Tag: the road less traveled

The Nature of Florida

So, I’ve established two things about Florida so far (1) the Florida Keys can be a destination for hikers, and (2) this state has a lot of forts. As much as I love Disney, I didn’t see a single theme park while I was there. So, yes, there are a lot of off-the-beaten-path destinations in Florida, and there is hiking to be had for those us of that love seeing nature. But just what IS nature like in the home of Disney World? I imagined lots of swamps, with beaches on the edges, but it turns out (unsurprisingly), that the nature of Florida is really complex, with a variety of ecosystems (or groups of plants and animals associated with certain environmental conditions) to enjoy. Here are some of the ecosystems that I got to explore in Florida.

Ecosystems of Florida

Sea Island Flatwoods in Fort Caroline NM, Jacksonville

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Palmetto Forests in Cape Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Hardwook Hammock on Windly Key, Florida Keys

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Sandy Beaches in the Dry Tortugas NP

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Cypress Forest in Big Cypress National Preserve

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Bay Head in a Grass River of the Everglades NP

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Pinelands of the Everglades NP

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Mangroves of the Everglades NP

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

nature of florida

Finding Comfort in History: The Southwestern Charms of The Cochise Hotel

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

In a quiet corner of Arizona, south of the bustling, growing cities of Phoenix and Tucson, sits the small, peaceful town of Cochise. Anyone that travels there today will find one main road, with low-lying buildings settled on either side. Many of them still have the boxed and wooden appearance of the old frontier settlements that we have all become so familiar with through Western movies. Dry grasslands wave golden and yellow in the breeze, and there are mountains in every direction. At the end of the street, on the edge of human habitation here, sits the Cochise Hotel, a stark white historic jewel.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

In 1882, the hotel was founded by John Rath, who built and ran the town’s train station, bank, and well. Connected to the man at the center of everything in Cochise, the hotel was said to have become the heart of the settlement. It is even believed that at one point, none other than Big-Nosed Kate (see more discussion of this historical female entrepreneur here ran the place. However, when the mining industry began to falter, Cochise shrunk, as did many of its compatriots in Arizona’s southern valleys. As the town’s population dwindled, the Cochise Hotel began falling into disrepair, and it is likely that the hotel would have continued on this path to oblivion, but for the interest of one, Phillip Gessert.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

Gessert’s family had moved to southern Arizona when he was younger, and he developed a passion for the area’s history. In fact, he previously ran an antique gambling museum in Tombstone, and his expertise was even sought after for HBO’s Westworld series. He found himself inspired by the Cochise Hotel, and it was this love for Arizona’s history that led him to purchase the hotel. For the past five years, he has been working on renovating the Cochise Hotel, hoping that he can bring life back to Arizona’s oldest, still-functioning hotel.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

The Cochise is still a work in progress, but visitors will now find this place to be a cozy inn. Each room has its own character, and Gessert has not only repaired the building itself, but has used his own collections to create authentic spaces for travelers to experience for themselves. While Tombstone has taken on the spirit of an attraction, Cochise and its hotel offer a more quiet, and contemplative look at the past. It is a place for inspiration as well. In fact, it’s hard not to be inspired by the views, the story and soul of this place.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

The Cochise Hotel is sure to be a wonderful experience for anyone interested in the history of the old west, but also for artists, and outdoor enthusiasts seeking to trek through Arizona’s southern wilderness. It is a gateway to an older way of life, to a night sky unmarred by city lights, and hopefully new stories of exploration and self-discovery.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

To learn more about the Cochise, please visit its website here. I would highly suggest calling the hotel, rather than trying to email. If you plan on staying at the Cochise, also consider stopping at the Cochise Stronghold, the Chiricahua Mountains, and/or Kartchner Caverns. Cochise is also the first stop on Southern Arizona’s Ghost Town Trail, so you may want to check that out as well.

(c) K. Arrington 2016

(c) K. Arrington 2016

Cautionary Tales for the Concerned Traveler: The Story of the Key Deer and Speeding

The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect  and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.

Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.

Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here – https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/1997/Whats-Killing-the-Key-Deer.aspx).

So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.

Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

Beyond the Overseas Highway: Three Fabulous Places for Nature and History in the Florida Keys

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

For most, the Florida Keys is an alluring road trip destination due to the Overseas Highway, which takes drivers through the keys and over the ocean, as its name suggests. The sights and sounds of the Florida Keys may be a little bit disappointing to nature lovers when the ocean is out of sight, because human habitation here feels thick and unending. But as I always say, there is something for everyone in all destinations, and the Keys are no exception. So, fellow outdoorswomen and men, here are my top three activities for you in the Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Seventy miles west of Key West lay the seven small islands of the Dry Tortugas, now home to the historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Fort construction began in 1846 but even after 30 years of progress, it was never completed. This massive complex was meant to help the United States control the Caribbean Sea, its strategic position is pretty clear even to the casual onlooker. The fort itself offers at least an hour or more of thorough exploration, with three levels and the sandy trail that loops around its top and base. But aside from the fort, the Dry Tortugas are also a splendid place to snorkel, and in the right season, you can get some casual hiking in as well. Mid-October to mid-January is when the beaches of Bush Key are open – a unique ecosystem and an important nesting ground for several species of marine birds. The easiest way to get out here is with the Yankee Freedom, which can either take you out for the day, or deposit you on Garden Key for some camping.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Arguably, Biscayne is more part of Miami than the Florida Keys, but the main part of this Floridian wonder is the tail end of the Keys, along the shore of the mainland. There is a visitor center on the mainland, but this is really just a gateway to the keys that are part of this protected area including Adams Key, Elliot Key, and Boca Chita Key. While they are close to Key, they aren’t accessible by land, so taking a day tour with one of the companies that works with the National Park Service is necessary if you want to snorkel, kayak or hike in the park.

Florida Key State Parks

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

So, we have nice nature stops at the base of the Keys, and far out to sea past Key West, but what about all those islands in the middle? Is there anything other than concrete bridges and strip malls? Well, of course! First of all, there are plenty of places to park at near the bridges where you can stop to fish or walk around. But more importantly, there are multiple state parks throughout the Keys that give you a glimpse into what these islands were like before humans started paving them. Florida Hikes has a great post about this that I referenced when driving through. You can give yourself a driving break AND support Florida’s protected areas, making checking out these parks a true travel perk.

If you enjoy this post, you may want to learn more about the Florida Keys:

Travlinmad’s A First Timers Guide to Key West

If you want to see manatees in the Florida Keys, be sure to look at MBsees Manatees! Enough Said.

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