animals, bikes, day trip, family, florida, hike, Miami, USA

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Florida

Riding Bikes and counting Alligators…

Riding bikes on the 15-mile/24 km scenic Loop Trail in Shark Valley inside the Everglades National Park was on our bucket list for a long time. I knew we had to visit during the winter month, because it is just too hot during summer. When I recently started to collaborate with #LiveWildlyFL, a movement that was created to help raise awareness of the benefits of wildlife corridors and inspire more people to get out into these great spaces and connect and protect the lands at risk. I knew Shark Valley would be the perfect location. I am so glad we can be part of this mission and love to encourage people to #LiveWildlyFL in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. January is the perfect month to get out exploring and truly the perfect time to visit Shark Valley which is part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor stretches from the Panhandle to the Everglades, and is the core of what makes Florida, Florida. If you want to learn more about it and Live Wildly, check out their amazing website here.

Shark Valley can get pretty busy during the winter months, so we made sure to arrive early. Once the parking lot is filled, no more cars are allowed to enter. Visiting on weekdays, and arriving before 10 am or after 3pm, definitely helps to make sure the adventure can happen. There are plenty of things to do from biking, taking the tram tour, hiking to exploring, bird watching and alligator counting. 

Shark Valley Visitor Center

We started by exploring the Shark Valley Visitor center inside. I really liked the educational displays inside and outside of the visitor center. The perfect adventure is not only about having fun riding bikes, but also learning about our environment and the beautiful Florida Wildlife Corridor. It is important to protect the Corridor to continue to enjoy activities like this one in nature. The visitor center also has a park video and informational brochures, pictures and maps. Books, postcards, and other souvenirs can be bought in the adjacent gift shop.

Outside of the visitor center was more interesting information about the Florida Wildlife Corridor, alligators, wildlife, plants and more Florida facts. It was hands-on and we learned a little bit of everything from alligator poop, birds to pig frogs.

We found most interesting was the life size alligator replica that was thoroughly inspected from head to foot. In addition, there is a daily Ranger Walk and a separate Ranger Talk to learn even more about the beautiful Everglades.

Renting a Bike

We brought our own bicycles, but there is the option to rent bicycles at the rear side of the visitor center. Bicycles are $23 per day and there are adult and kid sizes available. It is first come, first serve, but bikes can also be reserved in advance.

Biking the Loop

The scenic Shark Valley Loop Trail is amazing. It quickly became my favorite bike trail in South Florida. We saw so many alligators just lying on the side of the road. It is very special to share the road with these majestic animals. Even though we live in Florida and have seen lots of alligators before, we have never experienced them like this. Riding a bike close to a wild alligator sunbathing on the side of the road was thrilling for the kids and made me feel all kinds of emotions. It was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking having such intimidating animals within feet of us.

The shark Valley Scenic Loop Trail is a 15-mile round trip. The trail is about 20 feet wide, and the only traffic is the ranger car and the park tram, which will pass every couple of hours. There are no short cuts, but a park ranger passed us twice and asked if we needed any assistance. It is divided into the east and west trail with the observation tower in between. The east trail meanders 8 miles through a sawgrass prairie dotted with islands of bay, cypress, willow and hardwood trees, along with alligators, other wildlife and birds. The Observation Tower is near the midway point of the trail. The west trail is 7 miles in length and follows a canal where more wildlife, especially alligators can be viewed. Both trails are gorgeous and show different sides of the Everglades.

The loop took us almost a half a day or more with the kids. The trail itself is not very hard, because it is paved and flat and beautiful to ride on. But the Florida weather conditions can make it a bit challenging. The sun can feel hot very fast and there is almost no shade on the entire trail other than the observation tower. It is important to bring enough water for the day (at least 1 gallon or 4 liters), as well as some snacks or lunch. We also noticed that the wind could make bicycling more difficult. It made pedaling against the wind harder on the way back from the observation tower then the smooth ride on the way in. Always check the weather beforehand!

You will be disappointed if you visited Shark Valley to see sharks. Despite its name, you’re unlikely to find any sharks in the freshwater sawgrass prairie here. This shallow sheet flow of water which is essentially a 30-mile-wide river, is known as the Shark River Slough. It flows south into the Shark River, named for the bull sharks found at the mouth of the river. But depending on the time you visit, you will see plenty of wildlife, including alligators.

Sooooo many Alligators

How many alligators did we see while biking through Shark Valley? We started to count while passing them and the kids got more and more excited with each alligator. We were lucky enough to end up seeing 91 alligators! That was so amazing. They were basking in the sun, lying in the water and just minding their own business.

Of course, we kept our distance and admired them only from afar. Most of them are on the side of the road, but there were some alligators whose body parts extended onto the trail. Even though we stopped several times to take pictures or to rest, we always kept a distance of at least 15 feet or 5m from all wildlife including the alligators. It is prohibited to feed, touch or harass wildlife. It is important to follow all the park rules when interacting with wild animals.

Alligator sightings can vary drastically. It is possible to visit in summer and not see a single alligator because they spread out over the vast watery river of grass. November through April is the best time to visit to see them. Dry conditions and cooler temperatures result in animals gathering around the remaining pools of water, so wildlife viewing is better. I truly recommend coming in the Winter months because we had the perfect day.

Making a Stop

In the beginning, we almost stopped every time we saw an alligator. Just a moment to admire the animal or to take a picture. Our first real stop and water break was at the only park bench on the trail. Other than the observation tower, it is the only other break stop with a little shade.

Beautiful Everglades

I really enjoyed all the different scenery. From the River of Grass to water holes, swaps and marshes, there are lots of different landscapes. Also depending on the season, the Everglades can look much different. The dry season from November to March marks for example the arrival of many migratory birds. There are egrets, herons, white ibis and wood storks.

The rains of summer rejuvenate the parched Everglades and flood the Shark River Slough. Most fascinating for me is that virtually every creature in South Florida depends in some way on the shimmery expanse of the grassy water of the Everglades.

The Observation Tower

One of the highlights of the trail other than the Everglades itself, is the observation tower. The tower is 65 feet tall and it provides spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of the Everglades and all the diverse landscapes. On clear days, visibility is over 20 miles. Because of the deep water next to it, there is lots of wildlife. We saw alligators, turtles, birds and fish.

The observation tower has a facility with restrooms, garbage cans and a water filling station. I also liked that the long winding ramp is wheelchair accessible. Even though there are no picnic tables or benches, with a blanket on the grass, it is still a great place for a lunch break.

Biking Back

The park and trails are actually open 24 hours. Only the visitor center and more importantly the parking lot closes at 6 p.m. There are possibilities to park outside the park and access the Loop Trail after closing time. The ranger in the visitor center told us that there are even guided full moon/new moon bike tours available.

One More Interesting Stop

Since Olivia learned about the alligator poop at the visitor center, we noticed a lot of poop on the side of the trail too, and it turned into another hands-on learning experience. She wasn’t allowed to actually touch it but used a stick to feel the consistency. We saw the difference between fresh and dried poop and somehow it was really exciting. I love a learning experience like that.

After the Ride

After we were finished biking, we went back to the visitor center to record our findings. We saw 91 alligators, lots of different birds, a snake. fish and 2 turtles.

The Trails

Other than the main scenic Shark Valley Loop Trail, there are three small walking trails inside the park. The Bobcat Boardwalk, the Otter Cave Trail and the Borrow Pit Trail.

This is the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail. It is located very close to the visitor center and is only 0.2 miles long. This trail explores a bayhead full of Sweetbay Magnolia, Cocoplum, Dahoon Holly, and Wax Myrtle. Birds can be found hiding along the trail and bobcats have been known to prowl the boardwalk at night, giving the trail its name.

The Otter Cave Trail is 0.3 miles long and begins 0.6 miles from the visitor center. It leads through a hardwood hammock with trees like Gumbo Limbo and Strangler Fig, as well as exposed limestone bedrock and solution holes. The trail can flood during the summer months and was also closed on the day we visited.

The Borrow Pit Trail was submerged partly in water that day, so we decided to keep our feet dry and skip it. The trail skirts the edge of a borrow pit created during oil exploration before the park was established. The open water mimics an alligator hole with seasonally abundant wildlife. The higher ground mimics a bayhead – small, dense, and impenetrable, an island of higher ground that provides a kind of oasis for plant and animal life.

More Things to Do

Another great way to see Shark Valley is on the Shark Valley Tram Tours, which offers two-hour guided tours along the trail. The open-air trams are covered and stop frequently to point out wildlife. Guides offer insights into this unique ecology, identify animals and plants and more interesting facts. The tour starts at the visitor center several times a day and stops at the observation tower. Prices are as follows: Adults $29, Seniors, $23 and Children (3-12 years) $15

Departure Times and Prices are subject to change.

It is a great alternative to biking, particularly for those with mobility issues. We did see people walking on the trail. Scooters and roller-skates are not allowed to be used in the park.

Shark Valley is only a small part of the Florida Corridor. LiveWildly makes it easy for anyone in FL to experience the Corridor in their own way. They have an amazing “interactive map” on their explore page here.

Other important Information

Physical Address:

36000 SW 8th Street
Miami, Florida 33194

Shark Valley Visitor Center is located on Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail / SW 8th St.) 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, exit 25A (from the north) and exit 25 (from the south).

The entrance fee of Everglades National Park is either $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle or $15 per Person (walk-in/bicycle). There are Annual Passes, Lifetime Passes and Group Rates available.

Hours of Operation (Every Day)

  • Visitor Center: 9:00AM – 5:00PM
  • Shark Valley Tram Tours: 8:30AM – 6:00PM
  • Parking Gate & Lot: 8:30AM – 6:00PM

Contact by Phone

  • Shark Valley Visitor Center: (305) 221-8776
  • Tram & Bicycle Reservations / Questions: (305) 221-8455
  • General Park Information: (305) 242-7700

Even though this is a #sponsored post, all opinions are my own. I only work together with companies and organizations that I feel great about.

day trip, Europe, family, hike, italy, lake, Uncategorized

Lago di Carezza, South Tyrol, Italy

The most beautiful rainbow lake in the Dolomites – Lago di Carezza/Karersee

Lago di Carezza or Karersee is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Dolomites and it was one of our favorite destinations in South Tyrol. This magical lake is also called the “Lec de Ergobando”, which means Rainbow Lake in the Ladin language. The crystal clear water sparkles magnificently in Emerald green and Sapphire blue with flecks of colors of the rainbow. The Latemar mountains and an enchanting forests in the back of the lake, make an impressive and unforgettable sight. It truly feels like being inside a fairytale.

Lake Carezza is about 30km Southeast of Bozen/Bolzano and is the perfect first stop of the Great Dolomites Road (SS241) from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo through the heart of the UNESCO-listed Dolomites. Located in the Val d’Ega valley, only 6 km from Nova Levante, Lake Carezza is the perfect stop for a short trip or to spend the entire day. There is a parking lot with reasonable rates across the street of the lake that also has a restaurant, bathrooms and a gift shop.

Walking down the steps to the lake feels like stepping into a fairytale. It is such a magical place.

The lake is fed by subterraneous springs from the Latemar mountains and the water level is constantly changing. The level is highest in spring with a depth of 22 m due to the melting snow, whereas the lowest level in October reaches only 6 m.

We visited the lake in the end of July in the late afternoon and it was the perfect time. I would recommend to go either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Our family tends to visit places in the afternoon and it works for us. Most of the tourists are already gone for the day, the weather and temperature is still perfect and everything has the golden glow from the sun going down.

The different colors of the lake not only make Lago di Carezza look magical, it has also inspired this century old legend of a water fairy and a wizard:

Once upon a time a beautiful water fairy lived inside the lake. She loved to sit on the shores of the lake and sing the most beautiful songs. She was very shy and disappeared whenever anybody came close to the lake. One day the sorcerer of Masaré heard the water fairy sing and fell immediately in love. He tried to enchant her with his magic but wasn’t able to catch her. The sorcerer grew more and more impatient and asked the witch Langwerda for advice. The witch suggested to create a magic rainbow from Latemar to Lake Carezza to intrigue the water fairy. She also told the sorcerer to dress up as an old merchant and explain to the curious fairy on how to make these rainbow air jewels. This way he was able to catch her when she got close to him . The wizard made the most beautiful rainbow but forgot to dress up and the water fairy recognized him. She got scared and disappeared in the water forever. The sorcerer got really angry, tore the rainbow from the sky and threw it in the lake. The rainbow melted in the water and spread on the surface of the lake. That’s how the lake got the name Rainbow Lake.

There are lots of different hiking possibilities and trails in the area. We decided to walk the most popular trail around the lake. It is a very easy and picturesque loop hike that only takes about 30min. The lake is completely fenced and the circular loop winds through the fairytale landscape with several scenic lookout points to view the lake from different angles.

There are plenty of images online and on social media of people sitting or standing on a rock by the lake. This shot is unfortunately illegal and should not be copied or attempted. Lago di Carezza is completely fenced and it is not allowed to swim or approach the water (and the banks of the water). It would have not been difficult to climb the fence, but I want to teach our kids to be responsible travelers, to respect the laws and most importantly to respect nature and not to destroy or damage it for a picture. Nevertheless, Lake Carezza is a very special place, has plenty of picture possibilities and worth a visit.

Have you also visited Lago di Carezza or the Dolomites? Share your experience in the comment section. If you have more questions, let me know and I am happy to answer it. 

Uncategorized

Hinterweidenthal, Germany

The Devil’s Table/ Teufelstisch

The Teufelstisch in Hinterweidenthal is a 14 meter high mushroom rock that looks like a huge table in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Deep inside the Pfaelzer Wald/ Palatinate Forest, one of the largest forests in Germany, lies the Teufelstisch which means “devil’s table” and is the most famous rock formation in the area.

The table is a big sandstone plate resting on two narrow columns of rock and was created by erosion. But there is another story. The Rhineland Palatinates is not only a place of wineries, vineyards and old castles, it is full of legends and fairytales. There story about the Teufelstisch goes as follows:

Once upon a time, the devil traveled through the forest with glowing fiery eyes. As the day went by, he became tired and hungry, but could not find a place to sit down to rest and have dinner. He grabbed three huge boulders and made his own table and chair. After finishing his meal, the devil shouldered the chair to take it along with him, but left the table behind. The local villagers were shocked, when they discovered it the next morning. Many were afraid and believed the devil had been there. Only one was brave enough and decided to dine with him the next evening. As the sun slowly disappeared behind the rocks, the young man went out. At Midnight, a horrible and gruesome cry interrupted the silence of the night and the young man was never seen again.

Olivia does not seem to believe this old tale…. What about you?

My parents grew up in Rhineland-Palatines and we love to visit my grandmothers who still live in the area. This place was recommended by my father, because it is not far from Kaiserslautern. One late afternoon, we decided to go on a little adventure and visit this magnificent rock formation.

We were really excited to discover the great playground beneath the rock. We only knew about the Teufelstisch, so the playground was an added bonus. The extra long rock slide (50m) was one of the best slides we have ever been on and definitely the boys favorite part. It was very fast to say the least. There was also a water playground, nature trail, cable swing and mini golf.

After playing for a little while, we followed the path and stairs up to the Teufelstisch. There are several great hiking paths through the forest and to neighboring villages. An entire day could be spent hiking in the area.

There are several other mushroom rocks in the area, but the Teufelstisch is the highest and most famous.

It was such a fun little day trip and I hope to discover more places in the area where my parents grew up.

Uncategorized

Arcadia, Florida

The Historic Downtown Antique District of Arcadia, Florida

Florida is most famous for sunshine, beaches, amusement parks, oranges and maybe the Everglades. But there is so much more to our beautiful sunshine state. Most tourists visit Miami and Orlando, however some of Florida’s best secrets are in more remote locations away from tourist areas. Arcadia is one of those places and worth a visit.

Located just about one hour east of Sarasota and about one hour north of Fort Myers, Arcadia is nestled between miles of orange trees and cattle fields. It is a charming old Florida town with a beautiful historic Main Street. The Downtown Historical District now encompasses 3,400 acres with 293 historic buildings and is part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Driving by beautiful historic houses and old trees covered in Spanish Moss, Arcadia feels like being transported to a different time. But the main reason, we like to visit, is the historic downtown antique district on main street. The charming antique stores are filled with little treasures, collectibles, rare finds, antiques, vintage deco and much more. It is a dream for antique lovers and was even named the state’s “Best Place for Antique Shopping” by Florida Monthly magazine.

The heart of the historical district is extends 18 blocks and consists of buildings constructed between 1900 and the late 1920. Three buildings that survived the devastating 1905 downtown fire as well as those that were rebuilt, are generally masonry vernacular in style. The most imposing structure is the 1912 classical Revival courthouse as well as the 1906 Opera House that is both museum and antique store. It houses an amazing collection of historical items and the theater is in near original condition.

My favorite store is the Vintage Garden right in the beginning of Main Street. It’s full of shabby chic furniture, accessories, treasures and more. I just looooove it so much and would love to buy everything. And it is pink too. The perfect store for me.

Another of my favorite buildings is the Rosin Building, which is commonly called The Pink Building and is one of the most iconic buildings on main street. Over the years, the ground floor of the Pink Building has housed different antique stores, restaurants, a bar, a barbershop, a post office, a hardware store, a beauty parlor and a drug store.

I like to include my kids in our adventures and antique shopping might not be on the top of favorite things to do for a child or a teenager. To get them interested, everybody gets $5 or $10 and can buy whatever treasure they can find. That usually works perfect for my older boys, because they are very careful to spend their money wisely and want to find the greatest and best treasure out there.

Another fun way of getting the kids interested, is to find something odd or funny. It can be anything. In our case, we were looking for creepy faces. There are lots of beautiful old dolls, stuffed animals and toys, but some of them do look a little creepy. My sister noticed the first doll and took a picture of the face. Once we started to look for them, we noticed more and more faces of dolls, clowns and little figurines that qualified. It became a game for everybody to find the most fascinating and creepy doll face. Of course, we could have looked for something else instead, but the dolls just found us. Sometimes a creepy face is all it takes to get kids interested. (by the way, that strategy has worked for us before…. One time we visited the Louvre in Paris and my youngest son was so excited about finding naked baby bottoms in the pictures) Here is a little selection of our favorite doll faces:

Most stores open around 10 am and close around 4pm. One of the largest antique fairs in the state, the Antique Association of Arcadia hosts over 100 quality dealers is held monthly on the 4th Saturday of the month. We haven’t been to this event, but it sounds very interesting.

Anyways, Arcadia was the perfect place to spend the day with the family on an overcast Sunday. We found several little treasures and spent a beautiful day all together.

One last thing: There is an Annual Watermelon Festival in May at the height of the harvesting season. A watermelon seed spit competition is the perfect reason for my boys to come back. Or maybe looking for shark teeth inside the Peace River…… We definitely will visit again.