Get Back to Nature in the Everglades

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. | Photos by Jeff Orenstein

By Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein

Florida’s Everglades, often referred to as “the glades” or the “river of grass,” run 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 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 State Park.

Started in 1934, Everglades National Park is the 10th-largest U.S. national park. Unlike most, 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 there, as well as the Royal Palm and Flamingo areas.

The Flamingo Visitor Center is the southernmost visitor center in Everglades National Park. It is at the end of the main park road and accessible from the Main Park (Homestead) entrance. It is about an hour’s drive from the park entrance.

Closer to Greater Miami is the Shark Valley Visitor Center off U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail that runs down the state’s west coast 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.

Once you get to a park entrance, your first stop should be at the visitor center 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 plant and wildlife, 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, as well.

Before You Go, Check Out:

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, 1-75 crosses the state north of the park and U.S. 41 runs along its northern border.

When You Are There for a Short Trip

  • Consult the resources at one of the 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.
Wood storks feed in a pond along a nature trail in the park. Tropical and subtropical birds are found in great numbers in the Everglades.

If You Only Have Two or Three Days:

Must-sees for a short stay are:

  • An airboat or tour boat excursion.
  • Hiking 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.

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.
  • A deep-sea or near shore fishing charter.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for the Everglades

Dress for the sub-tropical 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 ultra-chic 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 can be brutally hot and sticky.
  • 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.
  • Special Travel Interests: Sub-tropical flora and fauna, photography.

The Florida Everglades Jewish Angle

The first known Jews in Florida moved to Pensacola, far from the Everglades, in 1763, though some converted Jews may have been in St. Augustine with Ponce de Leon two centuries earlier.

A few more Jews followed to the northern part of the state over the next few decades, numbering only about a dozen. By 1821, 30 to 40 Jews lived in north Florida.

By 1960, the Jewish population grew to about 175,000, mostly in Southeast Florida and St. Petersburg.

The Florida Everglades and Everglades National Park are not any religion, of course. However, since the park is predominantly in South Florida, it is surrounded by Jewish communities on both coasts.

On the west coast, the Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island metropolitan area is about 0.75 percent Jewish, though the concentration in Naples and environs is somewhat higher. Greater Naples has five Jewish places of worship, including one on Marco Island.

On Florida’s eastern coast, there is a huge Jewish community with a count of well over half a million, about 13 percent of the population, one of the single largest concentrations of Jews outside of Israel.

Miami-Dade County, adjacent to the national park, has about 113,000 Jews. Broward and Palm Beach counties, respectively, adjacent counties to the north, have even larger Jewish communities, including a large group of retired Jews who relocated from the U.S. and Canada. A dense network of Jewish houses of worship and community institutions, museums and centers accompanies this dense population, of course.

In addition to a large contingent of retirees who have resettled in South Florida from the Northern U.S. and Canada, the South Florida population is fairly diverse. Miami-Dade has about 9,000 Jewish émigrés from Central and South America, and there are significant communities of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, and Jews can be found living there from many places worldwide.

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


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