America’s largest subtropical wilderness is like nothing else you’ll ever see, and at more than 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is the largest national park east of the Mississippi, and the third largest in the continental United States – second only to Yellowstone and Death Valley.
Unlike most of the parks in the National Park Service system, Everglades was not set up to preserve a dramatic landscape. Rather, it’s the unparalleled biological diversity – more than 700 plant and over 300 bird species – that occurs here that compelled a generation of conservationists to fight the rapid draining and development of this vast expanse of wetlands – what author and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas called the River of Grass.
Home to the endangered manatee, crocodile and Florida panther, the park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance, and is the only place in the United States, and one of just three in the world, with all three designations. But the park comprises only a third of the fragile Everglades watershed, where development continues apace, diverting the rapidly dwindling water and threatening the integrity of this rare ecosystem.
Outdoor Activities: Regardless of the activity – biking, hiking, boating, fishing, birdwatching – the dry season, from December through April, is the best time to go. Not just because the most voracious of the local wildlife – the mosquito – is at a low point, but also because the weather is perfect and the wildlife is more visible and more diverse, especially the migratory waterfowl.
Probably the best way to immerse yourself in this diverse and watery landscape is by boat, whether it’s a trip through some of the Ten Thousand Islands off the Gulf Coast, a foray inland into the wetlands, or a silent glide through a mangrove forest. Sign up for a ranger-led paddling tour, or, if you’re very brave, strike out on your own on one of the park’s many paddling trails – it’s challenging terrain, and you’ll definitely want to do your homework. An online boater education course called Eco-Mariner is available to help you prepare. Do be aware that tides and winds can greatly affect your speed and the amount of energy required to reach your destination.
Biking will give you a different perspective; the 15-mile paved Shark Valley Loop is recommended, or if you’d like something shorter, several of the Flamingo Area trails are open to biking, like the 1.6-mile Snake Bight Trail (Don’t worry! This is a play on words, not a warning – a bight is a bay). The unpaved 14-mile Southern Glades Trail is the best bet for wildlife viewing.
For an adventurous approach to learning, the park has its own geocaching program, a GPS-guided treasure hunt. The theme: Be a park employee for a day, and try to figure out how to mitigate the impacts of a lightning strike, close encounters with crocodiles or a problematic shorefront development.
If you’re willing to get your feet wet, sign up for a ranger-led slough slog to explore a cypress dome. An ample and lively selection of ranger-led tours and talks offers something from everyone, from a bicycle tour to a wilderness ramble to a starlight walk – especially in the dry season, from December to April.
Naturalist-led boat tours of the Ten Thousand Islands and the mangrove wilderness are available through a local concession.
Staying Around the Park: The ultimate camping adventure has to be taking one of the park’s canoe trails to spend the night on a chickee, a wooden platform in the middle of the swamp. Backcountry campsites are available on the beach, in the forest and in the wetlands; permits are required. These tend to fill up during high season, and you’ll need a reservation, but you can only reserve 24 hours in advance and only in person.
Frontcountry or car campsites are plentiful in Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground. No reservations are accepted except for a handful of group campsites, but generally there are enough sites to go around.
There is no indoor lodging in the park, but plenty of options in gateway communities such as Homestead, Florida City, Miami, Everglades City, and Chokoloskee. Ivey House in Everglades City is a great choice whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a couple looking for some privacy; choose from the economical B&B section or the intimate 18-room inn.
Iconic Features of the Park: Shark Valley gets its name from the Shark River, also known as the River of Grass for the waving sawgrass that stretches to the horizon. Biking or walking the Shark Valley Tram Road is an excellent way to immerse yourself in that landscape. Three hours away at the other end of the park, with access through Homestead, the wheelchair-accessible Pahayokee Platform will give you a broader perspective of the same. The largest living mahogany tree can be viewed from the Mahogany Hammock Trail.
Park Wildlife: It’s probably the alligators that get the most attention – or was that a crocodile? The Everglades are the only place in the world where both animals occur together.
Besides these prehistoric reptiles, however, the Everglades are home to an astounding array ofwildlife. The endangered manatee can sometimes be seen near the marina at the Flamingo Visitor Center. Winsome river otters, grey foxes, Everglades mink, Florida panther and bobcat are a few of the other animals found here. White-tailed deer live here as well, but are rarely seen.
The park is paradise for birders; roseate spoonbills, white ibises, black-crowned night herons and other eye-catching wading birds can be frequently observed as well as the snake-necked anhinga along the Anhinga Trail. The magnificent frigate bird, the American white pelican and the brown booby are a few of the many coastal species that live here. Just a tiny remnant of the region’s original bird population remains from a century of environmental assault on all sides; the words penned by naturalist John James Audubon during a visit here in the 1800 causes one to reflect on what has been lost: “We observed great flocks of wading birds flying overhead toward their evening roosts…. They appeared in such numbers to actually block out the light from the sun for some time.”
For every wading bird an observer sees in the everglades today, historically there were nine more; the dramatic decline is attributed to overhunting for plumage that occurred around the turn of the 19th century, and to the loss of habitat that continues today. Still, in modern times, you will not find a better place to observe a huge variety of wildlife.
Hiking at the Park: Everglades National Park divides its trails by region, each with its own distinct ecosystem: Pine Island Trails, Flamingo Trails, Shark Valley Trails, and the Gulf Coast Trails. Among the Pine Island trails in the eastern part of the park is the half-mile wheelchair accessible Anhinga Trail along Taylor Slough. In the north is the Shark River Slough walkway, where you’ll see wading birds, alligators, fish, and turtles. On the Gumbo Limbo Trail you’ll find tropical hardwood hammock, and the half-mile Mahogany Hammock gives a glimpse of a massive mahogany forest.
Park Drives: Two drives recommended by National Geographic: First, Royal Palm to Flamingo, a 76-mile round-trip along Main Park Road, which passes through prairies, rare pinelands, Mahogany Hammock, and ends at Florida Bay. It’s a good way to spend a day, stopping at the overlooks, hiking some of the trails and observing the wildlife you’ll find along the trails and backcountry waters.
The other is a 49-mile one-way trip across the northern part of the park along the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) from Shark Valley to Everglades City. This tour will give you excellent views of the Everglades landscape. Along the way you’ll find the Shark Valley visitors center, Miccosukee Cultural Center, and Big Cypress National Preserve.