“Will we get to see the Florida Panther?” my 10-year-old daughter immediately asked as we planned our New Year’s Trip to Marco Island, Florida. By now I am used to such queries from my animal science lover. Although this guy is pretty elusive, we figured we would give it our best shot by traveling to the Northwestern entrance to Everglades National Park in the Southern Florida Gulf Coast. As soon as we got off the highway to head into Marco Island she saw the signs. “Panther crossing next 5 miles.” She was sure she would spot one that night.
Search by bicycle
Biking in the Everglades is a an essential experience at this National Park. Menacing alligators were everywhere on the Tamiani trail heading to the Everglades. A quick stop at the Oasis Visitor center at the Big Cyprus National Preserve allowed us to learn more about the Panther and its struggles to survive in the area. We also learned about the other wildlife in the area with hands -on exhibits. A ranger provided us with Junior Ranger quest materials that we used on our adventure in Shark Alley in the Everglades National Park. After we gathered our Junior Ranger materials and all of our newfound knowledge, we rented some bikes from the park service and got ready for a 15 mile loop bike ride to seek out wildlife. I never dreamed I would let me kids get so close to the monstrous Everglades gators, but there we were cruising by them on our bikes. The last few miles were quite an effort for the kids (and the adults too!) Luckily you can choose to opt for the park service tram for a more relaxing ranger led tour if you don’t think your family is up for the challenge. Although we espied our fair share of gators and gator babies…no panthers.
Search by airboat
Captain Doug’s airboat tours just outside of the park in Everglades City allowed us to continue our quest and fulfilled the need for speed. These boats are smaller airboats so they are able to zip down the mangrove arches and really got our hearts racing. We spotted a Raccoon family and Pelicans that got so close one actually side-swiped my son with his wing…… but the panther continued to evade us.
Search by hiking and wild life drives
The Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve provided the opportunity to hike in the mangroves and drive along the Janes Scenic Wildlife Drive. Sightings outside the park entry indicated that the feline in question had been spotted earlier in the day near a specific fig strangled tree. We were hoping for some luck as we completed the Janes scenic wildlife drive at dusk. Although we never saw the panther, we did spot deer, gators, squirrels, a woodpecker, beautiful flora and birds on the small one way 11 mile road full of adventure!
The J ‘Ding” Darling drive located on Sanibel extended our search. My children were thrilled to find the Roseate Spoonbill and some Wood Storks on this drive. All of our wildlife treks had made us very hungry so we stopped at the Bubble Room, a Captiva landmark since 1974. This spot is kitsch to the max and of course the kids loved it. All the wait staff are decked out as ‘Bubble Scouts’ with crazy patches and hats of their choosing. The restaurant is decorated for Christmas all year and there are several sections just begging to be checked out by the wee-ones, including an outside jail cell.
Search on the Beach
Tigertail Beach is located right on Marco Island and although Captiva and Sanibel garner much of the attention regarding their seashell finds, Tigertail can compete quite hardily. The fine, white sandy beach is very wide, and although we saw no panthers we saw our fair share of other wild creatures including a dolphin pod swimming very close to the shore. No need for a dolphin sighting cruise!!! The kids snorkeled and swam while we adults got in some good reading time. The beach is complete with a snack bar and a playground, perfect for young children. It is a walk from the parking lot to the beach unless of course you are up for another adventure: crossing the salt pond in waist deep water. (The kids liked this option….maybe not the adults…but it was a quicker way to access the beach.)
Search…at the zoo!
The Lowry Park Zoo has been voted the number one zoo by Parent’s Magazine and once we set foot on its grounds we immediately knew why. All of the exhibits were kid friendly and there were many activities for the kids to participate in including walking amongst the Wallabies, feeding Giraffes, Rhinos and Stingrays. A kiddie roller coaster and a carousel were included with admission and provided a great way to break up the monotony of the ‘zoo experience’. We ran out of time before we could see the entire park, but we did finally see Lucy the Florida Pantherand my daughter finally had her up close and personal encounter.
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