Moon over the swamp: Fakahatchee ‘moonlight tram’ reconnects visitors to natural Florida
The full moon rising over the natural slough and cypress forests of the Fakahatchee is a moving sight, especially when you realize how far from the noises and light pollution of civilization you are.
There are many ways to experience the Fakahatchee, although the once-every-lunar-month “moonlight tram” is unique.
First, though, you have to get there; in terms of distance from Naples, it’s pretty much a tossup whether to take I-75 to State Road 29 or drive out the old-fashioned way along the Tamiami Trail. Take the Trail (U.S. 41) and you can stop at another Fakahatchee feature along the way: the park’s free boardwalk.
The boardwalk gives you a quick-and-easy look at the natural attractions of the Fakahatchee, or Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, to give its full name. The Fakahatchee doesn’t have the name recognition or the big time organizations backing it, as with the Everglades National Park or Rookery Bay; narrower, more rustic and maintained entirely by volunteers from the Friends of Fakahatchee, the Fakahatchee boardwalk also doesn’t have the cachet of the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; while much of the Fakahatchee Strand is accessed along Jane’s Scenic Drive – off State Road 29 between Everglades City and Immokalee – the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk along U.S. 41 offers an easy way to walk back through centuries of Florida’s natural history, and you can get a look at how the area appeared long before development.
For a deeper dive into the Fakahatchee, take the Moonlight Tram during the one evening a month when the full moon rises right around sunset for a naturalist-guided tour through the park’s interior.
Heading out from park H.Q. along Jane’s Scenic Drive in late afternoon as the sun nears the horizon, the Moonlight Tram follows the rough lime rock road as daylight diminishes and eventually disappears, leaving only the moonlight.
November's full moon tour was guided by naturalist and retired science teacher Glen Stacell. He warned his passengers at the outset, “I can be guilty of information overload,” and he did share an impressive trove of knowledge about the park, its flora, fauna and natural history.
One of the first nuggets of knowledge he imparted was that the Fakahatchee is the largest state park in Florida. In shape, it is a long, linear strand, stretching 22 miles from the Gulf of Mexico south of U.S. 41 and up to I-75.
With miles of cypress swamp and broad vistas of prairie, the preserve takes up much of the area between Immokalee and Everglades City. Jane’s Scenic Drive cuts through the preserve, allowing those willing to bounce around on a rough dirt road the opportunity to travel into the heart of the Fakahatchee.
Called the “Orchid Swamp,” the park is home to the greatest concentration of orchids in the nation, and maybe the world: forty-nine different species, including the ghost orchid that was the subject, or victim, of Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.”
It’s quite possible, said Stacell, that Hurricane Irma blew more spores with even more varieties of orchid up from Cuba. The storm blew down trees, but with many thousands of bald cypress and royal palms, there are plenty left. It also raised floodwaters over Jane’s Scenic Drive, so visitors are still cautioned to be careful driving; only the first six miles of road are open.
Stacell educated his visitors on various fauna as they appeared, such as the vultures overhead which, he said, have no voice box and can only grunt, but are masters of projectile vomiting, which is how they feed their young. The Fakahatchee is also home to black bears, Florida panthers and Everglades mink.
These did not put in an appearance that evening, but one alligator showed up briefly in the water alongside the road before disappearing into the gathering gloom. After it became dark, Stacell used a sensor that picks up the frequencies of bats, letting the visitors hear them chirping to demonstrate they were flying overhead, feasting on some of the 41 species of mosquito the Fakahatchee supports.
Stacell pointed out bayberry trees, identifiable by their smell and ferns – including resurrection, Boston and sword ferns – Fakahatchee grass, and amaryllis or swamp lilies. Lichens abound in the Fakahatchee, and he explained they are a classic barometer of a natural system’s air quality, the “canary in the coal mine” of the swamp.
Some swamp old timers talk about the “Faka high,” saying the air has a higher concentration of oxygen from all the plants busily performing photosynthesis. Maybe, maybe not, but the Fakahatchee does have a special feeling, and some of the most enjoyable moments during the Moonlight Tram tour were when the expedition paused and the visitors were able to just drink in the quiet of remote, natural old Florida.
The Fakahatchee is a natural jewel worth preserving, which is the mission of the park’s friends group, and tours help bankroll their work. To book a Moonlight Tram tour, swamp walk or a custom tour for a group of 10 or more, or to support the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, visit orchidswamp.org.