Everglades, Part 1: Nearly Stranded in the Picayune Strand

Panther Country Trees

Picayune Trees

As a horse-crazy kid, I was obsessed with the Black Stallion books. One of these, the spooky Black Stallion’s Ghost, takes place in a creepy, haunted version of the Florida Everglades and I’ve been a little uneasy about the place ever since. Last time I drove to south Florida, on a Christmas break road trip my junior year of college, we planned to camp, but totally chickened out on account of the alligators and ended up spending a very uncomfortable night in my little VW.

Last summer, I tackled my alligator fears by taking gator wrestling lessons and on this trip, we had great fun sizing up the beasts, secretly hoping for some kind of small to mid-sized alligator emergency that might require our badass wrangling skills. But my general unease about the Everglades still haunted me; I am not comfortable in this place. I blame the early influence of the Black Stallion’s Ghost.

Hiking in Picayune Strand

Hiking in Picayune Strand

We spent our first night in south Florida camping in Picayune Strand State Forest, a curious place across Alligator Alley from the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge. In the 1960’s a developer called the Gulf American Land Corporation purchased nearly 60,000 acres of densely forested swampland here in hopes of turning it into “Golden Gate Estates” the largest subdivision in the U.S., with a projected population of 400,000 people.

In a few years, more than 880 miles of gravel roads and 180 miles of canals were laid out in a vast grid of 1.5 and 2.5 acre lots. But the place proved uninhabitable. What looked like a jungle in the winter turned into swampland in the summer, overrun with mosquitoes. Golden Gate Estates went bankrupt, but not before it sold 30,000 lots to unsuspecting buyers.

One of the many abandoned roads through the Picayune Strand

One of the many abandoned roads through the Picayune Strand. Would you want to build a house here?

In the 1970’s Golden Gate Estates’ abandoned roads, particularly Everglades Boulevard, were used as clandestine landing strips for small planes loaded with drugs from Mexico and South America and the place developed a reputation for swallowing bullet-riddled bodies. In 1985, the “Save Our Everglades” conservation program hatched an ambitious, $25 million dollar plan to purchase vacant lots from 17,000 landowners to create a wildlife sanctuary. By 2006, the mission was completed and Picayune Strand State Forest was born.

We spent a chilly night at the trailhead for the Belle Mead Horse Trail and set out in the morning for a hike. The sandy path took us through the incredibly dense jungle. No wonder wildlife biologists spent months trying to track Florida panthers here and found only ghostly footprints and no actual cats. About 100 panthers still live in south Florida, but they’re rarely seen. You could pass within a few feet of an elephant here and never know.

At one point on our hike, I reached into my pocket and realized I had dropped the marginally useful map I had picked up at the trailhead. We turned around, retraced our steps and found it lying on the trail, but those moments felt a bit like treading water in the open sea. If you got lost here, you’d have a hell of a time getting found.

Trail marker in Picayune Strand. If you lost the path, you would have a snowball's chance in hell of finding it again in this landscape.

Trail marker in Picayune Strand. If you lost the path, you would have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding it again.

Back in the car, the adventure continued. According to the map, we didn’t have to leave the park the same way we had come in. We could follow the main gravel road west, towards highway 951 and come out near Naples. Soon we found ourself in a maze of unmarked roads, most of which were dead ends. Every now and then we’d pass full garbage cans at the end of a driveway. Incredibly, a few of the lots are inhabited!

Eventually we crossed the infamous Everglades Boulevard, the name faintly spray painted on the ground and turned west, towards Naples. But the road quickly went from bad to worse, rough and rutted, with a tangle of unmarked intersections, each route less promising than the last. Clutching the all but useless black and white map we had picked up at a kiosk at the entrance to the park the night before, I guessed at each intersection, steering us vaguely west. My sense of dread sloshed in the bottom our nearly empty water jugs: the campground didn’t have water and we were low. If we got stranded, we’d have a thirsty hike to help. And then, all of a sudden, we were out, emerging into the bright white light of Naples, one of the ritziest cities in South Florida. That’s Florida for you: land of contrast!

Panther crossing in Naples?

Panther crossing in Naples?

Stay tuned for tons of pix from Everglades National Park!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in Big Sky, Montana. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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18 Responses to Everglades, Part 1: Nearly Stranded in the Picayune Strand

  1. Janson Jones says:

    What fun. The first time I visited Picayune, I actually came to it from the south, accidentally. I’d trekked through Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, making my way north. Then, rather abruptly, the thick wetlands of Fakahatchee gave way to the dryer but still lush expanse of Picayune. I didn’t have a map, but had a good sense of direction, so I kept a north-or-west direction. After hitting a number of dead ends, I finally made my way out. Heh. A cool area and not one that’s on everybody’s radar. You make me want to return!

    • Sounds like quite the adventure! When you say trekking I think bushwhacking, but I assume you were in a vehicle? That would be a hell of a bushwhack through that swamp! 🙂

      • Janson Jones says:

        I was driving, heading north from a day in Fakahatchee. Now *that’s* some wet, mosquito-ridden adventure playtime!!! If you want orbweavers in your hair and mosquitos in your shirt, Fakahatchee’s just the place! Heh. I was grateful for the relative dryness of Picayune.

  2. Tracy says:

    I was hoping you would adventure through the ‘real’ Florida ecosystem. I use to drive through Fackahatchee Strand every month when I worked in water quality for the State of FL. Always loved being in the remote wild part that is a small representation of what the whole bottom half of the state use to look like. I highly recommend you visit Chokoloskee and eat at this place: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Havana-Cafe-in-Chokoloskee-FL/303221950194 Some of the best Cuban food I had while in Florida for 20+ years. Plus, Chokoloskee is a cool little town! 🙂

    • Oh man, I’m sorry I missed Chokoloskee! Another trip! Thank for the tip! The Everglades is the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi and yet less than 20 percent of its original acreage has been preserved. What a swamp that must have been! Long live the River of Grass…

  3. Kendall says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have had a similar experience exploring a development project gone sour. Rio Rancho, New Mexico, has many dirt roads and plots of land on the west side, constructed many decades ago, initially meant for housing. Of course, it never came to fruition, although many plots were sold. One was to my grandparents, which I inherited. I visited it a few years ago, and while the scenery is vastly different from what you saw in Florida, it is no more inhabitable. The high desert in its natural state is a very intimidating thing. I wonder how the owners of the Earthship felt when they first purchased their land in NM…Enjoy the rest of your travels in FL!

    • Very cool, Kendall. I haven’t explored that area around Rio Rancho, but it sounds similar to where the Earthship is. Lots of empty lots and abandoned houses out there! People fall in love at first sight with that desert, but most aren’t cut out for the realities of living out there. I loved it, but it’s not for everybody. Do you daydream about building on your land? Thanks for the comment! M

  4. Interresting place indeed. So , they do allow dogs on the trail?? I would almost be afraid they might get eaten by something .

    • Yes, dogs were allowed on the trail. It’s possible they could have been eaten by something, but they stay right with me and I’m willing to take more than a few risks in my crazy life.

  5. Allison says:

    I grew up in South Florida and will always be haunted by the Everglades (but not the Black Stallion books; Swamplandia, yes.). It wasn’t so much the alligators or water moccasins or coral snakes or fire ants, but the sawgrass and the mucky muck water and the bugs. Bugs everywhere. And now, the errant python. I think you should find someone to go python hunting and write about that. You might even win some cash prizes!

    • Yeah the mosquitoes weren’t nearly as bad as I thought they might be, but two got into our tent and left Drew with more than 50 bites on his feet! He was suffered for a few days! Thankfully salt water is the best cure and there was plenty of that in the Keys! I looked into the python hunting contest, out of curiosity, but I love snakes too much to kill them, even if they are invasive.

  6. Pingback: Everglades, Part 2: Swamp Safari! | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  7. Sounds like it’s time for a handheld gps ! We can’t have you getting lost in the everglades and becoming gator bait.

  8. I thought I had read all the Black Stallion stories when I was a kid, but I don’t remember one about the Everglades – maybe it was too long ago 🙂 Carol

  9. Gary says:

    Last week an elderly gentleman left his home in Punta Gorda for walmart and never returned, a silver was issued. My wife + I found him in Picayune Strand that evening, he was confused, lost and out of gas. I don’t think he would have made it through the night.

  10. Jeff Fish says:

    I’m sorry to say but none of you know squat about the pic. strand. My family was there long before the canals and destruction took place. WE ran cattle all through those woods for years and owned several hundred acres in the middle of where they didn’t cut the roads. We formed a corp. after getting together with several other owners around us and managed about a thousand acres of that place and managed it very well. Thousands of deer, turkey and bear, (females in the winter would walk all the way to this area to give birth and then start the long walk north with their cubs in the spring back up to central fla.) There were diamond backs out there six to eight feet everywhere and I spent some time in a hospital in Naples in 77 for a nasty hand bite after being bit working fence post piles. The joke is there were clans out there who loved that place and didn’t want to leave when the government stole it from us. That’s right sloe it under the guise of wetland restoration . Yeah ! they got it alright for a wetland but few know the reason why and I’ll tell you. The west coast is populated from Marco to ft. myers with rich people and continuing development. Well when you got people you need a water source for the future development and they saw their water source out in those woods. And now they can continue to cram a bunch of northerners into their developments. When they took our land they threatened imminent domain and paid us crap for our land. It barley covered the years of taxes paid on it. Losing that place was something we never will get over. At fifty eight I still have dreams about our ranch, The Nevus corp. Iron horse ranch. We lost it in 94. If you camp out there sleep tight, I caught the largest coral snake ever caught in Fla. 72 inches and mean. In case you haven’t noticed they haven’t done diddly squat with their restoration except for some token crap. Your tax dollars at work for the rich. You call it swamp in the summer but we called it beauty. Millions of bull frogs , bass and native shad swimming through the prairies in high water season. I know every inch of the pic. , fakahatchee, and ten thousand islands. It was my home. Sorry to sound bitter but I am. Just keep cramming people here, it’s almost over anyway. Oh yeah, all you so called environmentally concerned campers, did you drive your car to get there or walk? We call mosquitoes swamp angels cause without them every butthead and their friends would be out in those areas. Signed: your average pissed of possum, coon, catfish, gator, cooter, sqawk, eating florida cracker. The Fishman. bluestoneservant@gmail.com

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