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Beauty and beasts
Why is it that we are excited by fear? Many of us get a strange thrill from scary things such as rollercoaster rides, haunted houses and horror movies.
Everglades National Park is like a zoo without barriers. Anything could be lurking around the next corner. Or, it could be right next to you hiding in the tall grass.
This wonderful park will satisfy both your lust for beauty and your thirst for fear.
In whole, the Everglades is a strange contradiction. She houses fear inducing creatures like alligators and snakes. Yet, she also contains birds and turtles that exemplify grace and tranquility.
All of this is contained in a surreal and exotic ecosystem that is unlike anything else on the planet. Simply put, Everglades National Park is beautiful and scary.
VISITING EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK: WHAT TO KNOW
River of grass (River of deceit)
Many people are under the impression that the Everglades is a vast swamp. It is actually a slow-moving river of grass.
Tale of the tape
The Everglades is America’s 10th largest national parkwith over 1.5 million acres. It is located in southern Florida and has 3 entrance areas.
The river of grass is 100 miles long and 60 miles wide.
Freshwater ecosystem (Don’t be salty)
Although deep in southern Florida, the Everglades is primarily a freshwater ecosystem.
In the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico edges of the park, freshwater and saltwater mingle with one another.
Everglades seasons (Season to taste)
Forget what you know about our traditional four seasons.
The Everglades has two seasons:
- Wet: May through Nov
- Dry: Dec through Apr
The dry season tends to have fewer mosquitoes and more wildlife. Yes, please!
Operating hours and seasons (Open door policy)
The park is open daily, rain or shine. This includes holidays.
Note that visitor center hours can vary based on staffing levels.
Fees and passes
The park entrance fee is $30 per car. The pass is good for 7 days, starting at date of purchase.
Entrances / Areas
Each park entrance is a gateway to something different. This is not a case where if you have seen one area, you have seen them all.
Each area is unique and worth your time.
Important things to note:
- 4 main park areas
- 3 entrances
- Must use each entrance to see all areas (not everything is connected by roads within the park)
Let’s talk more about the different sections of the park.
ROYAL PALM AND PINE ISLAND (EAST)
Top things to do in Royal Palm and Pine Island
- Hike/walk trails
- Observe wildlife
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (Ernest goes to camp)
You can enter the east side of the park in the Homestead area. Near the entrance you will find Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center.
I recommend this as your first stop. There are great educational exhibits, restrooms and a bookstore. The store carries books, souvenirs, and even insect repellent.
If you are visiting during wet season, you will likely need the repellent! Unless you enjoy smacking yourself and watching welts multiply on your skin…
During our visit, there were a couple park rangers here. They were extremely helpful. The rangers answered our questions and provided suggestions for us to maximize our time.
The road taken
The road from this entrance leads you through areas called Royal Palm, Pine Island and Flamingo. The road is about 38 miles from one end to the other. Spoiler alert, it is worth the drive!
This part of the park offers some great walking trails where there is ample opportunity to observe wildlife.
Let’s dig a bit deeper to see what adventures you will find on this road.
Royal Palm Visitor Center (Royal family)
About 4 miles from Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center you will find the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Parking and restroom facilities are available.
This is a must see spot! You may as well be visiting the royal family. There is a lot of wildlife here.
There are two trails just behind the visitor center:
- Anhinga Trail
- Gumbo Limbo Trail
Anhinga Trail (Bazinga!)
The Anhinga Trail is the main attraction. The path is .8 mile round trip and takes you through a sawgrass marsh area.
This is our favorite area of the park.
You will experience extremes of nature: beauty and grace vs fear inducing creatures.
Gators and snakes close to the path may make your heart stop beating for a minute. But, you cannot deny that they are magnificent.
The ecosystem and its inhabitants are so beautiful. I could not help but to stare in admiration as I took in the scene.
Here are some of the highlights we observed:
- A snake, coming out of nowhere, slithered across our path. Bazinga!
- Gators basking in the warm sun right next to the path. Bazinga!
- Turtles stealthily swimming underneath the cover of lily pads in the crystal clear water.
- Fish floating beneath the water’s surface barely moving their fins, undetected by other creatures.
- The fascinating Anhinga diving under water. After an eternity, she bursts through the surface with a fish in her beak. Guess those fins moved a bit too much…
- A white ibis standing quietly for long minutes with a stretched neck and intense staring eyes.
- Various birds peacefully gliding across the marsh with no effort at all.
- A bluish bird with long yellow legs steals the show. He uses his beak to pull lily pads closer so he can literally walk on water across the marsh. Everyone in the area was mesmerized and taking picture after picture of this little guy.
Gumbo Limbo Trail (Do the limbo)
The Gumbo Limbo Trail is the second path found at Royal Palm Visitor Center.
It is .4 mile round trip and takes you through a junglelike hammock of trees. It feels more like a forest and provides opportunity to observe birds and plant life.
It is a nice path but paled in comparison to the wonders of the Anhinga Trail.
Pinelands Trail (Haunted Trail)
About 7 miles from Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, you will find another trail to hike. Pinelands Trail is a .4 mi round trip path through pines, palmettos and wildflowers.
This felt like a haunted trail through Jurassic Park. There is lots of vegetation and it is very reminiscent of scenes from the dinosaur movie.
We heard occasional rustling sounds near the path which repeatedly startled us. That is why I let Julie lead the way…
Pahayokee Trail (Play hooky)
About 13 miles along the main road, Pahayokee Overlook is a short .16 mi round trip boardwalk and observation platform over the river of grass.
We saw a few birds but nothing like the previous sections. I suspect that normally more birds hang out here.
Considering the walk is so short, it is worthwhile to check it out. If nothing else, you will have a view from above on the observation platform.
Mahogany Hammock Trail (Not my kind of hammock)
Mahogany Hammock Trail is a .5 mile round trip boardwalk through a dense junglelike hardwood hammock.
When I hear the word hammock, I think about lounging comfortably in a fabric stretched between two posts. Unfortunately, these hammocks are dense low-lying trees. Not nearly as comfortable as your traditional hammock…
Still, the nature is beautiful and worth visiting. This trail is about 20 miles from Ernest F. Coe. You will see and hear a variety of birds here.
Some say that the parking lot, due to its remoteness, is a good location to spot the space station. We did not have any luck with this endeavor.
Top things to do in Flamingo
- Boat tours
- Bike rentals
- Canoe/kayak rentals
- View Florida Bay
- Observe wildlife
If you look at a map, you will see that Flamingo is on the southern tip of Florida. You will not find a highway near this part of the park. So, how do you get there?
No, you do not need a magic key to gain access. However, you will need to enter the park by the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center on the east side and make the 38 mile drive. It is well worth your time to do so.
Flamingo Visitor Center (Think pink)
Flamingo Visitor Center is your welcome station in the south. You will find restroom facilities here and a store with a variety of goods.
There is a food truck that offers tasty grub as well. This is a great spot to enjoy a bite and a splendid view of Florida Bay.
Manatees (Tee time)
Manatee sighting are common here. They like the confluence of saltwater and freshwater.
After it rains, manatees often swim into this area. You can see them surface for air, do belly rolls and tail flips.
I had only seen them in the zoo before this. To see manatees in the wild was an absolute thrill.
We were not alone in our excitement. Everybody gasped in delight every time a sea cow surfaced.
Crocodiles (That’s a croc!)
Alligators are common throughout most areas of the park. Crocodiles are harder to find. They are often spotted in Flamingo.
Alligators vs Crocodiles
How do you tell the difference?
- Dark green or black
- U-shaped snouts
- Tiny black spots near jaw
- Prefer freshwater
- May not see teeth when mouth is closed
- Pale green or light gray
- V-shaped snouts
- More aggressive
- Prefer saltwater
- Toothy grin even with mouth closed
Another unexpected treat in Flamingo is an osprey nestnear the visitor center. The raptor made its presence known by squawking every now and then.
I guess we all want to be heard from time to time…
SHARK VALLEY (NORTH)
Top things to do in Shark Valley (For the north!)
- Guided tram tours
- Bike rentals
- Airboat tours
- Observation tower
- Walk/hike trails
- Observe wildlife
Shark Valley Visitor Center (Sharks in the water?)
You can enter the north side of the park straight across from Miami via U.S. Highway 41.
This area has been dubbed Shark Valley. Ironically, there are no sharks. Gators are in abundance though.
Shark Valley Visitor Center is the northern welcome station. It has educational displays, information and brochures. Here you will find restrooms, a gift shop and helpful staff members to answer your questions.
Tram tours and bike rentals
The tram tour is a good way to experience the park. It is essentially a 2 hour guided tour on the 15 mile loop along the river of grass.
The current cost is $28 for adults, $22 for seniors (age 62+) and $15 for children (ages 3-12).
A bike rental gives you the opportunity for a self-guided tour. The cost is $22 per bike.
We decided to strike out on our own and walk. We walked the first couple miles of the main road and the two hiking paths in Shark Valley.
This area was a teeming smorgasbord of wildlife. Just covering two miles on foot from Shark Valley Visitor Center, we saw plenty.
Here are some of the highlights we observed:
- Gar swimming in the clear water.
- Gators tanning along the path.
- Various birds perched in trees along the marshland.
- Birds gliding through the air in search of a snack.
- Turtles sunning along the riverbank.
- Baby gators sitting on top of their mother peering at curious tourists.
- A snake slithering across our path ahead.
I’m sure the remaining 13 miles offer many wildlife viewing opportunities. However, if your time or money is limited, you can still see a lot of wildlife close to the visitor center.
The downside to this is that you will miss the observation tower. This is a great chance to rest and enjoy the view from above.
Bobcat Boardwalk Tail is a .5 mile boardwalk through sawgrass and forest. This is an easy walk that gives you a good feel for the ecosystem diversity of the Everglades.
Airboat tours (Turn on the fan)
Shark Valley is known for airboat tours. There are currently three approved vendors:
These are all located between Miami and Shark Valley along U.S. Highway 41.
Check their websites for rates and hours. Plan to make reservations ahead of time to secure your spot(s).
We went with Everglades Safari Park. This was such a great experience. It is a thrill to glide across the river of grass and to be amongst the wildlife. We saw plenty of birds and gators.
The ride was fun but very loud. Thankfully, ear plugs are provided. What? Did you say something?
I do recommend taking an airboat ride at least once in your life. It feels very different from your typical motorboat. It is a lot of fun and you will see wildlife.
GULF COAST/EVERGLADES CITY (WEST)
Top things to do in Everglades City
- Boat tours
- Canoe/kayak rentals
Gulf Coast Visitor Center (Coast guard)
In the Everglades City area there is a temporary visitor station called the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. Unfortunately, the original facility was destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Irma.
You can obtain brochures and information here. They have a few educational displays. Restroom facilities are in a trailer near the visitor center.
Ten Thousand Islands
In full disclosure, we did not get the opportunity to visit this section of the park.
The main attraction here is the Ten Thousand Islands. It is basically a maze of mangrove islands and waterways only accessible by boat. You can find information about boat tours and canoe/kayak rentals here.
We hope to go back in the future to kayak. I understand navigating the maze can be tricky. To me, this sounds like an enjoyable challenge.
There is something so peaceful about kayaking across quiet waters. Of course, there could be something lurking beneath the surface…
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
Where to start
- Watch our video to see the park up close and for more travel tips.
- Check the Everglades National Park website for information and current updates.
- If you plan to take an airboat tour, be sure to make reservations ahead of time.
- Pack sunscreen and insect repellent.
Where to stay
Consider staying in the Homestead area. This is a great location to visit the eastern, southern and northern sections of the park.
With that said, you may want to consider staying just a bit outside of Homestead. Check rates to compare.
We found Florida City to be more affordable. We stayed at Tru by Hilton. The room was clean. Breakfast was provided. The service was great.
This hotel is about 20 minutes from Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and about 1 hour from Shark Valley Visitor Center.
If you plan to spend all your time in the Everglades City area, you may want to stay on the west coast to have a shorter drive.
Everglades National Park truly is beautiful and scary. The ecosystem is gorgeous. Although some of its inhabitants are scary, they are beautiful.
Experiencing this national park is exhilarating. Between the gators, snakes and airboat tour, your heart will race. I guess we do like to be scared. I can’t wait to go back!
If you have travel suggestions for the Everglades, please share them in the comment section.
Check out our other national park guides:
- How to Visit Grand Canyon in Winter: What to Know
- Saguaro National Park: How to Visit This Hidden Gem
- How to Spend One Day in Petrified Forest National Park
- White Sands National Park: What You Need to Know
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park: What You Need to Know
- Visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park: What You Need to Know
About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.