Loop Road is a 26 mile trip. Most of the road is crushed lime rock, which means dust and a chalky white car. The pot hole situation is much improved, but if you travel there after a rain, try to avoid puddles. It is best to visit Loop Road after rainy season has ended. Built in the 1920s, Loop Road was once home to what are considered south Florida’s pioneers, along with poachers, bootleggers, and other unsavory characters. It is now mostly uninhabited except for an abundance of flora and fauna. It is part of the Big Cypress National Preserve and muchof it is maintained by park service staff.
To enter Loop Road, turn at Monroe Station. Now abandoned, this was once the only place to get gas and provisions between Naples and Miami.
The drive takes about an hour as you wind your way from Collier County, through Monroe County and a portion of Miami Dade County and part of the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. You know you’ve entered the reservation when you see the architecturally identical houses; the biggest variation among them is the type of door – single or double. Loop Road exits back onto Route 41, about 4 miles from Shark Valley.
You will see alligators, a variety of birds, brightly colored bromeliad airplants, and, possibly, a snake or two. During one of my visits, I watched a very long ribbon snake as it returned to it’s home, a cavity in a tree.
Pinecrest, along Loop Road, was once a bustling area with homes, a school and the infamous Gator Hook Lodge; it is now just about a ghost town. You will recognize it by the remains of a gas station, rusted out car, and a few trailers. Look closely at the car to see its “passenger”, a blond wiggedmannequin. Al Capone is said to have had a home, hotel, and brothel in the area; all that remains are some stone steps on a side road off of the main road.
Past Pinecrest, on the east side of the road, you will see a blockade style fence with half a motorcycle protruding from it and various other adornments. This is “Lucky’s Place”, home of Lucky Cole, a photographer who maintains a website of his “natures exotic beauty”, primarily scantily clad and au natural women. Across from Lucky’s is a tombstone with the inscription, “RIP”. Reportedly, no one is actually buried there.
The jewel of Loop Road is Sweetwater Strand, a cypress swamp that offers beautiful vistas of egrets, ibises, and other birds. I have met people who have hiked the eastern part of the strand and said the photographic opportunities are superb, but the thought of encountering gators and snakes doesn’t appeal to me. Depending on the amount of annual rainfall, Sweetwater Strand sometimes dries up in April or May. One year it went dry as early as February; other years it has not dried up. If you notice a large metal box near the strand, it is probablya hydrologic monitoring station.
The National Park Service has an Environmental Education Center further along on the road. Near it is the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail.
For more information about the Big Cypress National Preserve, stop at the Oasis Visitor’s Center on route 41, 5 miles east of Route 29 intersection. There usually are gators in the canal in front of the visitor’s center.
Shark Valley is part of the Everglades National Park and provides an opportunity to experience the “river of grass” of the Everglades. There are short trails near the beginning of the park and a short walk along the tram road section that follows the water is sure to bring sightings of a variety of birds. There is an instructive tram tour led by park naturalists that goes to an observation tower from which you can view the surrounding area. Reservations are recommended from December through April. Alternatively, bicycles can be rented for the trip along the tram road. The road is not open to cars.
The park experience is always different and depends on the time of year you visit. During rainy season, the road is sometimes closed due to flooding. In the fall, after rainy season,you are able to actually see what is meant by “river of grass.” In the dryer winter months, the landscape is different, but I have seem the greatest number and widest variety of birds at those times.
I always try to include a stop at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery as part of any trip to Loop Road or Shark Valley. While his black and white pieces are enthralling and one hangs in my living room, I really like the work with hand painting on photographs that his wife, Niki, has been doing. Top off your day with waterside dining in Everglades City or, on Fridays and Saturdays, the Havana Cafe in Chokoloskee and you have the perfect Everglades experience. People travel from far and wide for something we have in our own backyard.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.