For many people, Florida is all about the beach and the theme parks. But nearly its entire southern tip is a sprawling network of wetlands and forests called the Everglades. It’s this vast subtropical wilderness that is Florida’s true heart.
Although the Everglades begin up near Orlando, Everglades National Park (305-242-7700; seven-day passes, $25 a vehicle) protects only a fraction of this fragile ecosystem. The animals that live within the park’s bounds are as diverse as its 1.5 million acres, which include coastal marshes, pinelands, hardwood hammocks (dry and shaded tropical forests), cypress swamps, and sloughs (low-lying, slow-moving waters). Your options for entry are just as varied: Everglades National Park has three main access points, each with its own appeal.
Whichever approach you and your family decide on—riding an airboat through the River of Grass, visiting the country’s tiniest post office, or spotting alligators from a boardwalk—the joy comes from exploring such a uniquely and naturally abundant place together.
The Lay of the Land
Everglades National Park has four visitors’ centers, three of which are main entry points. The Shark Valley Visitor Center (36000 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-221-8776) lies right off the Tamiami Trail, a section of U.S. Highway 41. Farther west on the road lies Everglades City and the remote Gulf Coast Visitor Center (815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City; 239-695-3311). To the south, there’s the Flamingo Visitor Center (1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy., Homestead; 239-695-2945), set deeper within the park. To reach it, you’ll pass the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (40001 State Hwy. 9336, Homestead; 305-242-7700), the park’s head¬quarters and an access point close to its edge. You can visit them all over the course of a week on the same seven-day park pass.
Weston and Shark Valley: The Urban-Adventure Itinerary
Weston has every creature comfort you might expect from Florida minus the beach, which is about 25 miles east in Fort Lauderdale. But what the town lacks in waterfront it makes up for in wilderness. Weston backs up along the eastern edge of the Everglades, although it’s an hour’s drive from the nearest park entrance. Still, it’s ideal for families who want to stay in a city between activities. The adventure starts before you even enter the park. Just outside, scores of operators lead airboat excursions. The flat-bottom, fan-powered vessels skip across the area’s shallow swamplands like a highly caffeinated water bug. At Sawgrass Recreation Park (1006 U.S. Hwy. 27, Weston; 888-424-7262; 30-minute airboat rides, $23; children 4–12, $13), airboats explore what’s called the River of Grass. That name refers to the slow-moving saw-grass marshes and to environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. Sawgrass also has an animal exhibit showcasing native denizens, including bobcats and the elusive Florida panther.
All that wind in your hair can make you hungry. Consider lunching at Peruvian restaurant La Perla Seafood Bar & Grill (1396 SW 160th Ave., Weston; 954-385-1102; lunch for two, $30*). The corvina marinated in citrus juices is tasty, as is the jalea mixta—a pile of deep-fried calamari, fish, and mussels topped with cilantro, corn, and lime.
From Weston, it’s 47 miles along the Tamiami Trail to the Shark Valley Visitor Center. Leave your car here; there’s no driving in this part of the park. Open-air trams (rides, $25; children 3–12, $13) carry families deeper in along Tram Road before stopping at a ramp that leads to views of the freshwater slough. Alligators are common here and, during the spring months, so are all ¬manner of wading birds (blue herons and the like), cormorants, and, at times, roseate spoonbills. Or rent one of the park’s bicycles ($9 an hour) to pedal the same trail, stopping at the Shark Valley Observation Tower for panoramic views. Another option is embarking on a slough slog, a ranger-led trek through a cypress-dome swamp. (Closed-toed shoes and long pants are required.) The free walks are offered from December until March (be sure to call in advance to sign up); outside of those times, rangers can instruct you in how to go on your own.
Everglades City and the Gulf Coast: The Quirky-Meets-Nature Itinerary
Everglades City and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center lie another 45 miles west along the Tamiami Trail from Shark Valley. You can either tack them onto your Shark Valley itinerary for a long day or visit this area on its own.
But before you reach Everglades City, a chapter from quirky Florida awaits. A Big Foot–style statue by the road marks Skunk Ape Headquarters (40904 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee; 239-695-2275; adults, $12; children 4–12, $6). Owner Dave Shealy stokes the lore of a Sasquatch-like creature he calls the Skunk Ape. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s worth the entrance fee for the small but incredible reptile exhibit. The kids are bound to love the reticulated python, Goldie, who tips the scales at more than 350 pounds.
It’s a mile farther to the Ochopee United States Post Office (38000 Tamiami Trail E.; 800-275-8777), reportedly the tiniest in the U.S. A single staffer works inside what once was a tomato farm’s irrigation-pipe storage shed. People from around the world stop here to buy prestamped postcards with photos of the post office, in operation since 1953.
The remaining four miles to the turnoff for Everglades City bring one airboat-ride operator after another into view, but wait to get on the water until you reach the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. Here, Everglades National Park Boat Tours (815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City; 239-695-2591; 90-minute boat tours, $32 a person; children 5–12, $16) steers travelers among the Ten Thousand Islands (a chain of mangrove islets) while a park-trained naturalist points out manatees, stingrays, and dolphins.
You can fuel up on stone crabs and gator bites at Camellia Street Grill (202 Camellia St.; 239-695-2003; lunch for two, $30), in Everglades City. Then pop over to the Museum of the Everglades (105 W. Broadway Ave., Everglades City; 202-252-5062; admission, free). Its fascinating collection includes an ox yoke used during the creation of the Tamiami Trail, which opened back in 1928.
Homestead and the Road to Flamingo: The Drive-Through Itinerary
“When you take the road to Flamingo, you get the complete picture of the Everglades,” says park ranger Rudy Beotegui. “You pass through all the habitats that the Everglades has to offer.” Here, freshwater and saltwater habitats mix, and so do alligators and crocodiles. (South Florida is the only part of the world where they both live in the wild.) You can stop along the 38-mile-long stretch of State Highway 9336 that goes from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center for overlooks and trails, too.
After the Everglades National Park entrance sign south of Homestead and before the pay station, consider pausing at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to watch an 18-minute film about the Everglades’ history and wildlife. From here it’s four miles to the Anhinga Trail. If you get out of your car only once, make it for this 0.8-mile loop, which is quintessential Everglades. A mix of boardwalk and paved pathways circle a freshwater slough where alligators, herons, and streamlined river otters live. Rangers lead walks here daily at 10:30 a.m.
Things start to look different once you get to the Flamingo Visitor Center. “If the Anhinga Trail is what people are expecting to see in the Everglades, then Flamingo is what folks aren’t expecting to see, because it’s the exact opposite, with saltwater habitats and crocodiles,” Beotegui says. Everglades Guest Services (Flamingo Visitor Center; 855-708-2207; two-hour bike rentals, $15; two-hour kayak rentals, $23) rents bikes, which you can pedal along short coastal trails, as well as kayaks for paddling out into the surrounding canals or Florida Bay. From both the water and on land, you might spot crocodiles as well as dolphins, manatees, or hammerhead sharks.
When you’re ready for a treat, go to Robert Is Here (19200 SW 344th St., Homestead; 305-246-1592; milkshakes for two, $12) about 10 miles outside of the park. Tropical fruits and vegetables—the bulk of which are grown locally—spill from this open-air produce stand. But you’re here for the milkshakes, made with whatever is in season. In the glorious Florida spring, that might mean key lime or mamey (a pale pink fruit that tastes like a union of sweet potato and almonds). What could be a better end to your adventure than raising a glass with your kids to wild Florida?
More than 40 species of mammals thrive in the Everglades, making it a thrill for kids and adults alike. Here, a few to look for.
1. White-Tailed Deer
The Everglades’ variety is smaller than elsewhere in the U.S. since it doesn’t need extra fat to protect it from winter’s chill.
2. Florida Panther
Between 120 and 230 of these endangered cats still live in the wild in South Florida.
3. Gray Fox
The only fox that can climb trees is at home in the Everglades’ hardwood hammocks.
This spotted beauty prowls the Everglades’ cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks.
5. West Indian Manatee
Nicknamed “sea cows,” Florida’s official marine mammals eat sea grass and other aquatic plants.
6. North American River Otter
The spring at the Anhinga Trail is a good place to spot these web-footed, water-loving creatures.
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.