When you think of the state of Florida, several vacation sites may come to mind - the crowded sandy beaches, Disney World and Orlando, and the nightlife scene of Miami are just a few popular spots. But if you venture away from the city lights, you can find a beautiful natural oasis. Venture to the southern tip of the state, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Everglades National Park. This unique region is protected by the National Park Service and has so much for visitors to explore. Take a journey with Ranger Mac to the southeastern tip of the country and see what the Everglades is all about!
What are the Everglades?
The Everglades is an area of protected wetlands located in Southern Florida that was established as a national park in 1947. The region includes over 1.5 million acres of biologically diverse land, as well as the resources that make up the ecosystem.
The Everglades is an eclectic mix of freshwater and coastal prairie. Home to mangroves, marshlands, pine and cypress woods, as well as the waters of the Florida coastal bay, the Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US. Not only is it a federally designated wilderness, but it’s also an international treasure. It contains an International Biosphere Reserve, is considered a Wetland of International Importance and a World Heritage Site, and is protected under the Cartagena Treaty.
This National Park houses and preserves habitats for many rare and endangered species. Some of these species are fascinating animals like the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther. If you want to learn more about the importance of conserving wetland areas such as the Everglades, check out Ranger Mac’s blog here.
When to Go
The Dry Season of the Everglades (from December to March) is when most ranger programs take place around the park and when most concessions are available. This time of year is also the best for catching glimpses of wading birds and other types of wildlife. If you choose to go during the Wet Season (from April to November), then you’ll experience hot, humid conditions and lots of insects. There are also fewer park services available to you during your visit at this time of year.
Where to Go
This park is vast in size, so make sure you choose a point of entry that’s close to what you want to experience in the park. Along the southeastern edge of the park, near the city of Homestead, you'll find the main road of the park. It runs east to west along the Florida Bay, starting at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and continuing 38 miles to the Flamingo Visitor Center. There are many self-guided and ranger-guided activities to do along the way, including hiking, biking, canoeing, and boat tours.
If you enter the park from the north, closer to Miami, you’ll find the Shark Valley Visitor Center. This center offers a naturalist-guided tram tour, as well as biking and hiking. Along the western edge of the park, close to Naples, you'll find the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. This location is the start of the 99-mile-long Wilderness Waterway Trail (for experienced boaters only). There are boat tours and boat rentals available here as well.
What to Do
Where you enter the 1.5 million acre park will help determine what you’ll experience and enjoy. You can take the 2-hour Shark Valley Tram tour and look for wildlife. If being active is more your thing, you can hike the 15 mile Shark Valley Tram Road Loop. Both of these options will take you to the Shark Valley Observation Tower, where you’ll be able to overlook the ‘river of grass’ from 65 feet above. You can also take a guided boat tour that starts at the Flamingo Marina or the Gulf Coast. You can catch this tour about 0.5 miles south of the Ranger station in Everglades City. There are plenty of boating, hiking, and camping opportunities throughout the park, so check in with the nearest visitor center for more info on the surrounding areas!
Where to Stay
There are hotels in Homestead, which is the closest place for you to rest outside of the park. If you want to stay inside the park, there are several great options to choose from:
- Long Pine Key Campground - This is located 6 miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and is open from November to May. It has a “first come, first served” policy, so be careful if this is your first choice during the busiest parts of the year.
- Flamingo Campground - Located on Flamingo Bay, this site is open year-round, but reservations are highly sought after during the months of December through April.
- Backcountry Camp - This area offers the option to camp on ground or beach sites or on ‘chickees’ (elevated platforms). Most of these sites are only accessible by water and require reservations and permits. You'll need to visit a ranger station to complete all of this 24 hours in advance.
With such a large area of preserved land and ecosystem, Everglades National Park is a vacation spot all in itself. With woods, beaches, waterways, and more, there’s sure to be something for everyone in your family to enjoy. Get down to the southern tip of Florida and see what this hidden treasure of a National Park has to offer!
Want to visit a national park, but can’t travel all the way to Florida? (Or maybe the wetlands sound too wet and humid!) Why don’t you try Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, instead?