Nuclear missile base now popular tour
I’ve been visiting Everglades National Park for 35 years and until recently, I had never experienced one of its unique sights – the historic Nike base whose mission was to be ready to fire a nuclear missile in the next 15 minutes.
The Nike base hidden deep within the park has only been open to the public for a few years. Just three months ago, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the park unveiled an actual Nike Hercules missile that was carefully restored by students from Baker Aviation.
For lovers of history, folks who remember the Cold War or aviation fans, the Nike missile base tour is a fascinating trip back in time.
Through April 15, the 90-minute tour is given every day at 11 a.m. (To keep the site secure, you must visit on a tour.) You don’t need reservations; just meet at the Daniel Beard Center, a few miles down the road that takes you to Royal Palm.
The Nike base was built in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the US ever came to a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. It remained in operation until 1979 and today it is listed on the U.S, Register of Historic Places. The Everglades base was one of four Nike bases in South Florida, each with 18 Hercules missiles ready to intercept a Soviet attack from Cuba,
Since tours began at the Nike base, the park has been “overwhelmed by interest,” according to Ranger Leon Howell.
Nike base takes you back to the ’60s
The highly effective tour led by master storyteller Howell (one of four who give tours) begins by evoking the era. When this base was built, Bob Dylan was singing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and the daily weather report included information on radiation levels in the atmosphere (because of all the nuclear testing being done.) People were building fallout shelters in their backyards.
“And we were doing duck-and-cover drills in school – as though that was going to help,” Howell said. I remember it well: Nuclear war seemed very possible, some thought inevitable.
Base little changed from its heyday
Once the base was abandoned, because it was in a national park, it changed little. Thus the buildings have the original murals painted by soldiers and you can see the scary original warning signs (“U.S. Army Restricted Area. Use of Deadly Force Is Authorized.”)
One inexplicable thing that hasn’t changed is that the administration building is pink. Now called the Beard Center, a workplace for Everglades scientists, the admin building for the Nike base is a large pink structure where the tours begin. Originally, this site would have had five tall radar towers.
After getting the scene-setting intro talk, participants drive two miles to the missile site – what the soldiers called “down range.”
High security made Nike base an intense spot
A locked gate is only a hint of the security once present. Because the site held nuclear weapons – or “special weapons” as the U.S. Army called them – the level of security had an intensity that is hard to imagine. Fierce Army attack dogs were kept in on-site kennels. Howell joked: “There were no bring your kid to work days here.”
On the tour, you get to peek into the bunkers built into berms where the men hunkered down sometimes for days, to be prepared to fire the missiles.
Refurbished Nike Hercules missile is highlight
The tour’s indisputable highlight, however, is the missile assembly building and Howell builds up the drama. Standing in front of the building (one of three on the site) he shows photos of the launch of a Nike Hercules missile and describes how it would be one mile high in 3.5 seconds after its explosive launch.
Finally, it is time for the Big Reveal. With the help of any kids on the tour, Howell slides open the doors to the large assembly building where the white 1960 Nike Hercules missile gleams.
Inside the assembly building, the walls and bulletin boards are original. Doorways are still painted with the message: “Lock door immediately upon entry.”
Here also is the park’s second missile, captured as it would look while being unpacked from its crate (actually a tube). Missile crewmen assembled the weapon in this building, tested it with control panels on display, and pushed it out (by hand!) when the time came to fire. Then they’d take shelter in an underground bunker while soldiers in the pink control building 3,000 feet away pulled the trigger. Fortunately, they never had to. This Nike facility never fired a rocket even as a test. Crew members had to journey to White Sands to practice that.
Nevertheless, the men who worked here, Howell, said were “the heroes of the Cold War.” Looking back, we know they were safe here. But every time a Cuban aircraft came into U.S radar, he said, “these guys got an alert and they got these missiles ready.” For them, the Cold War was a real war.
After visiting this site, it is a little bit realer to all of us.
Visiting Everglades National Park for the Nike base tour
Through April 15, the 90-minute tour is given every day at 11 a.m. If you are planning a visit after that, call the park about the future schedule of tours. Here’s the history of Nike base from National Park Service.
There are no bathrooms at the Nike base, so a quick stop at the visitor center is a good idea. Pick up a map too.
Admission to the park is $10 and is good for seven days.
Here’s Florida Rambler’s guide to visiting Everglades National Park, complete with insider tips on best walks and side trips.
More links for Everglades National Park
- The Everglades National Park website
- Reserve a campsite at Flamingo
- The Long Pine Campground at the park is first-come-first-serve
- Everglades National Park map
- The Anhinga Trail
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride
- Robert is Here, the funky fruit stand near the Homestead entrance.
- Knauss Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, in Homestead.