The winter months bring the "dry season" to Everglades National Park, and that means more favorable conditions for hiking, boating and other outdoor activities. The park's winter schedule for guided ranger programs is underway, and it includes Slough Slogs, Croc Talks, Nike Missile Tours and a host of other great activities.
This is the prime visitor season at Everglades, and the staff is geared up for the winter with a fine slate of programs at the famed "River of Grass." The park is deservedly renowed for its wildlife, and the cooler weather means the cast of characters is changing a bit with the arrival of migratory birds.
Birds are the subject of daily morning walks at the park's Flamingo Visitor Center; the two-hour programs include an easy stroll along with some driving. That location also features other wildlife in half-hour talks on manatees and crocodiles, along with the possibility of seeing both of those creatures in person.
Water is a key to the life of the Everglades, and if you'd like to dip a paddle into that water and sample the area by canoe, the staff at Flamingo offers at least one guided trip each day. Canoes, paddles, and life vests are provided, so space is limited. Sign up at the Flamingo Visitor Center or call (239) 695-2945 to sign up. You'll find details about winter programs at Flamingo at this link.
Another location with a great Florida name is the Royal Palm area, served by the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. If you really want to get up close and personal with the Everglades, here's your chance: join a ranger for a two hour Slough Slog. Visitors who are willing to get a little wet can literally connect with the 'Glades as they experience water sloshing around their legs and shoes squishing into soft mud. Participants "wade through the river of grass into the shadows of a ‘gator hole’ or cypress dome," so the staff warns them to "expect to get wet and/or muddy." 'Sloggers' must be age 12 or older, and wear lace-up shoes, socks, and long pants. Stop by the Ernest Coe Visitor Center or call 305-242-7700 for reservations and information.
If you'd rather look for wildlife on firmer ground, the Royal Palm area features a daily Anhinga Amble. A ranger leads the 50-minute walk on the Anhinga Trail where alligators, wading birds and other wildlife are easily and frequently spotted. A shorter walk each afternoon is dubbed Gator Spy, and other Royal Palm area programs include bike hikes, starlight walks and evening programs. Check here for the complete list of Royal Palm area opportunities.
A departure from the natural world is offered to participants of the Nike Missile Tours. This activity provides a peek into the story of Cold War, international brinkmanship and military history. Constructed after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union perilously close to war, the site was one of four Nike Hercules missile bases in South Florida.
This particular site is physically the best overall example of the nation’s missile defense system close to Cuba, and remains virtually the same as when its official use was terminated in 1979.
Tours of the site have proven to be a popular activity at the park; you'll find additional details for the current season at this link.
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center serves as the gateway for exploring the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways that extends to Flamingo and Florida Bay, so this is a prime location for boating activities. Twice-daily boat tours, narrated by a naturalist, provide an introduction to the Ten Thousand Islands. Morning or afternoon guided canoe trips are offered five days a week, along with evening canoe trips on four dates. Land lubbers can enjoy daily nature walks and talks. You'll find details on programs at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center here.
The last hub of winter activity in the park is the Shark Valley Visitor Center, which is the starting point for several daily programs and easy hikes, including "Shark Byte" (no follow-up medical care needed), "Ranger Boots," and "Tree Island Ramble."
Bicyclists who are interested in a three-hour, 15-mile guided bike trip can take the "Cycling the Glades" tours on Sunday mornings; the same length trip is offered on selected evening dates through mid-April as "Full Moon Bike Tours" and "Riding with the Stars." Click here for details about these and other Shark Valley programs.
Finally, an alternative way to sample the Shark Valley area is via a two-hour open-air tram tour, operated by a park concessioner. The tours are narrated by a naturalist and run on the hour, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Whether you're a slough slogger who wants to feel the mud squish under your shoes or a tram tourer, this is a great time to experience the Everglades. The park website includes additional details to help you plan a visit.