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Ever backpacked on a river? Hike the Coastal Prairie Trail in southernmost Everglades National Park and you will. This is the place pioneering conservationist and author Marjory Stoneman Douglas dubbed the “River of Grass,” since the massive ecosystem literally rests atop a torrent of water flowing imperceptively from Lake Okeechobee in the center of the state to the Gulf of Mexico. The path is dry and your boots won’t get wet-unless an alligator runs you off the trail-but surrounding you are swamps, sloughs, estuaries, and sawgrass prairie, all reminders that you’re in a world of water.
The trailhead for the 15-mile round-trip Coastal Prairie Trail starts inauspiciously enough at Flamingo Visitor Center, a bustling tourist enclave 38 miles inside the park. Grin and bear it, because a short walk leaves the hubbub behind. The trail follows an old makeshift road once used by fishermen and workers picking wild cotton. Like them, you’ll penetrate shady buttonwood groves, skirt mangrove-fringed lakes, and roll through wide, grassy plains. You’re apt to see herons, hawks, bald eagles, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, ibis, osprey, roseate spoonbills, and lots of alligators.
In due time you’ll earn your reward for the effort: Clubhouse Beach, a wild spit of sand about as far south as you can get and still be in Florida. Although the swift of foot can make the 15-mile round trip in one day, that doesn’t allow time to watch the sun set across the water, or listen to the waves gently lapping at the beach, or enjoy the breeze that sways the coconut palms (remnants of a failed plantation). Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re in Tahiti.
After setting up camp you can explore to your heart’s content-there are no formal trails, but the canals and mangroves will let you know when to turn around-or take a refreshing swim in Florida Bay. At night, without Miami’s glare to light up the sky, the stars put on quite a show. And while the mating calls of the ‘gators may not exactly lull you to sleep, they do make for unique bedtime listening.