The heart of winter in South Florida may be the best season to explore the three national parks that surround the region: Everglades, Biscayne and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Cool breezes, the absence of insects and lack of rainfall make hiking and biking comfortable. Yet there's still enough water around to enjoy canoeing and kayaking in many areas. These expansive wilderness areas invite visitors to become adventurers — to paddle secluded mangrove creeks, follow trails used by bears and panthers, gaze at gators up close, and marvel at a cornucopia of birds that make winter homes here.
For first-time visitors not sure how to get around or what to look for, all three parks offer ranger-guided adventures, many of them free. One of the most popular is a 15-mile bike ride under the full moon at Shark Valley, the northernmost entrance to Everglades National Park. On a recent evening, 20 cyclists joined park ranger Eric Riordan on a three-hour ride along the park's roadway used for cyclists, walkers and a tram. At 5 p.m., dusk was settling in. To avoid disturbing wildlife, the bikers carried no lights, only glow sticks worn on their backs to prevent collisions.
"I love what happens in national parks at night. It's all different," Riordan told the group. "This is all about using the senses."
The first half of the ride followed a canal to a 50-foot observation tower. Along the way, cyclists encountered dozens of roosting birds: sleek black cormorants, snowy egrets, tricolored herons. Alligators seen in the canal and along the banks in daytime were nowhere in sight, burrowed in the muck for warmth, Riordan said.
A report that hundreds of roseate spoonbills were nesting near the park's signature observation tower made some cyclists eager to pick up the pace. Along the way, the group made a few stops — to examine a gator hole next to a culvert pipe (the gator was absent) and to snap photos of great blue herons in mating plumage. In the silence, the wind through the sawgrass sounded like the ocean. By the time the group reached the 50-foot spiraling tower, the sky was dark. Though the full moon had not risen yet, hundreds of fluffy white shapes were visible in the nearby trees. Not spoonbills, it turned out, but wood storks.
As bicyclists began the return ride, the moon still refused to rise, but riders could make out the path from the distant glow of the Miami metropolis. Still, they were a bit disconcerted to pedal along in the murk, hoping no creatures would dart out. Following the glow sticks, they arrived at the park entrance with no mishaps.
After most of the riders had packed their bikes into cars and started home, the moon appeared. And the Everglades began to sing. Squawking herons, rustling sawgrass and cormorants burping like little kids formed a nocturnal chorus both dissonant and harmonic, just like the Everglades itself.