In February I took my annual winter escape south to spend time with my folks, who live a little over an hour north of Orlando. I needed a serious thawing and decided I would start my trip much farther south where flip-flop weather was a guarantee. I booked a one way flight for $43 and with my camera and a book for company, I was off to Miami for some solo quality time!

American Airline to MiamiRoyal Palm South Beach

At 7:00am I was in Baltimore. By 12:00pm, I was at the Royal Palm holding a cup of pure joy.

South Beach MiamiRainbow Umbrella South Beach Florida Seagull in flightFlorida SunshineMiami Life Guard StationEmerald green beaches. Photos of the Ocean in MiamiLife Guard HutArt Deco district of Miamiespanola way miami restaurantsSign language love in Miami

If you have never traveled alone, you should give it try : ) Traveling solo sometimes means venturing out of your comfort zone. For example, finding a dinner spot when everything is set for two or more people can be intimidating. This is why I love sushi bars and their welcoming setup for solo diners. I found a great spot called “Toni’s Sushi” a few blocks from my hotel in the Art Deco District of Miami Beach.  The next morning I was headed to the Everglades, but first made a stop in Downtown Miami at Manolo & Rene Cafeteria for a cuban style Cortado. The Cafeteria is open to the street, so you simply walk up to the counter, order and watch. There’s not one, but two massive espresso machines churning out this drink from heaven. While one lady made my drink, another women was tossing oranges into the air which were landing in an orange juice press. There is a single grill for cooking which turns out some of the best cuban sandwiches in town. My cuban power drink and breakfast sandwich cost less then my parking, go figure.

Cortado, Cuban coffee

The Homestead Everglades entrance is about an hour from Miami. The drive from the Park entrance to the Florida Bay is about another hour. The Bay was my destination, but there was no rush to get there. I took this trip for the journey, not destination. My first stop was the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails.

Anhinga Trail


Look very very close : )

florida everglades
Green Backed Heron
Palm Warbler Vulture Wing

As I pulled up to the Royal Palm Visitors Center, the clouds let loose and a downpour marked the start of my trekking. I knew there was a chance of rain and was prepared with raincoat and covering for my gear. Turns out what I really needed was a tarp. Not for the rain, but for the vultures. These scavenger birds love to eat the rubber trim off cars. Luckily the visitor center stocks tarps for free. As quickly as the storm came, it passed and left behind a day filled with happy white clouds that Bob Ross would put to canvas.

Everglades Vulture, Drivers beware!

Next stop was the Pinelands.

Florida PinelandsFlorida Pine

The Pine Rocklands is a critically endangered ecosystem that once covered Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Monroe county. When I would think of Florida, I certainly didn’t think pine trees. I would think of palm trees. Presently, less than two percent of the original Pine Rocklands beyond the Everglades National Park remain. The photo below is of a couple sinkholes along the Pineland trail. Beneath the pine needles the ground is hard and rocky consisting of limestone and ankle-snapping sinkholes. Natural sinkholes cannot be avoided and in the Pinelands these holes are an important part of the eco-system because they collect water and help sustain animal life.  Something very simple that residents and visitors can do to help reduce human activity sink holes is to be conservative with water use. Over pumping groundwater can activate a massive ground collapse. The impact on the eco-system can be pretty expensive. Insurance claims in Florida for sinkhole damage between 2006 and 2010 totaled $1.4 billion.

Florida sinkholes in the pinlands

I then moved from the Pinelands to the Sawgrass prairie, home to the Bald Cypress tree. Here is a Cardinal air plant on a Cypress tree.

Bald Cypress with Cardinal AirplantCypress Trees in the Everglades

Black crow perching on bald cypress, Erie Scene

Next stop was the Pa-hay-okee overlook where the sawgrass prairie goes as far as the eye can see and dormant cypress pop up like skeletons in the landscape. I couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones when I saw this crow…is April here yet!?!?

Sawgrass prairie

At the lookout is where I learned about the draining and shrinking of the Everglades. Preservation isn’t just for tree huggers. If you want fresh water in your home, think preservation. Below are maps that illustrate the change in flow due to development and agriculture.

Everglades Historic Flow, Current Flow, and CERP Flow

The satellite image on the left is before recent development. The image on the right is from 2009. You can see how the flow from the lake no longer travels through a sawgrass prairie. Numerous canals divert water to population centers along Florida’s southeast coast. The small percentage of water that isn’t diverted eventually converges south and southwest upon the Everglades Park before entering the sea at Florida Bay. Agriculture has stopped the natural flow of Lake Okeechobee. This is all very bad news for the alligator. So you may not care about alligators, that’s cool, they aren’t very cuddly. But the alligators are a key indicator to the health of the Everglades. If you still don’t care, that’s cool, but it’s costing 2 billion in tax funds to fix a system broken by irresponsible development. Tampa Bay Times has an article if you want to learn more. And look, I’m all for development and agriculture, I live in a house and eat food everyday, I’m just making a point about HOW we develop and grow our crops. Finding a balance, and preventing costly mistakes is what I am hoping we achieve by educating ourselves on these issues.

satellite image of the flow from the everglades

Who needs a little love after all that heavy reading  : )

finding heartsBald Cypress

One of my favorite sites from the day…an open road and not a care in the world.

the open roadDriving through the Everglades

Mahogany Hammock

 hardwood hammocksSpanish MossFlorida_RachelSmithPhoto_037Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_038Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_039Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_040Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_041Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_042Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_044Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_045

Funny thing, I reached the Florida Bay “my destination” and didn’t take a photo of the bay. O well…I was more interested in the birds anyway.


Heading back…



Cypress Dome On Sawgrass prairie

Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_050Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_051Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_052Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_053Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_054Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_055Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_056everglades reptiles, Southeastern five-lined skink

My day in the Everglades park ended with a little visit from a Southeastern five-lined skink. Just when I thought I saw everything one could see in Homestead Florida, I stopped at a fruit stand and animal farm called “Robert is Here.”  The camel was at another petting zoo on the side of the road just before the fruit stand.

Camel at petting zoocamel in florida cityRobert Is Here Farm Brahman cowRobert Is Here Farm GoatRobert Is Here Fruit Stand and Farm operating in Florida City

The next day I started my trip north to meet my parents and grandma.  I said goodbye to my rental car and hello to the beach once again.

Palm Beach stunning east coast beaches, turquoise water at forth worth beachforth Worth florida shorelineForth Worth Beachglittery sand

My grandma kept up her Christmas tree so we could see it in person. It was epic.

beach santa christmas ornament beach themed christmas treeBritish flags on carflorida lime treeflorida backyard gardenflorida gardens

Swimming holes and places to kayak is where it’s at in Central-ish Florida. This is Rainbow River via my iphone.

rainbow river turquoise waterkayaking rainbow riverturtle resting along rainbow riverswampy's at rainbow riverChameleon at Swampy's bar and grille

Lunch at Swampy’s.

Florida_RachelSmithPhoto_078Spanish moss at sunset hanging from an oak tree.

Home away from home is my folk’s place in Stonecrest. Each evening I went for a jog around the neighborhood. Baltimore peeps I’m sorry, but this is the land of pleasant living.

pool day at stone crest florida

My dad bought an adapter for his telescope to fit my D810. We slapped my SLR on his telescope and check it out, the Orion Nebula and Sirius. There is some shake in the images, but pretty freaking awesome for our backyard night time adventures.

The Orion Nebula is one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. M42 is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years.
Sirius is Dog Star and brightest star

sunset and smoke on lake sumter florida

On a previous visit my parents took me to Lake Sumter. I made a special request that we go again because it’s definitely the best place around town catch sunset.

Sunset on lake Sumter Florida Tricked out golf cart at Lake Sumter Florida

Elegant Terns at the beachbeach birds, elegant ternsincredible east coast beacheswhere the ocean meets the sandFlorida Coast, Ormond Beach

I started my trip on the beaches of Miami and ended my trip at Ormond Beach. Somewhere between beaches I had a shift in my state of mind. I wasn’t sure if it was only going to last the duration of vacation, or if something really did change in my thinking. I went from a mindset where I felt that my value in existing and my “happiness” was based on how much I could get done and “get ahead”, whether that be work or life related. Then I had the shift. It was to a state of mind I remember and that I once had. It’s a state where I feel my value in existing is by paying attention to the moment at hand and feeling happiness simply because, why not. I shouldn’t have to wait until my “to do” list is done for me to be happy. I shouldn’t need to get ahead to feel accomplished. I shouldn’t have to finish the never ending “to do” list to finally let myself be at peace. I’m tired of always “doing” out of the fear that if I stop, the world will fly out from under me. I still believe there is great value in meeting goals and making a living. I’m just done with this metaphorical hamster wheel. Sharing this is pretty personal, but I know so many people who live just like me and we could all afford to cut ourselves some slack. So who’s coming with me next time?

The Sunshine State

Great moments in photography come to those who wait patiently. So there in Florida, I waited, and the moments washed over me, and I was happy. Really, really, happy.