Hikers are practically guaranteed to see gators in the slough beside the boardwalk, and it’s not uncommon for human and reptile to actually cross paths at the entrance next to the Royal Palm Visitor Center.
The Anhinga Trail also is notorious as the scene in 2003 of the longest-witnessed combat between an American alligator and a Burmese python. No one knows how it started, but the 24-hour marathon fight was observed by as many as 200 onlookers at a time. The battle ended in a draw when both reptiles gave up and swam away.
Besides gators, you’ll encounter the sharp-billed birds that give the path its name, also herons, egrets, ospreys, vultures, crows and turtles.
• Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, CR 905 about 1/2 mile north of U.S. 1, North Key Largo: Often overlooked by travelers heading to and from the Keys, this park should be a mandatory stop for any hiker who also snorkels or goes fishing.
If not for the late Upper Keys environmentalist Dagny Johnson, this 2,400-acre oasis established in 1982 would have become the largest development in Monroe County, a planned condo and hotel project known as Port Bouganville. Today, besides conserving one of the largest tropical hardwood hammocks in the U.S., the park helps protect the coral reefs of nearby John Pennekamp State Park from almost certain decimation that would have resulted from pollutants flowing from Port Bouganville.
Hikers and bikers will find a paved, 1/2-mile boulevard with interpretive signs featuring a native plant and butterfly garden, plus another six miles of back country trails. (Accessing the back country requires a permit available at Pennekamp Park.) Along the way, you could encounter some 80 protected species of plants and critters, such as the American crocodile, Key Largo wood rat, and Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly. It’s a snapshot of what the Keys looked like before they were linked by all those bridges.
• Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, Banana Grove Rd., two miles south of Lakeport on Highway 78: Here is a hiking trail where you can visit an ancient archeological site AND see gators, wild hogs, deer and abundant bird life, including the crested caracara, bald eagle, wood stork, great blue heron and many more.
Follow the access road for a five-mile, round-trip loop hike leading to a shady hardwood hammock with rest benches, a picnic table and interpretive kiosks detailing the rich history of this picturesque creek, marsh and upland mounds.
Now managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the region was first inhabited more than 2,000 years ago by some of the eastern United States’ earliest farmers. Archeologists have found evidence that the prehistoric settlers grew corn, and they have unearthed beautiful wooden carvings of birds, a bear, and other animals.
During the Seminole Wars of the mid-1800s, the area became Fort Center, named after a U.S. Army commander. For most of the past century, the land was owned by the Lykes Bros., a large agribusiness company. But the state took it over in a lawsuit settlement in 1999 and now manages it for public recreation. A must-do for aficionados of old Florida landscapes.