal prairie are salt tolerant succulents such as glasswort and saltwort.  These also grew under the sunnier sections of buttonwood forest as well.

Cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata)

Like elsewhere in the Everglades, epiphytic bromeliads are common.  One of the largest, the Cardinal airplant, was in abundance.  It didn't seem to be the correct season for blooms, as the flower clusters were mostly gone to seed, but I did find a few fresh stalks. 

These plants don't take any sustenance from their tree hosts, as is evident in this photo of Cardinal's continuing to live on dead buttonwood.  According to a flyer published by Big Cypress National Preserve, just to the north of Everglades, in addition to deriving nutrients from insects and organic matter trapped in their leaf bases, these bromeliads also feed off of nitrogen compounds created by lightning.  I need to find more information about that for sure.

Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle)
As the trail nears the last stretch of prairie before Clubhouse Beach, it crosses over Slagle Ditch, where a photogenic little colony of Red mangrove has encroached.  Somewhere near this point is the original location of the town of Flamingo.  I was actually unaware of this that day, or else I would have surely been bound to find the townsite, where old foundations are said to still be evident.

Not a single track.
Not far past Slagle Ditch the trail opens up considerably, following the muddy plain of the prairie.  Although quintessentially Floridian, this area also has a primal feel and would have looked equally at home with elephants and gazelles in the distance, or even a family group of sauropods with pterosaurs circling around.   The dried trackways were reminiscent of the lithified footprints of our distant ancestors that have been found in Africa, imprinted as they traversed a plain of fresh volcanic ash.

Finally, as I trudged along in sunlight that had become very bright and a tad warm, a sign appeared directing me to take a hard left towards the coast.  I willingly followed it's suggestion.

And Lo!  The goal was achieved!  More than a decade in the making, my journey to Clubhouse Beach was complete. 

A nearby Black mangrove offered a nice spot of shade on the short, coarse sand dune.  I laid out my blanket and took shelter under its boughs, where I sublimely devoured the tastiest peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich I've ever eaten.  I soon drifted off into a near-slumber, lulled by the whispering waves and occasional seabird. 

After about an hour I arose and wandered about investigating the vicinity:

The other side of my mangrove resting place
Muddy marl
Green sea turtle, I believe
More muddy marl
Lone black mangrove
In the end I had nearly two hours to myself on this lonesome strand, with just a few passing sport boats interrupting the sounds of nature.  I finally took one last good look around, packed up my gear, and started to backtrack.  The sun was not getting any cooler, and that peanut butter and jelly sandwich was already wearing thin.  I met a young couple just a hundred yards or so away, I told them I was giving the beach to them and headed back on the trail toward modern-day Flamingo.

P.S.  About a mile later I met two young Army guys with big backpacks.  I mean HUGE backpacks, gear and fishing rods and reels poking out everywhere.  Made my back sore just looking at them.  They said they were hiking to Cape Sable.  This isn't something you can do without bushwhacking many miles and swimming a canal.  Evidently they were aware of this and continued hiking west with their ginormous backpacks.  I was left again with my thoughts, wondering if I could ever manage what they were cheerfully setting out to do.  Definitely a thought for another day.

P.P.S  About another mile later I met a troop of Boy Scouts, being just as loud and unruly as you would expect a troop of boys to be.  I wished the two chaperones bringing up the rear good luck, they managed faint, slightly shell-shocked smiles.  

P.P.P.S  Even after this hike, the burger at the Buttonwood Cafe (actually a food trailer with a screened enclosure attached) in Flamingo was as bad as the service.  Meaning awful.  I highly recommend not eating there, ever.  They are working to rebuild the actual restaurant, which I remember being not so bad once upon a time.  Perhaps it will be again.  Until then, pack a picnic.  

Human track, panther track.  Same space, different times.


  1. great post, will be hiking there myself in November, hope to see some of the same sights

  2. Gives me inspiration to make it down there!

  3. This is a very unique and enjoyable hike if you can overcome heat and mosquitos. I'm assuming that last clubhouse beach sign is somewhat new. I was there in 2011 and didn't see that. I believe I camped right where that sign is. Saw some Florida Panther footprints.Kept walking straight never turned left, ended up at the canal and never found the beach. I did reach it by boat on another trip and although it is very nice, if you have a boat I would recommend to keep going to cape sable. Nicer beach, more palms, less mud. Another tip; camp at Flamingo the night before your hike if you can. Set up your tent on the grass near the marina. When I visited it was free!

    1. I'm headed there in about a month. I assume by this time the trail will be extremely muddy? I don't know that I'll go as far as the beach, as primarily I am camping at the Flamingo campgrounds, but assuming you went around April, how difficult was the trail?

  4. You might want to call and talk to a ranger about average trail conditions in July. If it is dry it might be a bit like walking across burning concrete at times, pretty hot. Although if you're camping in Flamingo in summer, you are already braver than I am! Good luck with the mosquitoes!