At every other national park in America, it is the geology that most attracts visitors—the peaks of Denali, the gorges of the Grand Canyon. But in Everglades National Park, where the highest natural elevation is eight feet, you come for the biology.
You find it in a river of grass that sometimes stands higher than a person wearing a hat with a feather in it. And in long-legged snowy egrets whose white hue tricks the tiny fish into mistaking them for clouds. And in six-foot-long alligators which—be warned—only want you to think they’re sleeping. (You might also see crocodiles; the Everglades is the only place in the world where the two species coexist.)
Much of the 1.5 million-acre park, which covers the southern tip of Florida, is a trackless wilderness of saw-grass prairie, coastal mangroves and the island-sprinkled shallows of Florida Bay. But biological drama is often only steps away, especially in the dry season, December through April. That’s when many creatures in search of water are migrating toward the man-made canals that line the park’s few roads.
LAY OF THE LAND
Unless you plan on camping, there are no accommodations in the park. Flamingo Lodge used to be the only place to stay, at the Flamingo Visitors Center on Florida Bay, but it was destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005. Yet distances are short enough that you can get a good feel of the area in day trips, either from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or the Palm Beaches, on the east coast, or from Marco Island or Naples, on the west. For a more leisurely visit, overnight in Homestead or Florida City, near the park’s main entrance, or Everglades City, on the Gulf Coast.
A park visit is most easily divided into three segments: the road from Homestead and Florida City to Flamingo; the Tamiami Trail, or U.S. 41, which for part of its length runs along the park’s northern border; and the Everglades City area, a gateway to the watery world of the Ten Thousand Islands. The park entrance fee, is good at any entrance for seven consecutive days.
THE ROAD TO FLAMINGO
Just a few miles east of the main park entrance, Homestead and Florida City are agricultural communities surrounded by bean, squash and tomato fields, orchid growers and roadside farm stands. The best known stand, Robert Is Here, specializes in tropical fruits. Fortify yourself for the journey ahead with milkshakes made with Key lime, mango, passion fruit, coconut, papaya, banana and more.
On the way to the park you’ll pass near the Everglades Alligator Farm. Home to more than 2,000 of the oversize reptiles, it’s a good place to stop if high water in the park has allowed wildlife to slip away from the man-made canals—or if you prefer something more between you and your gator than a few feet of pond water. Like most of the operations bordering the park, it offers a wildlife show that includes alligator “wrestling” and a restaurant where you can sample alligator tail, usually in the form of deep-fried nuggets that, yes, taste like that other type of nugget. But the main activity is airboat rides—which is something you’ll have to make your own decision about. These flat-bottomed craft, powered by airplane-like propellers, are banned from most of the park for being environmentally destructive. Yet many companies offer airboat rides along the park’s boundaries, and the thrill of flying across the marshes in what sounds like a Daytona 500 stock car seems to be one that few can resist.
From the park entrance to Flamingo are 38 miles of two-lane blacktop punctuated by the occasional trailhead, picnic area or observation point. Just a mile past the entrance is the turnoff for Royal Palm Hammock, a wildlife area whose 0.8-mile Anhinga Trail, across freshwater marsh, is one of the best walks in the park. The cormorants and anhingas here are about as camera-cooperative as any winged creature could be, and you’ll forever after have an image to go with the expression “up to your elbows in alligators.”
Back on the road to Flamingo, you’ll find that just about any of the ponds, depending on the season and time of day, are good for birding and for launching a canoe into the park’s watery trails. You can rent canoes at the marina at Flamingo, which also has kayaks, skiffs, houseboats, bicycles and big-boat tours.
Since the lodge was destroyed, Flamingo has become far quieter than it once was. But campers and day visitors still come here for the marina store and a small café—and views out onto Florida Bay that will have you dreaming of losing yourself among the islands.
TREKKING THE TAMIAMI TRAIL
Officially it’s U.S. 41; “Tamiami” comes from the two cities it connects, Tampa and Miami. The highway isn’t within the park boundaries, but you’ll see plenty of airboats and alligators along the 70 miles that run from the Florida Turnpike in the east to the turnoff for Everglades City in the west. And you’ll get a glimpse of the old ways (beadwork and basket weaving) and new (casino gambling) of the area’s original inhabitants, the Miccosukee Indians. The casino, where limos are pulled up out front, is six miles west of the turnpike at the Miccosukee Resort. If you drive 15 miles more to mile marker 70, you’ll find the Miccosukee Indian Museum and the tribe’s airboat rides. The restaurant here serves both American and Native American standards, including hamburgers and fry bread.
Just before Miccosukee Indian Village you’ll see a string of tour operators. One of the oldest, Coopertown, has been serving up airboat rides and such Everglades fare as alligator, frog’s legs and catfish since 1945. Also just before the village is the turnoff for Shark Valley, which is in the national park. Cars aren’t allowed on its paved 15-mile loop trail, so walk or rent a bike, making sure to bring water. Or if you don’t relish a confrontation with the occasional gator in the middle of the road, try the two-hour tram tour, which runs frequently.
The western half of the Trail goes through the beautiful Big Cypress National Preserve, but other than that there’s little to slow you down on the rest of the drive to Everglades City. But do make a quick stop at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, where Dave Shealy, a true believer in these mythical half-man, half-beast swamp creatures, has a few photos to show you, along with a fine collection of Skunk Ape shot glasses and T-shirts.
EVERGLADES CITY AREA
Tiny Everglades City and even tinier Chokoloskee, which lies just beyond it, are sleepy fishing communities with a once-turbulent, frontier-style past, some of it recounted in Peter Matthiessen’s book Shadow Country. From either community, there’s no road into the park, which here is largely mangrove wilderness that stretches 99 miles down the coast to Flamingo. Boats are the way to get in, either from the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center on the Chokoloskee Causeway, where boat tours are offered or through any number of operators along the Tamiami Trail.
Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures offers paddle excursions through tunnels of mangroves. It’s based at the Ivey House, an inn right in Everglades City. Another popular option is the powerboat-assisted kayak tours with Everglades Area Tours. The boat takes you deep into the glades, where you then set off to explore in individual kayaks.
To tie Everglades City’s past with its present, be sure to visit the Museum of the Everglades, housed in a building that opened in 1927 as a laundry for the nearby Rod & Gun Club. The club is now a public lodging, with a polished-cypress dining room that exudes the elegance of times gone by. You can now enjoy a place once open only to U.S. presidents and other famous and wealthy guests.
Robert Is Here: 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead; 305-246-1592; robertishere.com
Everglades Alligator Farm: 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead; 305-247-2628; everglades.com
Everglades National Park: 239-695-3101; evergladesnationalparkboattoursflamingo.com
Miccosukee Resort: 305-552-8365; miccosukee.com
Coopertown: 305-226-6048; coopertownairboats.com
Shark Valley Tram Tours: 305-221-8455; sharkvalleytramtours.com
Skunk Ape Research Headquarters: 40904 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; 239-695-2275; skunkape.info
Gulf Coast Visitor Center: 239-695-2591; evergladesnationalparkboattoursgulfcoast.com
Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures: 239-695-3299; evergladesadventures.com
Everglades Area Tours: 238 Mamie St., Chokoloskee; 239-695-3633; evergladesareatours.com
Museum of the Everglades: 105 W. Broadway; 239-695-0008; evergladesmuseum.org
Rod & Gun Club: 200 Broadway; 239-695-2101; evergladesrodandgun.com