How to Visit Everglades National Park

The Everglades are an incredibly magical place and provide one of the most unique outdoor experiences in the country. It’s not surprising that they make the top rankings in several renowned classifications across the globe. Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, the third largest national park in the contiguous US, on the list of Wetlands of International Importance, a Global Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site. Most impressively, the Everglades are the main source of drinking water for residents of Miami! Needless to say, they’re absolutely worth a visit, particularly if you’re already making a trip to Miami, a 1-2 hour drive away (depending on that glorious city traffic).

Everglades National Park is quite large and we spent 5 days camping in and around the park. That being said, if you don’t have the luxury of time and you’re looking to squeeze in the best highlights over a shorter period, you could spend two days exploring the Everglades to get a full sense of the two most popular regions: Flamingo and Shark Valley.

Where to Stay

Homestead is the nearest town outside the park and is ideally located in between Flamingo and Shark Valley. There are several hotel and campground lodging options to choose between, depending on your travel style.

We camped at Miami Everglades RV Resort and absolutely loved it. The property was well manicured and had almost every amenity that I could think of. From the basics like laundry and showers, to luxuries like a large pool, heated hot tub, mini golf, beach volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard, and a paved pike path that circled the perimeter of the campground.

We also camped out at the Flamingo Campground in the park for three nights and loved our experience there too! There were only a handful of other campers in March, so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Even if the grounds had been fully booked, the sites are well spaced out so you will have plenty of room to spread out. The benefit to staying here is that you’re located a mile from the Flamingo Marina where most of the activities in the area are based, and we really appreciated not having to travel far to be in the action.

Visiting Shark Valley

Fan Boat Tour

We kicked off our Everglades visit with some high-octane adventure on the fan boat tour. While touristy, the tour felt like a rite of passage. There are many different tour companies that operate along Route 41. We went with the Everglades Safari Adventure Park because it seemed to be the most popular (and we obviously like to be original…). There was quite the wait to find a parking spot in the lot because of how busy they were at the time. Luckily, we hadn’t had breakfast yet, so we whipped up some grub and hung out in the van while we waited for a parking spot to open up. Had we been in a normal car we probably would have just driven to the next closest tour company because they were plentiful. That being said, the safari adventure park was incredibly well run and there were a number of other exciting activities on the property that made our wait well worth it. They do an alligator show right after the boat tour where a ranger jumps into a cage to feed alligators, and there’s an elevated boardwalk trail around the property where you can talk to park rangers and learn more about some of the differences between alligators and crocodiles. We absolutely loved the whole experience and had no regrets waiting a bit longer for the tour than we’d anticipated. Be sure to let them know if you have an America the Beautiful pass so you can get a discount upon arrival!

Shark Valley Observation Tower

The observation tower is one of the main highlights of the Shark Valley region in the Everglades and it is the highest point throughout the entire park. It’s located 7.5 miles from the visitor’s center, and you can either walk or bike the 15-mile round trip or take the tram up to the lookout point. There are no visitor vehicles permitted beyond the visitor’s center and unfortunately, we didn’t arrive until all of the tram tickets had sold out for the day, so we weren’t able to visit the observation tower. We were a bit bummed but can’t wait to check it out on our next visit!

Walking Trails from Shark Valley Visitor Center

There are two official walking trails that we explored from the visitor’s center, but the best part of our walk turned out to be the 1 mile stretch from the Boardwalk Trail to the Otter Trail. This connection is part of the paved path that leads to the observation tower (referenced above) and it parallels a waterway with more wildlife than we’ve ever seen in one concentrated area. Both adult and baby alligators sit right next to the walkway in multiples, while large heron and anhinga (notable birds in the park) sit on the trees above.

There was so much action taking place along the waterway that we heard constant splashes and movement and kept turning our heads to see what was happening! Speaking of alligators, this is a good time to mention that as long as you keep to yourself and don’t bother them, the alligators will mind their own business. I was much more confident seeing an alligator out in the wild after leaving the Everglades than I’d been when I arrived, and the park rangers constantly reinforced how rare an alligator attack is. Of course, don’t provoke them and always be aware of your surroundings, but they seemed to be very comfortable with human onlookers throughout our entire visit.

Drive along Route 41

I thought I had seen a lot of alligators along the walk to Otter trail until we drove further along route 41 and WOW!!! We took this road past Shark Valley on our way to Naples and it turned out to be my favorite (and completely unplanned) part of the whole trip. Even from the driver’s seat, I could see hundreds of alligators sitting on the other side of a waterway that paralleled the road, which divides Everglades National Park from Big Cypress National Preserve. In addition to the alligators there were tons of turtles, fish, and large birds swarming around this waterway right next to the road. I was so excited to see all the wildlife that we pulled over at one point and walked along the road to get a better view.

 

Visiting Flamingo

Walk the Anhinga Trail

The Anhinga Trail is the most popular hike in the park, and after walking the trail ourselves, we completely understood why. The boardwalk hovers over water covered in lily pads with wildlife visible in the water from above and it feels like a scene out of a movie. We saw a number of alligators, both in the water and along the side of the trail, addition to anhinga birds swimming, which serendipitously are who the trail is named for. The Gum Drop trail is another short path that takes off from the same trail head in a different direction and provides a completely different landscape to explore. We had a blast doing both trails and enjoyed the tranquility and variety that each provided. If you absolutely had to pick one activity in the park – this should be it!

Flamingo Marina

From the Marina, you can go kayaking between the mangroves in the park or out in the ocean, take an organized boat tour, or just hang out in the marina and watch the wildlife. As of Spring 2021, there was a huge osprey nest that sits right above the kayak rentals, resident alligators and crocodiles that sat right near the kayak launch point, and adorable manatees that congregated in the marina every morning (and sometimes in the afternoon). If you’re lucky, you’ll get to experience all three while you’re in the marina as well!

Depending on how much time you have and what your preferences are, your experience here could vary, but I would recommend renting a kayak and taking it inland toward Coot Bay. We greatly enjoyed this activity, particularly because we had the freedom to go as quickly or as slowly as we wanted while appreciating the alligators and crocs in their natural habitat. I also took my paddle board out into the ocean one day and headed toward Snake Bight, and had the time of my life. The only downside, was trying to fight the current to get back to the marina after having been leisurely carried along the coast. Be sure to pay attention to the currents and don’t make the same mistake I did of traveling too far from my base and then having to work ten times harder to get home!

 

Pa-Hay-Okee Lookout Tower

This is a quick and easy trail that’s definitely worth a stop along your drive from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Marina. There is a short elevated boardwalk through grass and cypress, which leads to an observation tower.

Robert Is Here

It’s rare that an establishment outside of and unaffiliated with a park makes such an impression on me, but the farm and marketplace Robert Is Here did just that! The market is located a quick ten minutes from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and is well worth a stop for fresh produce, one of the best smoothies I’ve ever had, and a tour around the fully loaded farm with every animal represented. I think they’re preparing for a Noah’s Ark situation and they sure looked ready for it!

 

* One thing I wish I’d known before visiting Everglades National Park is how intense the bugs were going to be along some of the trails. I absolutely love a good hike, so when I saw the trails map with several different paths outlined near the Flamingo Campground I was stoked. I first set out to conquer the Bear Lake trail and biked to the head from our campground, and then set out on foot toward the lake. The trail parallels still water (as many in Everglades do), and I made it less than 0.25 miles before deciding to turn around and head back. For the record, I’ve never quit a hike once I’ve started it, until this point. The bugs were that bad. I was squeezing between dense brush, around spider webs and could feel the mosquitos attacking me the entire time. After that, I decided to skip some of the other primitive walking trails I had planned to take and concluded that the park was best experienced on the water or along the established boardwalk trails. That being said, had I been more prepared with pants, long sleeves and lots of bug spray, I might have had a different experience. So, be sure to come prepared if you do plan to tackle some of the hiking trails within the park!

In Conclusion

Like I said up top, Everglades National Park provides an incredible and unique experience no matter how you spin it. If you find yourself in south Florida then make sure you add a few extra days to explore this beautiful wildlife filled park and you won’t regret it!

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