By: Shayne Benowitz
Everglades National Park is one of the most unique ecosystems in the country. It’s also one of the most exciting places in South Florida to explore. These lush subtropical wetlands occupy 1.5 million acres of sawgrass prairies, hardwood hammocks, saltwater marshes and a diverse population of wildlife that includes bald eagles, white-tailed deer, and of course the Florida alligator.
Fortunately for anyone making a trip to Miami, the Everglades is practically in our backyard. With two entrances to the park roughly an hour from South Beach, it’s easy to plan a daytrip to the Everglades during your stay in Miami. The Everglades is vast and your options on how to explore the park are many. Whether it’s hiking or biking, paddling in a canoe or gliding on an airboat, a naturalist-led tour or an overnight stay at a campground, there are plenty of ways to experience the beauty of the Everglades firsthand.
History and Geography
Historically, the Everglades began in Central Florida where the Kissimmee River meets Lake Okeechobee. From there, the Everglades formed an enormous slow-moving river flowing south across the peninsula and into the Florida Bay. Today, Everglades National Park protects the southern one-fifth of what was historically considered the Everglades. Due to land development and population growth at the turn of the century, the Everglade’s ecosystem was severely threatened. In 1947 the national park was established to conserve and protect this unique and delicate ecosystem for future generations. Everglades National Park is one of just 21 sites in the United States on UNESCO’s World Heritage list — and the nation’s only property included on the “sites in danger” list.
The park’s boundaries span Florida’s west coast from Everglades City south along the Gulf of Mexico and into the Florida Bay with the Upper Keys as its border. The boundary then travels north and borders Florida City and Miami.
The Everglades ecosystem is diverse and consists of freshwater, saltwater and hardwood hammock habitats. The hardwood hammocks are not the hammocks you might imagine rocking in back at the beach between a couple of palm trees. Instead, it’s a dense cluster of a diverse assemblage of trees rooted in land elevated only a few inches above sea level. The Everglades’ hardwood hammocks often appear as lush green islands of gumbo limbo trees, cocoplum, mahogany and royal palms surrounded by the shallow freshwaters of the sawgrass prairie. The coastal boundaries of the Everglades are characterized by saltwater habitats of red mangroves and turtle grass that support an abundance of tropical fish and birds.
Visiting Shark Valley
The closest entry to the park is 35 miles due west of Miami and about a 45-minute drive. Here, you’ll find the Shark Valley Visitor Center and park entrance. A fee of $10 per vehicle will gain you admittance and is good for seven days at all entrances, so hold onto your receipt. Activities at Shark Valley are based around a 15-mile paved loop through the Shark River Slough. The loop is closed to private vehicles, but you can explore by foot, by bicycle or by a tram tour guided by a park ranger or naturalist.
The two-hour tram tours depart every hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. mid-December through April. While the park is open 365 days a year, the summer wet season results in shorter hours and limited activities. The tram is a great way to see the whole of Shark Valley while learning all about the plants, animals and history of the Everglades from an expert guide. If you’re up for a more active adventure, then bicycling the loop is a great option. Rentals are available at the park until 3 p.m. You’re also free to bring your own wheels. This self-guided tour will give you the freedom to stop and explore points of interest at your leisure. At the midway point of the loop, you’ll find a 65-foot observation tower to scale where you can take in unobstructed views of the lush vegetation sprawling before you.
If you arrive to the park later in the afternoon or if you’d rather explore by foot, there’s a couple of walking trails accessible in a one-mile roundtrip from the parking lot. Don’t be surprised if you spot an alligator resting at the side of the trail, but don’t get too close either. Amble along the east road of the loop towards the Bobcat Boardwalk. Here, a raised wooden walkway winds through a bayhead tree island atop the sawgrass slough. The boardwalk connects the east and west sides of the loop, so when you emerge continue your journey along the west road towards the Otter Cave Hammock Trail. Notice the endangered Everglades snail kite and the white heron swoop above you while a flock of ibis scurry at foot. About a half-mile up the loop, you’ll reach Otter Cave, a limestone trail through a dense tropical hardwood hammock. Once you’ve completed the trail, make your way back towards the visitor’s center. As the park’s closing hours approach, notice South Florida’s wide-open sky changing colors above the lush, green background and take lots of pictures.
Another fun way to get up close and personal with the Everglades is on an airboat ride. On your drive back to Miami from Shark Valley, you’ll notice a number of airboat concessioners on Highway 41. Head to Coopertown, the Everglades’ original airboat outfit. These flat-bottomed vessels propelled by an enormous fan skim across the sawgrass prairies of the Shark River Slough where you’ll spy alligators, turtles and tropical birds. Once back onshore, learn more about Everglades snakes, turtles, and alligators in their exotic animal exhibit. You can even hold a baby alligator.
If you’re a true outdoorsman and you’d like to spend more than a day in the park, then camping, hiking and canoeing options are plenty. For these activities, head to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and entrance where the park’s headquarters are located. Roughly 50 miles southwest of South Beach and a little over an hour drive various hiking trails are found within the park’s gates. You’ll also find the Long Pine Key campgrounds, which accommodate both tents and RVs. If you plan to camp, you must have your own gear. The park does not provide equipment.
Travel south to the Florida Bay where the Flamingo Visitor’s Center and Campgrounds are found. In this saltwater habitat, boating opportunities abound where fuel docks and a boat ramp are located. While Long Pine Key and Flamingo are the only two front country campgrounds, there is a wealth of primitive backcountry campsites throughout the park that require a camping permit. At Flamingo, rent canoes or kayaks (or bring your own) and explore some of the inland lakes and rivers or venture along the coast of Florida Bay where you may spot manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles in the mangrove marshes.
If you crave an afternoon in the great outdoors surrounded by Florida’s natural beauty, then an outing to the Everglades is a must during your stay in Miami. Tailor your trip to your interests whether it’s adventure, athletics or education. All it takes is a leisurely walk down a trail before you spot an alligator sunbathing by the water, a pink roseate spoonbill gliding overhead and tropical foliage entangled in a hardwood hammock surrounded by the sawgrass prairie. The Everglades are a national treasure and a point of pride in South Florida for all to explore.
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