Everglades National Park protects the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. It is a mosaic of marshes, creeks, prairies, and forests, with a abundance of wildlife. And it is the only place in the world where the alligator and crocodiles both roam. We spent four days exploring the park, the third largest in the lower 48 states and covering the entire southwest tip of Florida.
For hundreds of years a shallow sheet of water in Florida used to flow freely from Lake Okeechobee through the wetlands and out to Florida Bay. The subsequent growth of Florida caused the land to be drained, destroying much of this ecosystem. Everglades National Park was created in 1947 to protect the remaining wetland area (now totaling only about 20% of its original size). In 2016 Everglades was visited by 930,907 people, ranking it 24th out of 59 national parks.
We drove down the western Gulf Coast of Florida to enter the park near Everglades City. Stopping at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, our hope was to rent a canoe and paddle through the mangroves. Unfortunately it was too windy, but we were able to have an extended conversation with the ranger on duty to verify the best park hiking and activities for us to pursue in the coming days.
After leaving the Gulf Coast, we turned inland to drive on the Tamiami Trail (US 41). This highway links Florida’s west coast with its east coast and took us into Big Cypress National Preserve. The first preserve in the U.S., Big Cypress was created in 1974 to further protect the fresh water’s natural flow into the neighboring Everglades. This preserve differs from a national park in that it allows activities such as oil and gas exploration, hunting, off road vehicle travel, and traditional use by the neighboring Seminole and Miccosukee tribes.
We used Big Cypress’s Midway Campground as our base for exploring the preserve and the northern portion of Everglades National Park. While at Big Cypress we took a couple of short hikes and drove on two unpaved roads into the backcountry, where we saw alligators and a variety of birds, including an owl.
It was an easy drive to the Shark Valley section of Everglades from Big Cypress. Shark Valley is a freshwater sawgrass prairie that floods yearly to become a shallow river up to 30 miles wide. The shallow river is known as a slough ( pronounced “slew”). It is also one of the best places in the park to view animals. A paved loop leads to a 65 foot observation tower providing a 360 degree view of the area. The 15 mile loop travels seven miles along a canal to the tower, with the final eight miles traversing through the prairie dotted with cypress, willow, and hardwood trees. A two hour tram tour is offered several times a day, but we opted to rent bikes and ride the 15 miles instead.
We were immediately treated to the sight of American alligators sunning themselves along the banks of the canal. We probably saw close to 20 gators as we rode. They seemed docile, and we had to keep reminding ourselves not to get too close, because alligators can move quickly over short distances. In addition to alligators, we saw many birds, including herons, flamingo pink colored roseate spoonbills, and turtles.
When we reached the observation tower, we walked up to the top and marveled at the view of the Shark Valley Slough. There was a small pond just below us, and we could see nothing on the horizon but sawgrass prairie in every direction.
There are many hiking trails in the Everglades, with the majority of them covering distances of less than a mile round trip. After completing the remaining eight miles of biking, we hiked the Bobcat Boardwalk and Otter Cave Hammock Trails.
Everglades National Park is comprised of six habitats: marine and estuary, mangroves, freshwater marsh, cypress, pine rockland, and tropical hardwood hammocks. We ventured to the Flamingo portion of the park on Florida Bay the next day. While driving south on the 38 mile park road, we stopped to complete several hikes, each exposing us to a different environment in the park.
The Pa-hay-okee (meaning “grassy waters” in Seminole) Overlook Trail took us to a raised viewpoint over the sawgrass prairie. At the overlook, we looked towards Shark Valley where we had ridden bikes the day before.
On the Pinelands Trail we walked through a dense hardwood hammock forest of cypress, palms, ferns, and epiphytes (air plants growing on tree limbs).
We felt like we were in the tropics of Central America instead of southern Florida while walking on the Mahogany Hammock Trail. On the edge of the Shark Valley Slough, the trail took us onto an island of lush trees.
The Everglades contain the largest protected mangrove forest in the Northern Hemisphere. The West Lake Trail exposed us to some of these mangroves and the flooded forest floor as we hiked along a boardwalk to a bay viewpoint.
We had been extremely fortunate with our wildlife sightings, but at Flamingo we encountered high concentrations of mosquitoes. We already had dealt with mosquitoes while camping in the South, but there were only out at dawn and dusk, making it easy to plan around them. At the Flamingo Campground they were constant and numerous, making it almost impossible to be outside for any length of time. We used our head nets and DEET, but they got into our car and it was difficult to kill them all in there. It was also hot and humid with the heat index well into the 90s F.
We had more camping planned, but after one night at Flamingo, we decided to forgo any further nights outdoors and book a hotel instead. Our plan was to also take a kayak trip in the Florida Bay from the Flamingo Marina, but again the windy conditions were not conducive to us paddling. We instead booked a seven mile motor boat tour though the mangrove estuary along Buttonwood Canal, taking us to Coot Bay and Whitewater Bay during our two-hour trip.
It was during the tour that we had our first close look at a crocodile nesting along the canal bank. Our guide listed the major differences between alligators and crocodiles: crocs are found in salt water, as opposed to fresh water for gators; crocs have a narrower mouth than gators, crocs have teeth that show when their mouth is closed; and crocs have more of an olive hue, whereas gators tend to be more black in color. We also saw three kinds of mangroves during our tour: white, black, and red.
Our final stop in the Everglades was in the Royal Palm area. We hiked the Gumbo Limbo Trail to see the namesake tree, along with royal palms, mahogany, live oaks, ferns, and strangler figs. We learned that there are 700 native plant species in Everglades National Park.
Almost everyone we spoke to told us we had to hike the Anhinga Trail. We were not disappointed as we walked along an elevated boardwalk over the sawgrass marsh of Taylor Slough. It was one of the most beautiful trails we had hiked in a national park and we saw a variety of birds, more alligators, a fish called a Florida gar, and stunning lily pads in the water. It was a fitting way to end our time in the park.
The tropical environment and variety of ecosystems found in the Everglades National Park was unlike anything we have seen in the previous 11 parks we visited on this journey. While in the Everglades, we were able to hike 6.7 miles, ride 15 miles, and take a guided boat tour. The number of animals we saw throughout the park and in the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve was by far the most we had seen on our trip, and we took hundreds of pictures. Included in our photos were a number of large insects that we saw on the trails.
We continue our travels with a visit to Biscayne National Park, located on the east coast of Florida.