The Everglades in Florida are the second largest US national park, after Yellowstone in the state of Wyoming. It is a unique and delicate ecosystem of swamps and mangroves in the south of the state. The contrast with the rest of Florida could not be greater: no roller coasters and amusement parks like in Orlando, but beautiful nature teeming with life. The park is best known for its alligators (no, not crocodiles), but other animals also have their home in the national park. Three parts of the area are easy to visit for the public and each have their own assets. Which beautiful places and sights should you not miss?
- The Everglades: an introduction
- When to visit the park?
- What to see and do: beautiful places and sights
- Shark Valley Tram Tour
- Visitor centres
- Gumbo Limbo Trail
- Anhinga Trail
- Pinelands trailhead
- Pa-hay-okee overlook
- Mahogany Hammock
- West Lake
- Coastal Prairie Trail
- Kayaking through the mangroves of the Everglades
Sunrise in the Everglades / Source: Skeeze, Pixabay
The Everglades: an introduction
A unique ecosystem
The Everglades are a vast and unique nature reserve. It consists of a wilderness of water and grass with a rich population of rare birds, mammals and reptiles. Large parts of the area are completely inaccessible. But other areas are easily accessible thanks to the Everglades National Park. There are beautiful viewpoints, hiking trails and an extensive network of kayak routes through the waters and mangroves.
You can divide the Everglades into three separate areas, from where you have access to the spectacular nature of the park. Each area is different and has its pros and cons, but they all have their beautiful spots, sights and fun activities:
- ‘Shark Valley’: the northeast of the park, about forty kilometers from Miami
- ‘Flamingo’: the south of the park, accessible from Homestead and Florida City
- ’10 000 islands’: the northwest part of the park around Everglades City
Fauna and Flora
The Everglades have a rich fauna and flora. Hundreds of bird species live here, including the osprey, the American blue heron, the little egret and the striking anhinga or snake-necked bird. You will also find many other animal species there, such as frogs and otters. Even panthers live in the park, although the chance of spotting one is extremely small. The most famous and feared inhabitants are the many alligators. This fear is completely unfounded: if you leave the animals alone, they do the same.
See you later, alligator / Source: JamesDeMers, Pixabay What is the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?
Don’t just say crocodile to alligator. Admittedly, they look similar, but there are still important differences. Crocodiles are more aggressive than alligators. Alligators are mainly found in fresh water, crocodiles in salt water. An alligator’s snout is wide and they have black skin. Crocodiles, on the other hand, have a narrower snout and more brownish skin. When an alligator closes its mouth, you only see the top teeth, while with a crocodile you can still see all the teeth, even when the mouth is completely closed.
If an alligator crosses your path, leave the animal alone. The alligator will also leave you untouched unless you threaten it or have maneuvered your boat between it and its young. In that case, the animal may make a loud hissing sound. This is a signal that you should get away as quickly as possible. The hissing is a call to other alligators that a young one is in danger. Under no circumstances should you feed an alligator. It is not only punishable, but also very stupid.
When to visit the park?
The park is open all year round, but not every season is suitable for a visit.
In summer, temperatures and humidity rise high. In addition, mosquitoes and other insects are a real pest during this period. At times it seems as if all the mosquitoes in the entire world are gathering here at that moment and holding meetings. The no-see-ums are also a source of annoyance: small insects, barely visible with the naked eye, that bite to their heart’s content, especially at dusk. Outside the summer you will have much less trouble with insects in the park.
Between June and November you are also in hurricane season. Florida is threatened by hurricanes almost every year. From the Caribbean they sometimes reach the mainland and can cause real havoc. For example, Hurricane Andrew tore through Homestead at 200 miles per hour in 1992. When Andrew left, nothing was left standing. The city was rebuilt but the economy never fully recovered. Do you really want to be nearby when there is a threat of a ‘hurricane’? Not so!
Best time to travel
The best time to visit the Everglades is during the dry season from roughly November to May. It is therefore advisable to plan your visit during the winter months.
What to see and do: beautiful places and sights
There is a lot to see and experience in the three accessible areas. There are beautiful spots along the way where you can spot animals or take beautiful photos. Short hiking trails take you into nature in no time.
Shark Valley along the north side is ideal for quickly seeing some of the park if you’re short on time. But you will only really discover the Everglades if you take one or more full days to do some hiking or go on the water. Most short walks can be found along the road to Flamingo in the southern part of the park, while the more remote 10,000 Islands in the northwest are ideal for those who want to take a kayak trip through the mangroves.
Shark Valley Tram Tour
Shark Valley is the most accessible and easily accessible part of the Everglades. It is located along Highway 41, also called the Tamiami trail because it is the main connection between Miami and the southwest coast (Tampa). Because it is such a simple gateway to the Everglades, it also became very popular (read: busy). From the entrance, a 17-mile paved trail runs through nature all the way to the tall Shark Valley Observation Tower. From here you have a beautiful panoramic view of the park. Seeing lazy alligators sunbathing on the asphalt is a daily occurrence here.
Three popular ways to explore the trail are walking, renting a bike, or taking the tram tour. This ride takes two hours and is ideal if you have little time and still want to discover something of the park. Along the way you will receive a lot of explanation and information about the park with its fauna and flora from a guide.
Anhinga bird / Source: Kehlmack, Pixabay
Also worth it is the road through the park from Florida City to Flamingo, where you will pass many interesting stops. There are beautiful viewpoints and short paths through the wilderness. You will also come to two visitor centers that are worth seeing.
There is not much to see in Flamingo. It is little more than a tourist center with lodging, dining options and cruises along the coasts of Florida. Renting a kayak or canoe is also possible. Flamingo began as a small settlement and outpost for hunters and fishermen in the nineteenth century.
Ernest Coe Visitor Center
On the road from Florida City to Flamingo, the Ernest Coe visitor center is worth a first stop. It’s the park’s main visitor center, and you’ll find tons of fascinating information about the Everglades. It’s the fastest and easiest way to see the Everglades for those short on time.
Royal Palm Visitor Centre
This visitor center is located near the Ernest Coe visitor center, along Highway 9336, and is the starting point for two short but interesting hikes: the Gumbo-Limbo trail and the Anhinga trail. Both walks take you to one of the most beautiful places in the Everglades.
Gumbo Limbo Trail
The Gumbo-Limbo trail is three-quarters of a mile long and takes you past impressively beautiful spots with trees and vegetation. Hammocks are small islands of trees in freshwater prairies and you can see some along this trail. Mahogany trees are often found on the hammocks. The name of the trail refers to the ‘gumbo-limbo’ tree, also known as the ‘tourist tree’: it is known for its red and flaky bark that resembles sunburned skin.
Also nice is the Anhinga trail, named after the bizarre birds of the same name that often appear here. It’s only half a mile long but there’s a good chance of meeting some of the park’s residents along the way. Turtles, water birds, lizards or snakes are regularly seen. Alligators can also often be found along this trail, especially at the ‘gator hole’ at the beginning. A ‘gator hole’ is a hole in the ground, made by alligators during the dry season to access the deeper water.
The Pinelands trail is the next stop along the road from Florida City to Flamingo. It is a short half mile hiking trail. This walk is less popular than the others but still worth it if you have the time. You can also see a beautiful part of the Everglades along this path.
One of the most beautiful spots and viewpoints over the Everglades can be found here. Along a path of wooden planks through the wilderness, you will reach a viewpoint after about 250 meters. Pa-hay-okee means grassy water in the language of the Calusa Indians who inhabited this area until the arrival of the Spanish. You look out over a sea of grass and water, between which many birds move continuously.
Another stop on the route is the starting point of a half-mile hiking trail through abundant vegetation. It’s crawling right through one of the largest hammocks in the park. Many birds often reside here. Also look out for the colorful tree snails and the largest mahogany tree in the country.
A special place in the Everglades is West Lake. Along a short wooden path you get a beautiful view of the ‘lake’, which is actually a large swamp with mangroves. The tangle of roots and branches in the mangroves is typical of the coastal areas of Florida and here you get to see an impressive display of it.
Coastal Prairie Trail
Along the road to Flamingo you will find the start of the Coastal Prairie trail, a nice walking path. It is marked on the National Park Service park map. You follow an old road that was once used by cotton pickers. Take plenty of water with you and apply sunscreen. The trail is 7.5 miles long (single), so leave early. You can of course also walk a bit of the path and then turn around.
Exploring Mangroves in the Everglades / Source: Ravini, Pixabay
Kayaking through the mangroves of the Everglades
The ‘10,000 islands’ area in the northwest of the Everglades is also the least visited part. Here you will clearly find fewer facilities than in Flamingo, but Everglades City is the perfect base for those who really want to discover the Everglades.
The ultimate Everglades adventure is a trip by canoe or kayak through the swamps and dark mangroves, along narrow passages on the water, sharp turns and with the occasional alligator floating past your boat. You discover the park in a completely different, impressive way and see it from a completely different perspective. The real adventurers can even embark on multi-day adventure tours by kayak through the Everglades. For example, there are excursions on the so-called ‘Wilderness Waterway’ between Everglades City and Flamingo, which can easily take more than a week.
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