Traveler’s Checklist: Everglades National Park

A ranger-guided tour pauses behind the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Can you spot the ranger? Can you spot three alligators? NPS photo by Rodney Cammauf.

Everglades National Park in south Florida is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States and the largest tract of federally protected wilderness east of the Rockies. The park’s extensive freshwater and saltwater systems, open sawgrass prairies, hardwood hammocks, mangrove shorelines, pinelands, and related areas support a rich variety of wildlife, including alligators, wading birds by the many thousands, and some species found nowhere else.

People who visit Everglades National Park for the first time tend to have little knowledge of it, but lots of misconceptions. Most are pleasantly surprised to discover that the park isn’t just a “big swamp full of ‘gators and snakes.” However, many also conclude that Everglades is “scenically challenged.” You don’t encounter awesome peaks, gorgeous waterfalls, or other dramatic scenery like you find in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or Hawaii Volcanoes. Everglades has a more understated appeal. Much of what you see is very interesting, even compelling, but it‘s not likely to make you stop in your tracks and say “Wow!” (Some will disagree with that last statement, of course. You’ll just have to go see for yourself.)

** A word to the wise about weather. This park has two distinct seasons – a hot and wet season that extends from May to November, and a warm and dry season that runs from December through April. Since the dry season offers pleasant weather, that’s when most visitors come and when services like ranger programs and guided tours are most abundantly available. People who visit during the wet season are less likely to encounter crowds, but more likely to encounter rain, bothersome insects, and fewer, less conveniently scheduled services.

** Remember to bring your sunscreen and insect spray (don't mess around, deet's the word).

** A windshield touring caveat is in order, too. Visitors who prefer to tour national parks in their private vehicles, taking in the scenery from loop drives, spur roads, and turnouts, are not going to find this park very amenable. Since nearly 90% of the park consists of federally protected designated wilderness, visitors are permitted to operate motorized vehicles only on the main park road extending from the eastern entrance 38 miles southward to Flamingo. You have to return the way you came. A second windshield touring option is the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), which skirts the northern edge of the park and offers a view into the true Everglades “river of grass.”

** Yes, you can bring your bicycle. The choices are limited, but worthwhile. Bicycling is permitted along the main park roads, on the Shark Valley tram road, and on the Old Ingraham Highway (the original road to Flamingo, now closed to motor vehicles). Bicyclists are also welcome on several of the park’s trails, including Long Pine Key Nature Trail and the Snake Bight and Rowdy Bend Trails at Flamingo. Riding the Shark Valley Tram Road is especially popular, and bikes can be rented at the tram office.

Be aware that the tram road is a 15-mile round trip and takes an average of 2 to 3 hours, depending on physical stamina and personal interests. Tired cyclists can turn around and return on the same road, but there are no short cuts. This road can be busy, so pay attention to vehicles coming up behind you. Remember that the parking lot closes at 6:00 p.m.

** Take a hike. The park’s 19 trails are located in four general areas – Royal Palm, Lone Pine Key, Flamingo, and Shark Valley. (There are no foot trails at Gulf Coast.) No pets are permitted on any of the park’s trails.

Two fine trails begin at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. The Anhinga Trail is a short and easy (wheelchair accessible) self-guiding trail that winds through a sawgrass marsh. It is very popular because it is exceptionally easy to get to and affords wonderful views of the sawgrass and an assortment of interesting wildlife. Visitors can expect to see alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons, egrets, and many other birds (especially during the winter). The Gumbo-Limbo Trail is a self-guiding paved trail that meanders through a shady, jungle-like hammock of gumbo limbo trees, royal palms, ferns, and air plants.

There are 28 miles of connecting trails winding through the forest (pines, palmettos, and wildflowers) at the Lone Pine Key Campground. They include the Long Pine Key Nature Trail (7 miles), the Pineland Trail (0.5 miles), the Pahayokee Overlook (0.25 miles), and the Mahogany Hammock Trail (0.5 miles).

At Flamingo, hikers can choose among the West Lake Trail (0.5- mile boardwalk), the cleverly-named Snake Bight Trail (3.2 miles through hardwood hammock), the Rowdy Bend Trail (2.6 miles along an old overgrown roadbed), the Christian Point Trail (1.8 miles), the Bear Lake Trail (1.6 miles), the Eco Pond (0.5-mile stroll around a delightful freshwater pond), the Guy Bradley Trail (1-mile scenic shortcut between the campground amphitheater and the visitor center), the Bayshore Loop (2-mile meander along Florida Bay), or the Coastal Prairie Trail (7.5-mile hike along an old road once used by wild cotton pickers and fishermen).

There are three trails at Shark Valley. The Bobcat Boardwalk begins behind the Visitor Center and meanders through the sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests. The Otter Cave Hammock Trail is a rough limestone path that begins on the Tram Road a half-mile from the Visitor Center and traverses a lush tropical hardwood forest. (It is often flooded during the summer.) Though used primarily for tram rides and bicycling, the 15-mile long Tram Road is also used for hiking.

** Go camping, but consult the calendar first.

Frontcountry campers have two drive-in options – the Lone Key Campground, which is located six miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, and the Flamingo Campground, which is located near the Flamingo Visitor Center on the Florida Bay shore. Both campgrounds accommodate RVs as well as tents, and you’d better make a reservation if you want to be sure of a campsite at Flamingo.

The park also offers an abundance of backcountry options, including numerous wilderness trails and around 47 designated wilderness campsites. Wilderness permits are required for all overnight camping (except in auto campgrounds or when sleeping aboard boats), and they are issued no more than 24 hours in advance. Permit writing desks may not be staffed in summer
.

Time your camping trip wisely, especially if you are a tent camper or backpacker. Nearly all backcountry camping takes place in the cooler months. Most backcountry campers avoid the park in the summer months because of the frequent thunderstorms and bothersome insects.

** This is a wildlife park, and although people may disagree about the best places and ways to see the park’s alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons, egrets, and other interesting fauna, all agree that opportunities abound. Alligators, wading birds, and other freshwater wildlife are readily seen at Shark Valley, the Anhinga Trail (at Royal Palm), and Eco Pond (one mile past the Flamingo Visitor Center). Canoeists can observe large numbers of wading birds feeding before low tide in the shallows and mud flats of Snake Bight (near Flamingo) and Chokoloskee Bay (Gulf Coast). Another good place for canoeists is Nine Mile Pond and the adjacent borrow pits (11 miles up the road from Flamingo). Motorists, bicyclists, hikers, boaters, and paddlers are likely to see plenty of charismatic creatures near the roads, trails, and waterways.

** Take a ranger-guided tour. They’re available at four locations in the park – Shark Valley, Gulf Coast
Visitor Center, Royal Palm Visitor Center, and Flamingo Visitor Center. Be sure to obtain an updated schedule of the ranger guided programs, which are offered in the dry season at Flamingo and throughout the year at the other three locations.

** If you enjoy wildlife watching trips that are packaged, motorized, and comfortable, take a tram tour at Shark Valley or one of the boat tours out of the Flamingo Marina or the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

The concessionaire-operated tram tours available at the Shark Valley Visitor Center are very popular with visitors, especially those who are pressed for time or unable to walk the loop trails. The two-hour narrated tours follow a 15-mile Tram Road (no private vehicles allowed) that extends into the Shark Valley Slough. At the halfway point on the tram road loop there is a 65-foot observation tower offering panoramic views into the “river of grass.” Shark Valley is an especially good place for viewing alligators and wading birds.

Narrated boat tours are available at two locations in the park. Tours of the Ten Thousand Islands mangrove coastline and related saltwater ecosystem are available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, and tours of the mangrove coastline and the Florida Bay estuary originate at the Flamingo Marina.

** Since about one-third of Everglades National Park is water covered, there are excellent opportunities for boating and paddling. There are boat ramps at Flamingo, West Lake, and Little Blackwater Sound on Key Largo. Flamingo Marina, which is open year-round, can accommodate boats with electric and water hookups. (The channel will accept a four-foot maximum draft.) Boat fuel is available.

Know the rules. Boating in Everglades National Park is strictly regulated to ensure safety and protect park resources. In designated no-wake areas – created to reduce erosion and protect wildlife -- boaters cannot exceed 5 miles per hour or create a wake. To minimize the threats to manatees, crocodiles, and nesting birds, personal watercraft (PWCs) may not be operated in the park, and vessels are prohibited from towing persons utilizing water skis, hydra slides, knee boards or similar types of equipment. Extreme caution must be exercised in shallow areas to avoid damaging seagrass beds and other park resources.

Watch out for manatees. Boaters are cautioned to be especially careful not to disturb or collide with manatees in the park waters. West Indian manatee populations have declined alarmingly, and the species is now federally protected. One of the species’ main problems is boat collisions that injure or kill manatees.

** This park is a paradise for paddlers. There are 53 designated canoe routes, including the Wilderness Waterway. Paddlers should obtain get a copy of Molloy’s A Paddler's Guide To Everglades National Park. Canoes are available for rent from concessionaires at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center (accessing Chokoloskee Bay and the Turner River) and at Flamingo. Both locations provide access to the Wilderness Waterway and shallow estuaries.

The park’s canoe trails vary in length and difficulty. Canoeists putting in at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center can take the Sandfly Island trip (2.5 hrs.), the Turner River trip (5 hrs.), or the Halfway Creek and Turner River Loop (4 hrs.). Those putting in at Flamingo can tool around Florida Bay (shallow estuaries) or paddle Nine Mile Pond Loop (5.2 miles of interconnected waterways through a shallow sawgrass marsh with scattered islands of mangroves), the Noble Hammock Trail (a two-mile loop through a maze of shady mangrove-lined creeks and small ponds), the Hells Bay Trail ("hell to get into and hell to get out of”), Bear Lake Canal (a narrow, tree-covered historic canal), Mud Lake Loop, or West Lake Trail (good alligator and crocodile habitat).

** Try something very different. The Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile inland water route extending along the mangrove shoreline between the Flamingo and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers. Numbered markers wind through mangrove forests, through Whitewater Bay, and around countless mangrove islands. Boats equipped with outboard motors can make the trip in one day, but canoeists usually take about nine. Campsites are available along the route, including open-sided huts (chickees) perched on stilts in places with no dry land. Backcountry permits (available at the Gulf Coast and Flamingo Visitor Centers) are required for overnight stays.

Since summer insect conditions can be nearly intolerable, deterring all but the most hardy individuals, this should be considered a winter recreational choice. There are many narrow channels and a lot of overhanging vegetation along the Wilderness Waterway, so boaters should not use vessels that are more than 18 feet long or have high cabins or windshields. Nautical charts are useful for planning and a vital tool for navigation in the coastal zone.

** Bring your fishing gear. Snapper, sea trout, redfish, bass, and bluegill are plentiful. Saltwater fishing includes Florida Bay, Ten Thousand Islands, and elsewhere in the park's coastal zone. Freshwater and saltwater fishing require separate Florida fishing licenses. Fishing from the shore is very limited, but park waters provide thousands of acres of shallow water flats, channels, and mangrove keys in which to fish.

Obey the rules. A Florida freshwater fishing license is required to fish in freshwater (or to possess fresh water species). All waters from (and including) Nine Mile Pond northward along the Main Park Road are considered freshwater. Fishing is not permitted in the lakes at the Ernest F. Coe (Main) Visitor Center, the Royal Palm Visitor Center area and trails, Chekika Lake, along the first 3 miles of the Main Park Road (including Taylor Slough), or along the Shark Valley Tram Road.

Remember the bait restrictions. Since the introduction of nonnative species poses huge problems for the park, fishermen should be careful to obey the rules established for bait use. There is a strict ban on the use of live or dead fish (including minnows and shiners), live or dead amphibians, and non-preserved fish eggs (roe). Digging for bait is not permitted inside the park.

Mercury is a problem. The flesh of Everglades bass and some fish species in northern Florida Bay contains high levels of mercury. A “do not eat’ rule applies to all bass caught north of the Main Park Road. A “once a week” rule applies to bass caught south of the Main Park Road. Children and pregnant women should not eat any bass caught in the park. “Once a week” (adults) and “once per month” (women of child-bearing age and children) rules apply to certain salt water species caught in northern Florida Bay, including: spotted sea trout, gafftopsail, catfish, bluefish, jack crevalle, and ladyfish.

RESOURCES

The Everglades National Park website provides detailed information. For a park map and other relevant maps, visit this site.

FRIENDS ORGANIZATION

The Everglades Foundation is the park's main partner. Funds raised by the Foundation are "used for scientific research, advancing understanding of the Greater Everglades ecosystem and to provide grants to our conservation partners. In addition to grants, the Foundation supports necessary legal actions to help protect the Everglades."