We’ve just returned from a short escape to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, the subject of a recent blog and the site of one of our more interesting camping blunders. This is such a unique and special place that we wanted to tell you a bit more about it. It is one of our favorite places for a camping escape in a quiet and pristine place with amazing sun rises and sunsets.
Sunset on the Prairie
This 54,000 acre preserve protects the largest remaining stretch of Florida dry prairie. The preserve is home to an array of endangered plants and animals. You have to have a full tank of gas and great patience to get there, but GPS is not necessary since it doesn’t work anyway. Neither do cell phones or wi-fi! This is a true get-away. We headed down HWY 27 to 441 and then about another 25 miles through cow country….literally. Huge farms and herds of cows now graze on what used to be land that was just like the preserve. It was taken over for huge commercial farms and now that habitat has been lost. Much of the work on the preserve that is being done by staff and volunteers is focused on restoration of the prairie.
Driving the final five-mile-long road into the preserve, we enjoyed sweeping vistas of grasslands reminiscent of the Great Plains of the Midwest or even the savanah of Africa. You almost expect to look into the distance and see a giraffe amble across the landscape. A variety of prairie grasses wave in the breeze and, with the late arrival of winter this year there were still many wildflowers in bloom and lots of green color. Normally, by this time of year, we see the full fall colors.
A beautiful Prairie vista January 2016
The preserve offers excellent seasonal birding opportunities and is home to the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, as well as the Crested Caracara (they were perched on a ramshackle tower on our way in this visit) and Burrowing Owsl. Wild Turkeys wander through our campsite and we always see some deer too.
Wild turkeys grazing through the campsite
Of course, we bring our own wildlife too.
In the preserve, there are than 100 miles of dirt roads that allow hikers, bicyclists and equestrians to explore prairies, wetlands and shady hammocks. This week, there were a number of beautiful horses camping with their owners.
A tall ride across the Prairie with some fellow nature lovers
November through March, ranger-led prairie buggy tours allow visitors to see remote areas of the preserve. We had never taken the tour and decided to do so this visit. We were so glad that we did! The tour was driven and hosted by our cordial volunteer host, Bruce, who has been serving at the park for seven seasons now with his wife, Darlene. They journey down in the winter for a month’s stay here and together they assist the ranger staff with a variety of tasks that benefit the preserve. Bruce sometimes does the buggy tours and is a knowledgeable guide with lots of interesting facts and stories to share.
The park system relies heavily on volunteer skills and time and we always really enjoy talking with the folks that we meet on our travels. Many of the volunteers are retired with invaluable knowledge and expertise to lend to maintaining and preserving the wild places for all of us to enjoy. The park provides a site for their camper and they provide willing hands and hearts. Most work part time and enjoy the company of other volunteers who tour the nation making a contribution where they park.
In one of my very favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings, Gandolf comments that, “Not all who wander are lost.” This is so true of the committed folks we have encountered who volunteer for the park systems. Wherever they go, there they are! As we ease into joining their nomadic ranks, we try to foster and practice this open minded and easy approach to life and all the wonder it holds for us.
Our three and a half-hour bladder busting ride took us out into the heart of the preserve where we encountered deer, gators and lots of birds. Four wheel drive was essential as we traversed a few areas of pretty deep water underpinned with a charming layer of muck. Riding in the very tall swamp buggy, we were able to see some of the wet areas much better than hiking. We never realized how much wet area there is at KPP and Bruce shared that, in the summer months, when there is lots of rain, the staff move about in air boats because the areas that are dry right now became more like the Glades. This area actually is the beginning of the Everglades.
Some views from the buggy
Arnie and I bird-watching from the swamp buggy
Evidence of hogs (an invasive and non-native species in Florida) was everywhere and the hog problem in the park now requires that a skilled hunter with specially bred dogs be contracted to come in on horseback and remove as many hogs as possible. Many are relocated to private hunting clubs where hunters come from all over the world to pay big money to hunt the pests.
Another interesting curiosity along the route was a very large Mistletoe plant attached parasitically to an oak tree along the road. It looked like a huge wasp nest in the distance. It was very large and Arnie owes me a kiss since bouncing along in the seat of a swamp buggy is not the most conducive way to catch a kiss under the mistletoe! We joked that we found the Kiss in Kissimmee!
Arnie owes me a kiss under the Mistletoe
We really enjoyed Bruce’s stories, especially the one about how the preserve used to be a bombing test site back around the late 1930’s. There are still some unexploded ordinances on the property as one volunteer found out when he heard a “clunck” while mowing a fire break road one day. When the explosion experts came out to check it out, they found that it indeed was authentic and they subsequently detonated it. That story will keep us on the designated trails!
One morning when we were up early we noticed that the landscape looked like someone had gone out in the night and draped old fashioned lace all across the land. The Golden silk spiders had been hard at work on the night shift spinning webs to entrap the next day’s meal. If you look in the direction of the sun, you can see their lacey handiwork shimmering for acres and acres. What a wonderous sight!
This beauty greeted us for morning coffee!
Golden Spider Webs in the early morning
Kissimmee Prairie’s remoteness makes it one of Florida’s premier locations for stargazing. The night sky simply takes your breath away and the visibility is so clear that we could see satellites zooming across the heavens with the naked eye. There is another volunteer, Bill, who is available some nights to share his telescope with visitors and too make astronomy understandable to the lay person.
This area has the second highest frequency of lightening strikes in the world! Storms blow in quickly and frequently and can be very dramtic. Since Sunday’s forecast was not looking good, we decided to break camp and leave a day early. Packing up camp and three animals is easier when it is not pouring rain.
We are home bound again back to Davenport to plan the next adventure. It is good to go and good to get home too.