Things to Do in Everglades National Park
The Ten Thousand Islands archipelago covers more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of Florida’s southern tip. The eponymous national wildlife refuge lies in the northern portion, while the southern part is in Everglades National Park. The islands—which number in the hundreds, not thousands—are a perfect place to decompress in nature.
Situated in heart of what many call the “true Everglades”—a river of grass that stretches 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico—Shark Valley is part of a freshwater ecosystem with incredible biodiversity. It’s one of the best places in Everglades National Park to spot alligators, birds, and other wildlife.
Big Cypress National Preserve is the northern neighbor of Everglades National Park, but with fewer crowds and more wildlife. Among the first national preserves to be established in the US, Big Cypress still permits many of the activities that are forbidden in national parks, inviting visitors to go off-roading, hunt, take an airboat ride through the swamp, and more.
Boasting a tropical climate, white-sand beaches, and luxury resorts, Marco Island is the only inhabited island in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge set off Florida's southwest coast. Visit the island for a beach vacation that offers options to explore the surrounding labyrinth of mangroves, waterways, and wildlife.
Loop Road is a scenic one-lane road that provides a two-hour detour from the Tamiami Trail, taking travelers through picturesque cypress marshes along a primitive road. This 25-mile stretch through Big Cypress National Preserve is rich with history and wildlife and folklore, a sort of Wild West of Florida for those who eschewed civilization well into the 1950s and 60s. Fact: Al Capone had a hunting lodge here during the Depression.
The eastern end of Loop Road is paved, with the pavement ending at the Loop Road Environmental Education, run by the National Park, where you can walk the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail or stop for a picnic. After this point, the road turns into gravel, but it has been recently upgraded, making it easier on cars than it has been in the past. There are several hikes on the Loop in addition to the Tree Snail Hammock Trail for folks wanting to stretch their legs, as well as a few campsites.
The reason most people cruise the Loop Road is for the wildlife and one of the prettiest spots is just west of the center point at Sweetwater Strand. Massive cypress trees stand sentinel around freshwater pools, creating a haven for wildlife. Visitors might see deer, otter, black bears or even a bobcat; alligators are plentiful. A rich array of bird life includes ibis, wood stork, egret, great blue heron, cormorant and anhinga.
Located on Florida’s southernmost Gulf Coast, Chokoloskee Bay is about ten miles (16 km) long and two miles (3 km) wide and is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands. A popular destination for fishermen and water sports enthusiasts, the waters of Chokoloskee Bay offer a vast assortment of saltwater fish such as grouper, flounder and red fish for anglers. The sheltered mangrove islands of Ten Thousand Islands offer plenty of areas for kayakers to explore.
In the heart of Chokoloskee Bay is Chokoloskee Island, a small area that is considered the last great frontier in the Everglades. Settled by Native Americans two thousand years ago, modern settlement began in 1874. If you visit the island, check out the Historic Smallwood Store, which is housed in Ted Smallwood’s general store. Now a museum, it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and is an authentic glimpse into the colorful—and sometimes bloody—history of this region.
The first opportunity for information and assistance when you arrive in Everglades National Park, the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is worth a stop when visiting the park. With educational exhibitions and plenty of maps, the Coe Visitor Center is the perfect place to get an overview of the extensive offerings in the Everglades. Be sure to stay for a showing of River of Life, a 15-minute film that provides an excellent park overview. The Coe Visitor Center also provides information on park ranger-led activities (mostly talks and some walks) as well as details about boat tours and canoe rentals.
When the Tamiami Trail was constructed in 1928, it was considered a feat of engineering, becoming the only route from Tampa to Miami at that time. A two-lane road that stretched 264 miles (it’s last part of U.S. Highway 41 from State Road 60 in Tampa to U.S. Route 1 in Miami, the Tamiami Trail took 13 years, cost $8 million and used 2.6 million sticks of dynamite in its construction.
The problem of the Tamiami Trail is exactly what made it so attractive in the first place: it traverses the Everglades. The Trail effectively created a dam that blocked the water flow of the Everglades, drastically changing the ecology of the area. In order to restore the River of Grass, the Tamiami Trail must be changed. Construction of a one-mile bridge is scheduled to be complete in December 2013; plans are being evaluated for an additional series of bridges or elevations of the Tamiami Trail to facilitate additional water flow, which is critical to the recovery of the Everglades.
Riding along the Tamiami Trail, drivers and passengers will enjoy the surprisingly varied landscape of the Everglades, from pinelands to saw-grass marshes; you might catch a glimpse of an alligator sunning himself in one of the roadside canals and water birds are plentiful. In addition to the natural landscape, remnants of the 1950s and 60s tourist traps remain, man-made kitsch is abundant and there are plenty of opportunities to ride an airboat or go gator-sighting. Keep an eye out for the Skunk Ape, the Everglades’ version of Big Foot.
To get an up close and personal view of wildlife in the Everglades, particularly the bird life, the Anhinga Trail is one of the premier wetland trail in the National Park Service. A self-guided walk of about .8 miles (1200 meters) round trip, the trail is easily completed in about 45 minutes. The paved boardwalk curves through Taylor Slough, one of the few waterways that retain water year-round, making it particularly attractive to a variety of wildlife.
The saw-grass marsh is teeming with an abundance of Everglades residents, including alligators, turtles, anhingas (a type of water bird found in the Everglades; the name means snake bird or devil bird), herons, cormorants, egrets and many other birds. Because the boardwalk allows visitors to wander among the wildlife, it consequently makes the animals and birds less afraid of humans, allowing closer viewing of alligators, anhingas and other native species.
Exploring the Anhinga Trail also allows guests to view the flora of the Everglades, from the saw-grass prairies towards the end of the trail to the pond apples, a native tree that has apples that appeal to wildlife, but not humans. If you have a limited amount of time, walking the Anhinga Trail is a must-do for wildlife viewing and for a taste of all that the Everglades has to offer.
If you have only an hour to stop and visit in the Everglades, the Royal Palm Visitor Center is the ideal location to stop, stretch your legs and get your bearings. Royal Palm State Park originally started as Paradise Key but was set aside as a state park to avoid development in 1916. After several years and almost double the acreage being donated (bringing the grand total to 4,000 acres, Royal Palm was dedicated as a state park in 1921.
As an access point to two of the most popular trails in the Everglades, the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail, a visit to the Royal Palm Visitor Center allows guests to experience two distinct ecosystems of the Everglades, the saw grass marsh prairie on the Anhinga and the hardwood hammock on the Gumbo Limbo, in a short amount of time.
Strolling along either of these trails will allow visitors to see a variety of wildlife including alligators and, at the right time of year, nesting anhingas. The Royal Palm Visitor Center provides maps and brochures detailing the surrounding areas, as well as serves as a starting point for the guided tours led daily by park rangers. While a guided tour is not mandatory for exploring the area, the information shared by the knowledgeable rangers is invaluable.
More Things to Do in Everglades National Park
A self-guided trail that showcases a hardwood hammock ecosystem, the Gumbo Limbo Trail is accessible from the Royal Palm Visitor Center. At approximately .4 miles (.64 km), the Gumbo Limbo Trail is a short stroll, but grants a glimpse into a very distinct eco system of the Everglades.
Illustrating how a few inches of elevation can create a whole new world, the Gumbo Limbo Trail wanders through a hardwood hammock ecosystem, notably different from the saw grass prairie that can be seen on the neighboring Anhinga Trail. While the saw grass prairie disappears underwater each year, the hardwood hammock is a tree island in a sea of grass, allowing tropical flora to flourish, including palms, strangler figs and the trail’s namesake, the Gumbo Limbo tree. Also called the Tourist Tree (the red, flaky bark can resemble a tourist’s sunburn), the Gumbo Limbo has been utilized for centuries: the resin can be used as glue or as a water repellent coating and the wood has been carved into merry-go-round horses or as construction material.
Through walking the trail won’t take much more than an hour, it’s an excellent way to experience a distinct part of the Everglades.
Set on the bay at Everglades National Park’s south entrance, Flamingo Visitor Center is the jumping-off point for exploring the southern Everglades. The visitor center is next to a marina, campground, and a network of trails and waterways. At the center, find maps, information, and rangers to help you get started on your adventure.
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