One of my favorite things to do during our wonderful winters is to explore Everglades National Park and attractions in Homestead during the bountiful Redlands farming season.
Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 15 is a perfect opportunity to go on a day trip since the park’s $25 entry fee is waived in honor of the holiday. This year, the National Park Service will offer only four fee-free days. Other dates are April 21, Sept. 22 and Nov. 11. Fees were waived on 10 days last year.
This weekend, there are many fun and free things to do in and around America’s largest subtropical wilderness, which took a heavy beating from Hurricane Irma. Shark Valley, off the Tamiami Trail, didn’t reopen until Dec. 16 after severe flooding. But almost everything is back to normal.
Cool weather during the dry season is the best time to explore South Florida’s River of Grass. There is much to learn and appreciate about this delicate ecosystem, which is the source of our drinking water. Reservations are not required unless noted. For more information, visit NPS.gov/ever or call 305-242-7700.
Anhinga Amble: Rangers give a terrific, free, 50-minute tour at 10:30 a.m. daily down the Anhinga Trail to see alligators, wading birds and other wildlife. Enter at the Homestead entrance and meet at Royal Palm Visitor Center benches. Also, just a few steps away, wander through a junglelike hardwood hammock.
Everglades Adventure Car Caravan: From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily through Jan. 17, follow a ranger in your own car on this free, round-trip, 120-mile trek from the Homestead entrance to Flamingo on the Gulf Coast side of the park. Bring water, lunch, binoculars, bug spray and sunscreen, and be prepared to walk up to a half mile at some stops.
Nike Missile Base: I highly recommend exploring the historic Cold War U.S. Army Nike Missile Site HM-69. Fascinating tours are offered at 2 p.m. daily through March 31.
Shark Valley: This area of the park is named because its water flows southwest toward Shark River, is the heartland of the Everglades. Take a tram or bike the 15-mile loop and see migratory birds and countless alligators sunning themselves on the road. Climb the observation tower to get an expansive view of the sawgrass prairie. Call 305-221-8455 or visit the SharkValleyTramTours.com for bike rental, tram prices and times.
Wet Walk: Starting at 9 a.m. daily through Jan. 15, take a free, two-hour wade through the swamp into the shadows of a gator hole or cypress dome. Wear lace-up shoes, socks and long pants that can get wet and muddy for the up to 2-mile, strenuous tour. Reservations required.
In August, the park service increased the price from $10 to $80 for Lifetime Senior Passes, which grants unlimited free entry to all parks for those 62 or older. A new 12-month Senior Pass is now available for $20. For everyone else, annual passes are $40. Purchase them at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at the Homestead entrance or go to Store.USGS.gov/senior-pass.
The park service is proposing doubling fees to $70 per vehicle during peak season at 17 popular parks this year, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, but not at any parks in Florida. The annual America the Beautiful Pass, which provides entrance to all federal lands, is a bargain at $80. The park service says the increased fees are necessary to improve to aging infrastructure and visitor services as our national lands continue to attract record crowds.
Here’s sweet deal: Hop on the Homestead National Park Trolley and get free entry to Everglades and Biscayne National parks on weekends through April 29. Get on at Losner Park at 104 N. Krome Ave. in Homestead.
After going to the park, I usually squeeze in visits to other attractions in Homestead.
Fruit & Spice Park’s annual Redland Heritage Festival is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Jan. 13 and 14 in Homestead. It features local arts and crafts, historical exhibits, tropical plants and food, a petting zoo and pony rides. Admission is $8 and kids 11 and under are free. The tram tour isn’t running during the festival, but it’s an informative and fun way to learn about the 35-acre park’s horticulture, and sample some of the more than 500 varieties of exotic fruits, herbs, spices and nuts from around the world. The park is at 24801 SW 187th Ave., Homestead, RedlandFruitandSpice.com, 305.247.5727.
Napa schnapa. We have our own winery in the Redlands. Take a tour and enjoy tastings of unique mango, lychee and avocado wines at Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery. There also is a restaurant, which serves Sunday brunch. The winery is at 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead, SchneblyWinery.com, 305-242-1224.
Go strawberry picking at Knaus Berry Farm and slurp fresh strawberry shakes and gorge on homemade cinnamon buns in the bakery at 15980 SW 248th St., Homestead, KnausBerryFarm.com, 305-247-0668. It’s closed Sundays.
At 10 a.m. on Jan. 20, join a caravan of cars on a mad-capped adventure during Rob’s Redland Riot Road Rallye. The annual tour and treasure hunt, which starts in downtown Homestead and costs $10 a car, highlights the area’s rich history. Or, do it on your own by printing the map at RedlandRiot.com. From the Robert is Here produce stand to the Florida Pioneer Museum, it’s a terrific guide to nearly a dozen cool things to see and do along the Redland Tropical Trail before the weather heats up.