With the onset of cool, dry and (almost) bug-less weather in South Florida, now is the ideal time for outdoor explorations. For residents and visitors who hesitate to go it alone, the region’s two national parks and one national preserve offer free, ranger-guided adventures until late April. Here’s a sampling:
• Biscayne National Park, 9700 SW 328 Street, near Homestead: Although the marine park’s concessionaire has pulled out — eliminating glass-bottom boat, snorkel/dive tours, and paddlecraft rentals — you can still explore Miami’s watery backyard by canoe or kayak accompanied by a ranger. Guided paddles of two to three hours are offered every Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting, through April 27. You will explore beautiful, natural creek tunnels that wind through the longest, continuous mangrove shoreline on Florida’s east coast, and you might meet up with manatees, otters, and all kinds of fish and birds. Reservations are required up to seven days in advance. Call Yelitza Sepulveda at 786-335-3612. As a bonus, a free trolley service has just launched from Homestead to the entrances of both Biscayne and Everglades national parks, operating every weekend until April. For trolley information, visit www.cityofhomestead.com/gateway.
• Everglades National Park, Flamingo, located about an hour’s drive from the Homestead entrance at 40001 State Road 9336: With even more mangrove tunnels than in neighboring Biscayne National Park, this vast wilderness is best introduced to newcomers by an experienced guide. A ranger will take you on a 3 1/2-hour canoe adventure beginning daily at 8 a.m., winding through stands of water trees where you might spot crocodiles, numerous species of birds, and maybe even a python. Canoes, paddles and life vests are provided. Reservations are strongly recommended, up to seven days in advance. Call 239-695-2945 or stop by the Flamingo Visitor Center.
For those who want to watch birds without paddling, rangers will conduct 2 1/2-hour bird walks Monday through Thursday beginning at 8 a.m. Bring binoculars, and be prepared to drive from the Flamingo Visitor Center.
• Everglades National Park, Shark Valley, about 19 miles west of Krome Ave. on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail): The paved, 15-mile loop trail through open sawgrass prairie is arguably the best place in South Florida to view a lot of alligators on foot, bicycle or tram. But it’s even more fun to visit at night under the full moon. Rangers will conduct three-hour, full-moon bike tours at 5 p.m. Jan. 11; 5:30 p.m. Feb. 15; 6 p.m. March 16 and at 6:30 p.m. April 12. Reservations are required up to two weeks in advance and tours are limited to 25 riders. Call 305-221-8776.
• Big Cypress National Preseve, 52105 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee: You’ll want to skip your daily workout after you accompany a ranger on the strenuous, one-of-a-kind “Hike to the Big Trees” on the Florida Trail. Beginning at the Oasis Visitor Center, you will slog through mud puddles and likely encounter gators and maybe snakes as you make your way to the lush ferns and gigantic cypress at Robert’s Lake Strand — an eight-mile round trip. Hikes will be conducted Feb. 1 and March 1, and reservations are required up to 14 days in advance. Call 239-695-4758 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily.
Hosting one of the largest gators around at about 15 feet, Bear Island is a fun place to hike or ride bicycles — and you might spot the region’s namesake. Big Cypress rangers will lead bike rides lasting five to six hours on the island’s limestone/gravel roadbed on Jan. 25, Feb. 22, and March 22 beginning at 10 a.m. Reservations are required up to 14 days in advance, and you must bring your own bike, water, food, and sun protection. Call 239-695-4758.