Want to take a jetty walk along the shores of Biscayne Bay? How about a shoreline snorkel, a sunrise bike tour or even a canoe-hike-and-bike race through the Everglades?
These are some of the free ranger-led guided tours and programs through Big Cypress National Preserve and in Everglades and Biscayne national parks between now and mid-April.
In Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, a sunrise bike trek in Shark River Slough offers a chance to see birds and alligators and other reptiles sunning themselves, while watching the sun rise over the Glades.
Kristin Cox, 29, of Miami Beach, took a hike and bike tour in Shark Valley and climbed her way through the mangrove tunnels in Big Cypress' “Heart of the Swamp” guided tour. She raved about the rangers.
“They tell you all these details about the different ecosystems — why trees grow where they grow…they're super informative.
“It's amazing that you get such an educational experience for free. It's just awesome.”
The rangers also lead canoe tours from Halfway Creek in Everglades National Park, with the canoes putting in at Big Cypress Welcome Center. (With water levels low, the Turner River canoe launch is closed.)
During the hiking tours, which can range from 45 minutes to four hours, rangers combine exploring with learning. They point out invasive plants like Australian Melaleuca, Brazilian Pepper, and Old World climbing fern and note that the species can create monocultures, which takes over habitats of native species. They explain what makes sawgrass prairies and coastal mangrove forests unique and take visitors to spots frequented by wildlife. They also offer important tips, like, not to approach baby alligators too closely, as the mother is usually not far behind.
Exploring Biscayne National Park by canoe, kayak or boat is popular since 95 percent of the park's 172,000 acres are covered by water. The park’s daily morning jetty walks along the shore of Biscayne Bay also gives you a chance to see wildlife up close.
On Mondays, park resource managers invite tour-goers to watch as they dissect invasive, venomous lionfish during “Inside the Invader,” a workshop that allows people to see what native fish the lionfish have been eating to learn more about their diets.
During “Shoreline Snorkel” on Saturday afternoons, rangers lead snorkelers along the seagrass habitats of Biscayne Bay. Tour-goers get an up close view of fish, crustaceans and invertebrate.
For the fitness minded, there’s a Tamiami Trail “Try’’-ahtlon at 9 a.m. April 4. The race consists of a 3.5-mile canoe trip through the Gulf Coast area of Everglades National Park, followed by a three-mile hike through Big Cypress and a 15-mile bike ride through Shark Valley. (Reservations are required.)
And on Sunday, April 5, rangers will lead a Sunrise in the Glades bike tour through Shark Valley, a 15-mile ride that will get you to the observation tower in time to watch the sun rise over the glades.
“Family Fun Fest,” is held the second Sunday of each month through April, as most of Biscayne Bay's activities are geared toward kids and families.
Without the rangers, some of the waterways and trails would be difficult to navigate for first-time visitors. Even some experienced kayakers time their trips on the water to coincide with the groups who've made reservations for the tours, seizing an opportunity to learn and join the adventure.
“The purpose of ranger-led activities in National Park areas is to provide visitors with a better understanding and appreciation for what these special areas are and why they're protected as national parks,” says Bob DeGross, a spokesman for Big Cypress National Preserve.
He says the tradition of ranger-led activities in national parks has been around for nearly 100 years, since the inception of the National Park Service, which started in 1916.
“Many people who live in South Florida don't know they exist,” he said.
In Big Cypress National Preserve, which consists of 729,000 acres of freshwater swamp, free ranger-led activities have been offered for approximately 25 years, since it was established as a preserve 40 years ago. DeGross says that due to budget constraints, there is no certainty the programs will remain free in coming years. He says Big Cypress averages 200 to 250 programs annually, serving 2,000 to 2,500 people, with hikes, swamp walks, canoe trips and night-sky appreciation among the regular programs.
He says pressure of increased land development and invasive exotic plants and animal species are the two biggest threats to preserves and parks.
“Less and less open space outside of the natural protected areas means less space for a lot of the large predators and large species to roam in,” he says. “One of the unique things here in Florida is that we do have a complete ecosystem. We have our top predators: bobcat, alligators, panthers and black bear. The higher you get up on a food chain the more space those animals need.”
Follow Caitlin Granfield on Twitter: @CaitWrites305
If You Go
What: Ranger-guided tours
Where: Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve
Cost: Most are free and most require reservations at least two weeks in advance.
*Biscayne: (305) 230-7275
*Everglades: (239) 695-3311
*Big Cypress: (239) 695-4758
Info: Visit the National Park Service's website www.nps.gov, click “Find a Park. Select the one you want, then click “Ranger Guided Programs.”
http://www.nps.gov/bisc/upload/2014-2015-season-activities-calendar-2.pdf (Biscayne National Park)
Tamiami Trail “Try” Athlon
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, April 4
What: A ranger-led all-day trip that consists of a 3.5-mile canoe trip through the Gulf Coast area of Everglades National Park, followed by a three-mile hike through Big Cypress and a 15-mile bike ride through Shark Valley. Canoes provided free of charge. Bring your own bicycle or rent one and bring your own food and water.
Call: Reservations are required; call 239-695-3331 to make reservations up to 14 days in advance.