Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park could be the Rodney Dangerfield of parks. Located adjacent to, and somewhat overshadowed by, the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, Fakahatchee — about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Miami and Fort Lauderdale — is the largest of all Florida State Parks at 20 miles long and 5 miles wide. A hauntingly beautiful cypress swamp with towering royal palms, it is home to more native species of orchids than anywhere on the continent. But many Florida residents have never even heard of it.
The Friends of Fakahatchee — a group of dedicated volunteers who in 1998 formed a support group for the park — are seeking to build its public profile. They recently purchased the Ghost Rider tram, which can transport up to 25 people on tours along Janes Scenic Drive. And next month, they’ll begin offering tram tours combined with wet walks into the swamp.
“We’re never going to get it protected if we don’t get people walking it and loving it,” said Patrick Higgins, a Naples volunteer naturalist with the Friends.
The park, established in 1974, isn’t threatened by development, but some of its rarest and most beautiful orchids are being poached, and its giant bromeliads (related to the pineapple) are disappearing because of the Mexican bromeliad beetle. Stopping poachers and exotic insects costs money and park boosters hope to cover those costs through fees charged for the tours.
There’s no telling what visitors might see during a tram ride. The park harbors at least three endangered Florida panthers, according to volunteer naturalist Glen Stacell. There are black bears, rare Everglades mink, otters, alligators, wood storks, bald eagles and many varieties of birds.
But to admire the orchids and other epiphytes (plants that grow on trees), visitors have to venture into the watery sloughs on foot.
On a recent 1 1/2-hour slough slog, Higgins and Friends volunteer Rose Flynn stepped off the dirt road into knee-deep water, meandering slowly into the forest wielding walking sticks to counteract hidden deadfalls and cypress knees. The water was cool but not frigid, and they quickly got used to the temperature change. Following the recent passage of a cold front, they neither felt nor saw a single mosquito.
They passed blooming bromeliads — tongues of orange-red with purple tips. A thicket of pond apple and cypress held a dingy-star orchid, plus the tendrils of vanilla and night-scented orchids.
Arriving at a deeper pond surrounded by man-sized vegetation, they found the tamped-down trail of an alligator and looked overhead to see squawking anhingas and cormorants, plus great egrets and great blue herons. They could hear splashing in the pond but couldn’t see what was causing it.
Most of the cypress canopy shading the slough is less than 60 years old because the region was heavily logged in the 1940s and ’50s. Nearly 200 miles of roads built to haul logs from the swamp cut through the park, but today most are overgrown. A handful are maintained as walking trails, including the popular East Main Tram that leads to the Fakahatchee Hilton — a wooden cabin built in the 1950s that’s one of nearly 1,300 small private in-holdings in the park.
Emerging back on the dirt road, Flynn and Higgins were greeted by a flock of ibis and spied a barred owl perched back in the forest ruffling its feathers against the approaching evening chill. The fierce-eyed bird stared at them but did not hoot.
That evening, Flynn, Stacell and fellow volunteer Dick Brewer conducted a moonlit, 3 1/2-mile tram tour through the forest. It was sold out.