The Everglades National Park is around 10 miles west of Florida City and is a stone's throw from Miami International Airport and the city itself. The national park covers 1.4 million acres, but if you think that is large, consider this – it is just one fifth of the whole area of the Everglades!
The Everglades is a unique area of vegetation and wetlands which once supported the tribes of the Tequesta and Calusa Native Americans. It is a slow-moving freshwater river formed from the overspill of Lake Okeechobee and is 40-70 miles wide, taking up much of the southernmost point of Florida.
The wetlands are covered in sawgrass, giving rise to the name "River of Grass". Occasionally the flatness is broken by clumps of trees which grow on "hammocks" of raised ground. Crammed onto these small islands are live oaks, wild coffee bushes, poisonwood and saw palmettos. These provide shelter and habitat for many species of birds, snakes, reptiles, frogs and mammals such as opposums, racoons, black bears and bobcats as well as the critically endangered Florida panthers.
Mangroves thrive in the warm shallow waters close to the coast and their roots harbor fish and crabs which are all part of the food chain. Common birds include herons, egrets, gulls, hawks and terns as well as the more exotic roseate spoonbills and bald eagles.
Things to Do at the Everglades National Park
Visitors can drive along the two-lane Highway 41 known as the Tamiami Trail from Miami to Naples to experience the vast Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a sunny day, hundreds of steely-gray alligators line the banks of the canals. Overhead, belted kingfishers, blue herons, anhingas and other birds can be seen perched on power lines or in low trees that border the 108 mile-long road.
The route passes several Indian reservations where airboat trips can be taken across the sea of grass to nearby hammocks to see a real Indian village. These exhilarating rides are the best way to get out and appreciate the vastness of the Everglades National Park and see some of the wildlife that resides in this untouched area of nature.
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is a good place to stop midway along the Tamiami Trail. It offers a two-story observation tower and a 15 mile trail into the national park. Walking, cycling and kayaking are popular activities from here.
The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is at the entrance to the Everglades National Park near Homestead. Collect maps and information and watch a film presentation before venturing into the park itself. The Main Park Road meanders down past hammocks, lakes and campgrounds with frequent signs to boardwalks and hiking trails along the way. The best way to enjoy this trip is by enrolling on one of the free ranger-guided walks to see some of the highlights of the amazing Everglades National Park.
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is on SR 29, close to Everglades City on the west coast of Florida. It has a museum exhibit and various video displays. From here canoeists have access to the 99-mile long Wilderness Waterway, a canoe trail that ends at the Flamingo Visitor Center near Miami Beach.
Eventually the Everglades reach Florida Bay which extends as far as the Florida Keys. Here the saltwater supports coral, sponges and marine life and is best explored by boat.
I find this laminated spotter's guide invaluable for identifying birds and animals in the Everglades area, especially if you have children. You can buy it from Amazon by clicking on the text below.
Florida Wildlife: An Introduction to Familiar Species (State Nature Guides)
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