Everglades National Park
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 four to five feet of very slowlymoving 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 some 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 tenth 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 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. It is at the end of the main park road and is 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 west coast of the state 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 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 plant and 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. The rangers will brief you on what is available where you are and answer your questions.