Camping on the Keys
Stay in relaxed and secluded Long Pine Key, where you are near many Everglades highlights.
Set in a forest of fragrant southern slash pine, Long Pine Key Campground has a pace as slow as the waters that flow through the river of saw grass that is the Everglades. But the Everglades are not all saw grass. Another important plant community of this park is the pine flatwoods. These pines grow on limestone that was once an ancient coral reef.
The campground is part of an area known as the Pinelands. The 107 campsites stretch around one side of a quiet lake. A picnic area lies on the other side. The campsites are situated on an elongated loop with crossroads that connect one side of the loop to the other. There are 11 crossroads that split the loop.
Most of the campsites are along these 11 crossroads. The campsites are very spacious and are divided by the understory of the pine flatwoods, primarily saw palmetto and hardwood seedlings. These hardwood seedlings would grow and alter the forest from pine to hardwood, but lightning-caused fires destroy the undergrowth and the mature pines' tough bark is able to withstand the periodic fires.
The lakeview campsites are the most desirable. By the way, swimming is not allowed in the lake. I assume it is because of alligators. The campground is rarely full, save for the winter holidays. Winter is the busiest, most pleasant time to be here. It is the dry season in the Everglades, and the bug population is minimal. But there will be some"snowbirds" at Big Pine Key in their RVs, escaping the chill of the North.
I stayed at one of the sites on the outside of the loop facing the piney woods. Like the other sites here, mine offered a grassy, mowed lawn, with the maximum in spaciousness and an acceptable amount of privacy. I enjoyed looking over the tall pines, smelling their distinct odor while gathering firewood.
Three clean comfort stations serve the well-kept campground. The water spigots are outside each comfort station. There is also a large washbasin at each comfort station. A campground host mans the entrance for your safety. The only things you should be wary of are the raccoons. Store your food properly or these critters will get your groceries when you leave. And leave you must, to explore the one and only Everglades.
Road-weary campers need only step away from the campground to see the Pinelands. A set of interconnecting trails emanates from Long Pine Key. The backbone of the trail system is the 6.7-mile Long Pine Key Nature Trail. It winds through the pine flatwoods, saw grass prairie, and hardwood hammocks, ending near Pine Glades Lake.
These hardwood hammocks are islands of tropical plant life, with wild palms, mahogany trees and live oaks. There are nearly 20 miles of trails to tramp in the immediate area of the campground. Get a trail map at the registration booth and make your own loop.
Just a short drive away at the Royal Palm Visitor Center are two of the park's premier interpretive footpaths, Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga Trails. The Gumbo Limbo Trail leads through a hardwood hammock that features flora of the West Indies, such as gumbo limbo, royal palm, ferns and vines, which all lend a junglelike atmosphere. The Anhinga Trail is a scenic boardwalk on the sea of saw grass leading to Taylor Slough, a wildlife photographer's paradise. A plethora of birds, alligators, and other creatures dwell in this piece of the Everglades.
Auto tourists can drive to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, west of Long Pine Key. Climb the observation tower and look around. The sky, the saw grass and the hardwood hammocks extend to the horizon. We drove here for a most dramatic sunrise. A few miles west on the main road is Mahogany Hammock. It contains the largest mahogany tree in America, as well as a menagerie of unusual flora and fauna.
No matter where you go in the Everglades, don't rush yourself. Stop, look, listen. This is a unique ecosystem, unlike any other on our planet. Its beauty is expansive and subtle, intricate and fragile. Here, life proceeds at its own pace. Leave the hurried world behind, make Long Pine Key your base camp, and get on Everglades time.
To get there from U.S. 1 in Homestead, follow the signs south along CR 9336 to Everglades National Park. Stay on the main park road. The signed turn to Long Pine Key is 6 miles beyond the park Visitor Center. Turn left and drive 0.5 mile to the campground.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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