Most people have heard of the Florida Everglades, but not everyone understands exactly what they are, and even fewer adventurers have ever been hiking, paddling, or camping there. The term Everglade refers to a swampy grassland, seasonally or permanently covered by slowly moving water. The best-known examples are found near the tip of Southern Florida, where Everglades National Park protects the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S.
Totaling 2,358 square miles, Everglades is the tenth-largest national park in the country, and the third-largest in the Lower 48. Averaging about 1 million visitors per year, the park’s busiest time is the winter dry season, between November and April, when the average daily high is 77°. Most visitors take a driving tour on the main park road, stopping at overlooks and walking short interpretive trails. Of course, this is while keeping their eyes peeled for the abundant wildlife like great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and alligators. Animals in Everglades NP are abundant. Many of them are unique to this subtropical wetland ecosystem biome.
More adventurous visitors “get back in there,” exploring lesser-visited areas, hiking longer trails, kayaking in the Everglades, and camping at park campgrounds or in the wilderness backcountry.
The first step to planning your trip is to figure out where to go and what to do. There are multiple park entrances and visitor centers and driving between them can take up to several hours. When many people hear about the park, they often think about Everglades airboat tours, but these trips are offered by private operators based outside the park. Below we run through a few of the main regions to visit inside the park. With so many things to do at the Everglades, you’ll have endless opportunities for wild adventures!
Southern Everglades and Main Park Road
From the park’s eastern entrance near Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, the 38-mile Main Park Road winds 38 miles one-way through the heart of the Everglades to the Flamingo Visitor Center at the edge of Florida Bay. Along the way, visitors will have a chance to observe most of park’s major ecosystems. Make sure to pick up a park map upon entry, which will show you the precise locations for the various ecosystems, trailheads, and viewpoints discussed below.
Freshwater sloughs and freshwater marl prairies are two abundant types of wetland ecosystems that channel the main flows of water throughout the inland parts of the park. One way to experience these wetlands up close is to walk the Anhinga Trail, a popular 0.8-mile boardwalk loop through a sawgrass marsh. Located at Royal Palm, this trail is also a great place to spot wildlife, including alligators, turtles, egrets and more.
Further along the Main Park Road, another excellent wetland stop is the short walk out to the Pahayokee Overlook, an upraised platform offering views of the Shark River Slough, also known as the “River of Grass.”
Rising from these wetlands are many “tree islands” called hardwood hammocks—dense stands of broadleaf trees like oak, maple, and mahogany that grow on slightly elevated rises. While you can observe these tree islands from afar at the wetland stops mentioned above, there are also some trails that take you inside the dense, jungle-like hammocks. Starting near Royal Palm, the Gumbo Limbo Trail is less than 0.5-mile round trip. Another option off the Main Park Road is the Mahogany Hammock Trail, a 0.5-mile boardwalk loop that leads to the largest living mahogany tree in the U.S.
Another inland ecosystem is the pinelands. These forests of slash pine typically grow in pockets on slightly elevated and exposed limestone surfaces, commonly encountered along the Main Park Road during the first ten miles west of the Ernest F. Cole Visitor Center. One popular short trail to explore these pine forests on foot is the 0.5-mile Pineland Trail. For a longer adventure, check out the Long Pine Key Trail, which can be hiked or biked for 7 miles one-way from Long Pine Key Campground to Pine Glades Lake.
Another inland ecosystem worth seeing are the cypress forests, stands of deciduous conifers often rising up from standing water. In the park, distinctive cypress trees can most commonly be seen along a 10-mile section of the Main Park Road starting a few miles before Pahayokee Overlook and ending a few miles after the turnoff to Mahogany Hammock.
Near the Flamingo Visitor Center, there are three additional ecosystems to explore, including mangrove forests that line the coastal channels, plus coastal estuaries, and the marine environment of Florida Bay. One option to explore the mangroves is the 0.5-mile boardwalk on the West Lake Trail. While there are several other coastal trails in the area, most are currently not being maintained due to concerns about endangered species habitat. To learn more about current conditions, inquire at the visitor center.
Another way to explore these coastal ecosystems is by boat. Currently, park concessionaires offer two boat tours out of Flamingo. One heads upstream into the estuarine waters of the backcountry, while the other heads out into Florida Bay. Experienced paddlers can alternatively venture out in kayaks and canoes, which can be rented or brought into the park. While there are some beginner water trails, keep in mind that paddling around Florida Bay can be quite challenging, given the need to navigate around shifting sand bars, through maze-like channels, and across vast stretches of open water.
Camping in Everglades National Park
There are several types of camping at Everglades National Park, including a pair of afront-country campground variety of wilderness campsites. Both developed front-country campgrounds are found along the Main Park Road, and each offers bathroom facilities with flush toilets and free hot showers.
Located about 6 miles from the Edward F. Coe Visitor Center, the Long Pine Key Campground is open seasonally from November through April. The campground has over 100 sites suitable for tents and RVs. Most sites can be reserved online while some are available first come, first served.
Located at the end of the Main Park Road near Florida Bay, Flamingo Campground is open year-round. The campground has about 275 sites, though some sites are closed during the summer wet season, typically from mid-May into November. During this part of the year, daytime highs hover in the low-90s and the park sees the bulk of its annual 60 inches of precipitation, often in the form of afternoon thunderstorms.
Wilderness camping opportunities at the park include elevated ground sites, sandy beach sites, and elevated camping platforms, also called chickees. Most of these backcountry sites are accessible by boat, though some sites can be reached by hikers. Reservations are required for all wilderness campsites, and the peak season runs from mid-November through late April.
Northern Everglades: Gulf Coast & Shark Valley
Much of the northwestern side of the Everglades falls along the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands. This maze of waterways and mangrove islands extends along a 40-mile stretch of almost entirely undeveloped coastline. The only way to explore the islands is on the water. Visitors can either join an NPS-concessionaire boat tour, or they can rent or bring their own kayaks and canoes to explore several different water trails like Halfway Creek, Turner River, or the northern end of the Wilderness Waterway.
Bordering the northern boundary of the national park is the Big Cypress National Preserve. This 1,125-square-mile region of freshwater wetlands became the first national preserve in the National Park System in 1972. Today, there are many opportunities for driving tours, wildlife viewing, hiking, and camping.
In the northeast corner of the park, the Shark Valley Visitor Center offers several ways to explore the wetlands of Shark River Slough, also called the “River of Grass.” The highlight here is the 15-mile loop road, part paved and part gravel, which is accessible to visitors by tram tour, walking, and bicycling.
The loop is a great place for spotting some of the famous animals in Everglades National Park. To aid your wildlife viewing, there are several short hiking trails along the way, including the 0.5-mile Bobcat Boardwalk and 0.25-mile Otter Cave Hammock Trail. At the southern end of the loop road, walking to the top of the Shark Valley Observation Tower offers panoramic views of the heart of the Everglades.
If you’re looking for a true wild adventure, whether it’s seeing the wildly diverse animals in Everglades NP, camping, kayaking, or enjoying the many other things to do in the Everglades of Florida, you will no doubt leave with a whole new appreciation for this extraordinary ecosystem!
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