Sprawling 1.5 million acres of land in south Florida, Everglades National Park is one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands. Think of it as America’s slowest, widest river – a constant stream of freshwater roughly 60 miles (97m) wide, moving at about 2.5 miles (4km) per day as it makes its way to Florida Bay. The Seminole people called the area ‘Okeechobee’, which stands for “river of grass”. And while a large part of the park is sharp sawgrass, the area also encompasses nine distinct ecosystems from cypress forests to coastal lowlands, mangroves and marine habitats.
The park’s main purpose is of course to preserve the wilderness, but the Everglades also provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure. Since the park covers such a large area, planning is a must.
There are three entrances to Everglades National Park in three different cities and they are not interconnected. Flamingo in Homestead is in the southwest, Shark Valley is in the northeast, and Gulf Coast in the northwest. No matter which entrance you’re taking, you’ll need a car because the park is vast and there is no public transportation. Choose an entry point based on what you want to see and do in the Everglades. If you want to visit the heart of the Everglades you can either enter through Shark Valley or the main entrance in Homestead. However, if you are looking to explore the Gulf Coast, then you should plan for a boat trip to explore the vast mangrove estuary.
Things to do
As the third largest park in the lower 48 states, there is no shortage of adventure and things to do whether you’re a solo camper, couple, group of friends or family.
The Everglades offers both front country camping and wilderness camping. Flamingo and Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds offer drinking water, picnic tables, showers, grills, restrooms, and tent and trailer sites.
There are also a number of ground sites, beach sites, and elevated camping platforms known as “chickees” in various locations in the park. Most wilderness camping sites are accessible by canoe, kayak, or motorboat, though some can be reached by hikers. A wilderness camping permit is required for all wilderness camping, issued the day before or on the day of your trip at either the Flamingo or Gulf Coast Visitor Centers. Preparation is extremely important!
Most of the park is only accessible via water, making boating a popular way to experience the Everglades. If you don’t own or plan to rent a boat, there are many tour operators offering boating excursions. The Ten Thousand Islands Cruise takes visitors through the saltwater portion of the Everglades, where you have a good chance to see birds, manatees, dolphins and other wildlife native to Florida.
Or do a Mangrove Airboat tour which takes you through the shallow, brackish part of the Everglades. There you’ll have a good chance of seeing alligators, bobcats, raccoons, mangrove fox squirrels and a variety of bird life.
A wide array of hiking trails offer visitors opportunities for leisurely walks and extended hikes. For example, the short and easy Gumbo Limbo Trail and Anhinga Trail winds through a wildlife-rich hammock called Royal Palm, and the 6.1-mile (10 km) Long Pine Key Trail will take you through the park’s largest remaining native pine trees. For those looking for something more demanding, head to the Old Ingraham Highway – accessible from Royal Palm – for a 20-mile (32 km) round-trip trek on what was once a paved road but has long since fallen into wild decay. The Coastal Prairie Trail – accessed from Flamingo – is a 15-mile (24 km) round-trip that offers backcountry camping at Clubhouse Beach.
Apart from hiking, you can also do a variety of ranger programs. Each park entrance offers programs unique to its surrounding resources. These programs range from tram rides to paddle trips, bike hikes and slough slogs!
Best time to visit
Dry season (December to March) is when most ranger programs and park concessions are available. Wildlife is also plentiful throughout the park during this time, and there are less mozzies and other troublesome bugs. You can expect a crowd at some of the more popular destinations, though there are still opportunities for solitude if you venture.
Wet season (April to November) is hot and humid, even short excursions can be draining. Some park facilities are also only staffed intermittently. However, the upside to this is that there are fewer people during these months. Whichever season you choose to visit the Everglades, make sure to pack bug repellent or netting, and be prepared for passing heavy rains.