A Visit to Everglades National Park

Wood storks feed in a pond along a nature trail in the park. Tropical and sub-tropical birds are found in great numbers in the everglades. Photos by Jeff Orenstein

By Jeff and Ginny Orenstein

Note: Everglades National Park is open with “modifications in place for COVID-19.” Some concession-operated tours and services have modifications in place for public health. Check nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm for the latest updates.

Florida’s Everglades, often referred to as the glades or the river of grass, runs about 400 miles, from the Orlando area to Florida Bay, on the state’s southern tip. It is a unique ecosystem combining huge wetlands, sawgrass marshes, freshwater sloughs, mangrove swamps, pine rocklands and hardwood hammocks (forests).

Once covering a huge swath of the state, the glades averaged about a depth of 4 to 5 feet of slowly moving water, although there were/are many dry areas naturally occurring within it. Today, vast swaths of it have been drained, dammed and replaced by massive commercial agriculture (mostly sugar) and residential development.

Fortunately, more than a million-and-a-half acres are preserved in Everglades National Park and even more are preserved at adjacent state and national preserves such as the Big Cypress National Preserve or Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve.

Started in 1934, Everglades National Park is the 10th-largest U.S. national park. Unlike most of them, its three entrances are not connected and are located in different areas of southern Florida. Since no public transportation links them, access by car is the only practical way to see it all.

On the east coast, the main entrance is found at Homestead, between Miami and the Florida Keys, near Florida City along U.S. 1. The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is located at this entrance, as well as the Royal Palm and Flamingo areas.

The Flamingo Visitor Center is the southernmost visitor center in Everglades National Park, located about an hour’s drive from the park entrance in Homestead.

Closer to greater Miami is the Shark Valley Visitor Center off U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail that runs down the west coast of the state from Tampa and across to Miami. It is about 25 miles west of Miami and 70 miles east of Naples.

From Florida’s west coast, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City is 36 miles east of Naples.

A pelican sits on a piling while a kayak glides by near the visitor center at the Gulf Coast entrance to the park off U.S. 41 at Everglades City.

Once you enter a park entrance, your first stop should be at the visitor center for an opportunity to talk to a ranger, get a map and absorb some idea of what lies around you.
Each center offers a variety of activities and ample opportunities to camp or just observe some interesting plants and wildlife or hike, canoe, kayak, ride on a tour boat and take in the ambiance of this tropical wilderness.

Yes, you should see alligators and/or crocodiles, turtles, exotic birds and other wildlife. Your chances of seeing a Florida black bear, an invasive species like a python or a reclusive panther are remote but not impossible.

Before You Go:
Be sure to bring sunscreen (at least SPF-30) and insect repellent.

Understand that you are visiting a wilderness environment that is hot, sticky, filled with insects and home to many wild and potentially dangerous critters. If you use common sense, stick to designated areas and obey posted warnings you should be fine.

Getting There:
The vicinity of the Everglades can be easily reached by highway, air or train. From there, you need to be on an escorted tour or rent a car.

The closest two major airports are Miami International Airport (MIA) on the east coast and Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) at Fort Myers on the west coast. Both offer frequent connections and rental cars.

By train, Miami is the nearest Amtrak station. It has daily service from New York and points south. Commuter train service is also available from West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

By car, Interstate 75 crosses the state north of the park and U.S. 41 runs along its northern border.

When You Are There for a Short Trip:
Check out the resources at one of the major visitor centers and explore the surrounding region on foot or tour boat, following the advice of the ranger on duty.

Take one of the many marked and relatively tame nature walks in the national park or in adjacent state parks.

If You Only Have Two or Three Days:
Must-sees for a short stay:
Take an airboat or tour boat excursion.

Hike as many trails as practical at different times of day to see as much wildlife as possible.
If kayaking or canoeing interests you, explore some of the marked waterways near the visitor centers.

The sign along a trail at the Fakahatchee Strand State Park adjacent to the national park sums up the amphibious critter danger well.

If You Have Several Days, Enjoy:
A trip to the Dry Tortugas, near Key West, where you can bird watch, camp on the beach and snorkel the surrounding waters filled with sea life and pristine coral reefs. Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., lies at the end of U.S. 1.

Some beach time on the east or west coast or the Keys.Shopping and nightlife in Miami or Naples.

The resort ambiance of Marco Island or Captiva/Sanibel islands.

A deep-sea or near shore fishing charter.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way.
Dress for the subtropical wilderness environment and the season. Wear sturdy closed-toe hiking shoes and lightweight long sleeves and long pants to help protect you from biting insects. Leave the shorts and flimsy tops back at the resort. When visiting cities, dress varies from ultrachic at Miami Beach’s South Beach to resort casual at most places.

This Destination at a Glance:
Mobility level: Moderate. Walking is necessary to see many of the attractions, although some can be seen by tour boat.

When to Go: Winter is best since the weather is milder. Summers in the tropics are hot and sticky. Dry season lasts from November to March, and wet season lasts from April to November.

Where to Stay: On the west coast, Naples or Fort Myers offer a wide variety of lodging, ranging from primitive camping to ultra luxurious hotel palaces. On the east coast, the greater Miami area has a vast range of amenities.

Senior Advantage: Exploration at your own pace with amenities close by.

Special Travel Interests: Subtropical flora and fauna, photography. l

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here