Prairie Pre­serve has star power

This “red-light” dis­trict helps the star-struck keep eyes on the sky.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Bob Roun­tree Flori­daRam­bler.com

Am­a­teur as­tronomers love the Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve in the heart of Florida’s cow coun­try. So do pho­tog­ra­phers. Must be its star power.

With 54,000 acres of wide-open prairie al­most 30 miles from the near­est town, sub­ur­ban light pol­lu­tion does not ex­ist, mak­ing it one of only a few ac­ces­si­ble des­ti­na­tions in Florida for un­tainted stargaz­ing.

There is a catch: Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve State Park closes at sun­set.

If you want to ob­serve the twin­kling night sky, camp­ing here is your best op­tion. There are three camp­grounds: a fam­ily camp­ground, an­other for eques­tri­ans and a re­stricted area for as­tronomers known as the “red light dis­trict” with five tent sites. There are also three prim­i­tive sites along trails for back­pack­ers. Not a camper?

We met a cou­ple from Tampa who booked a camp­site solely for the pur­pose of pho­tograph­ing the night sky. They were stay­ing in a mo­tel 25 miles away, but re­serv­ing a camp­site was their only op­tion for night­time ac­cess.

Af­ter-hours per­mits are avail­able but are lim­ited to hold­ers of a Florida State Parks Fam­ily An­nual Pass ($120), who must still ob­tain a per­mit in ad­vance from the park of­fice. Card-car­ry­ing Friends of Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve may also be al­lowed en­trance af­ter dark by calling ahead, ac­cord­ing to a ranger we talked to.

As an al­ter­na­tive, the Vero Beach­based Trea­sure Coast As­tron­omy Club spon­sors out­ings to the pre­serve and other lo­ca­tions for night view­ing.

Sun­rises and sun­sets are also an amaz­ing sight above the end­less sea of prairie grass, oc­ca­sion­ally dot­ted with shady ham­mocks of live oak, cy­press and sa­bal palms.

But this spec­tac­u­lar park is not just for as­tron­omy buffs.

Bird lovers flock here to pho­to­graph the rare and en­dan­gered Florida grasshop­per spar­row or pay homage to the ex­tinct Carolina para­keet, the only par­rot species na­tive to the south­east­ern United States whose last known nest­ing site was on this prairie.

“As with all lo­ca­tions, you need to pack your pa­tience,” says pho­tog­ra­pher Dick Scott, who vis­its the prairie of­ten from his home in Tampa. “There is al­ways some­thing to pho­to­graph, but you some­times have to look for it. If you went to KPPSP for night pho­tog­ra­phy, and the clouds roll in, prac­tice some light paint­ing.”

The col­or­ful crested caracara is a big at­trac­tion for bird lovers, and you may spot a bur­row­ing owl, red­wing black­bird and sea­sonal vis­its of the the swal­low-tailed kite and rare white-tailed kite.

“When you are walk­ing the wildlife trails, be very quiet and look care­fully and you’ll find many hid­den trea­sures. From tiny flow­ers to all kinds of in­sects and small crea­tures,” Scott said.

“Look at ev­ery­thing, and you’ll come up with some amaz­ing pic­tures.”

The pre­serve also boasts the most but­ter­fly di­ver­sity of any state park in Florida, a broad range of res­i­dent and mi­gra­tory but­ter­flies.

Spring and fall bring bursts of wild­flow­ers through­out the pre­serve.

Vis­i­tors can ob­tain field guides for plants, but­ter­flies and birds at the ranger sta­tion, or down­load them on­line from the Friends of the Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve’s web site, kissim­meep­rairiefriends.org.

You can also sign up for a Spring Wild­flower Walk on April 27 on the Friends’ web­site. Space is lim­ited, so you’ll need to sign up ahead of time.

If you go it alone into this wilder­ness, it’s al­ways a good idea to stop by the ranger sta­tion for trail maps, prairie con­di­tions and warn­ings.

Best time to visit? For night-sky pho­tog­ra­phy and stargaz­ing, shoot for the new moon, when the sky is at its dark­est.

Prairie tips

Bring shade. A wide­brimmed hat if you’re hik­ing, rid­ing a bike or a horse. A pop-up canopy is a good idea if you’re set­ting up for a day of pho­tog­ra­phy while qui­etly wait­ing for the wildlife to come to you.

Wear boots if you are ven­tur­ing off onto the 100-plus miles of multi-use trails for hik­ers, bi­cy­clists

and eques­tri­ans. Many trails go deep into what is tech­ni­cally a “dry” prairie but laced with wet­lands and stand­ing wa­ter at any time of year. Dur­ing the sum­mer wet sea­son, even “dry” prairie gets soaked.

All this wa­ter feeds an abun­dance of prairie grass, tree ham­mocks and wild­flow­ers be­fore drain­ing off into the nearby Kis­sim­mee River and its trib­u­taries, through Lake Okee­chobee and even­tu­ally through the Ever­glades, tak­ing a year for its slow flow to Florida Bay.

While the pre­serve’s

park roads of­fer miles of ex­cel­lent bi­cy­cling, most of the off-road multi-use trails are sandy and, be­ing shared with horses, can some­times see a lot of churn, a chal­lenge to all but the most ex­pe­ri­enced off-road­ers.

Get­ting there

We had no idea what to ex­pect when I made a reser­va­tion for a camp­site at the Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve State Park, other than our an­tic­i­pa­tion for div­ing deep into cat­tle ranch ter­ri­tory and view­ing the night sky.

I didn’t even know about

this place un­til I saw a sign point­ing to it on an ear­lier ram­ble along U.S. 441. I made a point to re­turn on an­other day, and that day came in early March, a few days be­fore the new moon, prime time for stargaz­ing.

As it turned out, the stars that night were par­tially ob­scured by cloud cover, but my dis­ap­point­ment was tem­pered by the dra­matic prairie views and a sense of be­ing alone in the mid­dle of nowhere.

Lit­tle did I know how far the pre­serve was from that sim­ple sign on a re­mote stretch of U.S. 441, about half­way be­tween the city of Okee­chobee and Yee­haw Junc­tion.

You have to drive 22 miles east through a pro­ces­sion of cat­tle ranches, and when you fi­nally reach the main park gate, you’ll still have to drive an­other five lonely miles on a shell­rock road through the prairie to the ranger sta­tion and camp­grounds.

Camp­ing in the pre­serve

The three main camp­grounds are clus­tered around the ranger sta­tion and in­clude 16 RV/tent sites in the fam­ily camp­ground, 14 eques­trian sites for RVs with un­shaded pad­docks for the horses, and five as­tron­omy pads for tents only.

The as­tron­omy pads are a re­stricted space known as the “red light dis­trict,” where only red spec­trum lights are per­mit­ted af­ter dark so as not to in­ter­fere with tele­scopes or pho­tog­ra­phy.

In­ter­est­ingly, the red­light theme seems to carry into the fam­ily camp­ground, where RVs and ten­ters vol­un­tar­ily fol­low the pro­to­col.

De­spite be­ing in the mid­dle of an open prairie, the fam­ily and eques­trian camp­grounds are quite shady, har­bored in a large hammock of live oaks and sa­bal pal­metto, Florida’s state tree and pop­u­larly known as the cab­bage palm.

All are reserv­able up to 11 months in ad­vance on­line at Re­serveAmer­ica.com or by phone, 800-326-3521. Sites are $16 per night plus tax and a $6.70 book­ing fee.

DICK SCOTT/RCSCOTTPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

Night sky af­ter sun­set in the Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve. Long ex­po­sure cap­tures the lin­ger­ing glow of the sun­set.

BOB ROUN­TREE/FLORI­DARAM­BLER.COM

The fam­ily camp­ground at Kis­sim­mee Prairie Pre­serve State Park.

BOB ROUN­TREE/FLORI­DARAM­BLER.COM

As­tronomers and pho­tog­ra­phers set up their gear to cap­ture the open prairie sky in the “red light dis­trict.”

DICK SCOTT/RCSCOTTPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

The crested caracara is a low-fly­ing fal­con suited to the Kis­sim­mee Prairie habi­tat.

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