Above:  I left Pennekamp State Park in the morning and drove up to the Everglades, then drove to the southernmost point at Flamingo, where I captured my 16th and final extreme compass point of the U.S.  Then I went back to the keys and spent the night at Long Key State Park.

Reminiscing at Pennekamp

I rolled out of my truck early in the morning, sat down at the picnic table, and whipped up breakfast.  Actually it was the same breakfast that I've eaten almost every day so far on this trip:  a blueberry muffin, a banana and a glass of milk.  Good thing I'm not in a rut, huh?

The campground was crowded but quiet, with most campers still sleeping.  As I ate breakfast, I thought about how strange it felt to be here at Pennekamp State Park again after nearly 50 years, with wonderful memories of my family’s visits in 1964 and again three years later wafting through my mind.  The park was new back then and the campground looked completely different, totally barren and open.  Pennekamp park was mostly empty then, long before Florida became a tourist mecca, and not at all like the jam-packed craziness that it is today. 

Back then, all the campsites at Pennekamp bordered a large brackish, shallow pond that was fed by an artesian spring.  Although the pond and campground were still here, they looked so different now.  Mangroves have grown over the pond and it's no longer accessible – or even visible.  And while the spring, with its brackish water constantly flowing into the pond, was still here, it was now completely enshrouded by trees. 

I strolled around the campground as it came to life, with folks sleepily stumbling out of their RVs, travel trailers and huge family tents, then I walked on the short plank trail to the spring, which I was glad to see was still bubbling after all these years.  Of the hundreds of people in the park that morning, campers as well as park employees, I was probably the only one who knew what it was like back then:  same place but now a totally different feeling.  I smiled and joked to myself, "Maybe this is what it's like to feel old."

An hour later I packed up and pulled out.  On my way out of the park, I stopped by the quiet marina and the empty beach on the gulf, thinking of my family’s visits here in the 1960s.  In the quiet stillness, I could almost smell the Sea-and-Ski suntan lotion my parents slathered on me (do they still make Sea-and-Ski?) and could hear my older brothers, excited about going scuba diving out on the reef with my Dad.  I could also see my Mom sitting on the beach, telling me not to swim out too far in the cove.  Those were joyous times, among the happiest of my life.

The Final Point

But alas, I had work to do!  Today my goal was to reach the sixteenth and final extreme compass point:  the southernmost point of the contiguous United States.  Of the sixteen points, I knew this one would be the most challenging, not only to visit but even, simply, to identify.  Much of southern Florida is a natural marshland, so how can one tell where the land ends and the marshland begins, or where the marshland ends and the sea begins?  Nevertheless, many geographers have long agreed that the southernmost point of the contiguous U.S. is Cape Sable in Everglades National Park.  Therefore, Cape Sable was my destination that day.  

I’d been to the Everglades several times before so I knew the area pretty well, including the National Park Service village of Flamingo, which is at the southernmost tip and the proverbial “end of the road.”  I made the mistake of camping in the mosquito-infested Flamingo campground back in 1987 and it was, literally, the most miserable night of my life.  I still itch when I think about all the mosquito bites, so every visit to Flamingo now is with a healthy dose of trepidation. 

I figured that driving down to Flamingo, at the end of the road, would be the easy part of reaching the southernmost point of the U.S.  The hard part would be getting out to Cape Sable, which lay 11 miles west of Flamingo.  I’d researched this months earlier and learned that a trail from Flamingo village goes part of the way out to Cape Sable.  But from studying my maps, it looked like the trail was pretty swampy, so I figured that getting to Cape Sable might require a boat – and preferably a powerboat because the headwinds here can be strong, making paddling 22 miles roundtrip unfeasible.  With all that in mind, I was ready to hit the Everglades.

 

Heading to Flamingo

 

 

Onto the Everglades

I left Pennekamp State Park and Key Largo around 10 a.m. and headed north once again on U.S. 1.  After passing through the city of Homestead on the Florida mainland, I turned west to Everglades National Park and stopped at the impressive Everglades Visitor Center just inside the park entrance, where I talked to the rangers at the desk and got some information about the Coastal Prairie Trail to Cape Sable. 

Continuing my southward drive through the Everglades, I finally reached the village of Flamingo, at the end of the highway on the shores of Florida Bay.  There’s not too much at Flamingo:  a National Park visitor center, a marina and campground, and that’s about it, but it’s a nice place and very quiet this time of year before the winter rush.  My first stop was the Flamingo marina where I asked a fellow who was working there about the boat rental situation.  "I can rent you a canoe or kayak, but we don't rent motorboats," he said.  Bummer.

Next I strolled over to the spacious-though-dated Visitor Center and talked to a friendly park ranger standing behind the desk named Bob, who told me he’d worked here for many seasons and knew the area well.  I told him about my trip around the country and my quest to become the first person to visit all 16 extreme compass points of the U.S., then I said, “I’m planning to hike out to Cape Sable, the southernmost point."  He frowned and told me the situation straight-up.  “You really can’t hike there because the trail is flooded and there’s a lot of mud,” he said.  “And there are lots of mosquitoes, so you’ll need a full netting jacket.  And you’ll have to watch out for pythons.”  Then he chuckled a bit and said, “Besides, there’s a wide canal that you’d have to swim across, which is filled with alligators.” 

He could tell I was dejected, but he continued, trying to break it to me gently:  “Instead of hiking, you’ll have to paddle out there.  But it’s 22 miles round-trip and the winds are strong, so it’ll take you a few days.”  That was another bummer.  Nevertheless, we had a pleasant chat for 20 minutes, then I left and walked back to my truck in the mostly-empty parking lot.

... 
 
Above:  The village of Flamingo lies at the southern tip of Everglades National Park.  The southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States is at Cape Sable, shown with the label "East Cape."  There's a trail that goes part of the way there, but visiting Cape Sable requires a boat -- and preferably a motor boat.
   

Crestfallen, I drove over to the Flamingo campground, not to camp but rather to reminisce about that miserable night back in 1987 when I was nearly eaten alive by swarms of hungry mosquitoes and no-see-ums while squirming and sweating in the back of my truck on a hot and humid evening.  It was a lot different this morning with only a half-swarm to contend with.  The mosquitoes here, as I’ve learned, come out to feast mostly in the evening. 

I remember driving into the campground, in May of 1987, and eagerly looking forward to spending a night in the wilds.  I couldn’t figure out, however, why the campground was deserted and why the Park Service wasn't charging a camping fee that time of year.  "Wow, free camping.  What a great deal!" I said to myself.  A few hours later after sunset when the massive clouds of voracious mosquitoes emerged, I understood why it was free.

After reminiscing at the campground, I drove over to the Flamingo picnic area nearby which, according to my map, was the southernmost point of Flamingo.  After learning about the Cape Sable situation from Ranger Bob, I’d given up on my plans to go out there, so I figured this was as far south as I (or anyone) could feasibly travel on the U.S. mainland.  I took some pictures and shot a video here on the shores of Florida Bay, which I posted on my Southernmost Point of the U.S. page.  This was as close to Cape Sable, the southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States, as I could possibly get, so I called it good.

I was disappointed not to get out to Cape Sable, of course, but my goal on this trip was to get as close as possible to each of the 16 extreme compass points in the contiguous United States.  Some of the points had been impossible to reach, like the southwesternmost point of the U.S.near Santa Barbara, California, which is on an Air Force Base and is thus off-limits to the public, or the sites in northern Maine that were on private property.   I'd gotten as close as possible to each of the 16 points, so this one, I suppose, was no different.  As I sat by the beach, an Asian tourist walked by and, with a smile, said in broken English, "There are lots of bugs here.  Would you like some spray?"  "No thanks," I smiled and said.  "I have my own."  A friendly gesture.  And yes, bugs.  Lots of them.

After saying goodbye to buggy Flamingo, I headed out but stopped a few minutes later at a pond to take some pictures.  A young couple from France were there, swatting themselves, and they told me they were planning to camp at Flamingo.  I warned them about the mosquitoes there, then gave them the half-filled can of "Off" in my truck and they were grateful.  "There are lots of mosquitoes here, yes?" the guy said with a heavy accent.  "Yep," I replied, "and there'll be a lot more after the sun sets, so be ready!"  

My destination that evening was Long Key State Park, several miles west of Key Largo.  I reached the park an hour before sunset and found my campsite, which was stunningly beautiful.  I’d never been to this park but, as I learned, it’s a great place with a wonderful campground that stretches along the Gulf of Mexico, and each campsite has its own little beach.  It’s a terrific campground, actually, except for one thing:  it’s only a few yards from busy Highway 1.  Noisy trucks rolled by constantly so I was definitely going to need my earplugs while sleeping here.  Other than that, though, it's a great park.

I ate dinner at my campsite – fried chicken and potato salad, what else? – while enjoying the beautiful view of the placid Gulf, then took my folding chair, laptop and candle lantern down to my little beach and watched the gentle waves lap ashore, then as darkness fell, I saw the lights of a cruise ship twinkle way off in the gulf.  Now pitch black, and with only the light of the twinkling stars overhead, I opened my laptop and watched another Bogart and Bacall movie, the 1948 classic “Key Largo.”  It was the perfect movie for tonight, I figured, as I sat on the warm and breezy beach.

I walked back to my campsite after the movie and blew out the candle lantern.  After visiting all 16 extreme compass points of the U.S. and 56 other extreme sites around the country, my Extreme Geography adventure was over.  It was time to head home.

 

The Southernmost Point of the Contiguous U.S.

 

 

  

 
 
 
 

 

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