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Everglades National Park – how to get there and what to see there – full guide
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Everglades National Park – how to get there and what to see there – full guide 

Everglades National Park is the largest national park in Florida, located at the southern tip of the state and the Florida Peninsula and southwest of Miami. Everglades Park is famous for its swamps full of wildlife and birds, and for the fact that alligators live here freely. It is worth remembering that the Everglades is protected by UNESCO and is one of the most famous natural attractions in Florida.

Park description

The Everglades are also called the Grass Quiet Rivers and you can actually navigate them by boat, canoe, or even boat. Most of the park is made up of mangrove trees, which we’ve still seen in Cambodia at Tonle Sap Lake and on the Raleigh Peninsula in Thailand. But the scale in Florida is certainly more impressive!

What surprised me was that there are Elliot’s pines growing among the swamps! They are thin, of course, but pines – in a subtropical climate! And there used to be a lot more of them all over southeast Florida. But then the climate changed here, and the pines remained mostly only in Everglades Park.

In the 19th century, there were many more pines in south Florida than there are today.

Also in the Everglades we first saw a very interesting grass, with sharp teeth like a shark! It’s called sword-grass!

When should I go to the Everglades?

Although it always seems to be warm in Florida, there are a few limitations to visiting the Everglades Park.

  • During the summer (May through October), the park has a low tourist season because of the weather: it’s very hot and humid, and there are clouds of mosquitoes flying around. During the daytime there are usually thunderstorms. But the marshes are green and very beautiful.
  • But in winter the high season begins, as it gets drier and nicer. Mosquitoes and other gnats are practically gone. But the scenery, unfortunately, is no longer as picturesque, the grass is turning yellow and the water is dwindling. But it’s easier to see alligators and birds hiding in the swamps. And winter is the best season to visit the Everglades!
  • In the fall, Florida’s coastline is plagued by hurricanes. So it’s a matter of luck.

As you can see, each season has its pros and cons. But everyone has his own peculiarities: some people can’t stand the heat, some people can’t stand the humidity, and some people can’t stand the dryness.

Tickets

The cost to visit Everglades National Park:

  • by car – $35;
  • by motorcycle: $30;
  • hiker or biker: $20.

Keep in mind that an Everglades Park ticket is valid for 7 days from the date of purchase.

Also available for purchase:

  • Everglades Park annual pass – $70
  • All U.S. parks annual pass – $80

You can buy a ticket at the park entrance. It’s completely free to enter before 8 a.m. We didn’t have to purchase a ticket because we had our annual pass to all national parks, which we bought six months ago when entering Sequoia Park on the US West Coast.

How to get to the Everglades

Getting to the Everglades is very easy:

  • First, you have to fly into one of Miami’s airports (Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale (Hollywood) International Airport or Palm Beach International Airport or Fort Myers Township Airport on the Gulf Coast.
  • Then rent a car and drive to Homestead. There are good hotels in Homestead that are close to the Everglades, since the only lodge in the park itself was destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. We picked ourselves a very nice hotel for a reasonable price, with breakfast, a spacious room, and a pool – the Garden Inn
  • From Miami, drive south on Route One and then turn off at Homestead onto the only Everglades Parkway – 9336.

Recommendation: It’s better to book a car in advance (it’s cheaper), and all offers from rental agencies can be compared on the Rentalcars.com website.

Rent a car in Miami – our experience and tips on how to rent a car at Miami airport

Tip. There is also a free shuttle (Park Trolley) that runs from November to April from Homestead to the Everglades on weekends. You can also use it to go to Biscayne National Park or Homestead Bayfront Park Beach. You can leave your car in the free parking lot next to the Park and Ride sign on Washington Avenue and drive to the park. Shuttles run about every hour.

Entrances and Visitor Centers in the Everglades:

  • To the east, if driving from Homestead on Route 9336, is the main park entrance and the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Here you can pick up a map and get all the latest information about the park. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through November and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. December through April.
  • Another Royal Palm Visitor Center is part of the park of the same name and is located 4 miles from the entrance to the Everglades. This is where the legendary Anhinga Trail begins. There are also ranger programs held here several times a day. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through November and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. December through April.
  • Flamingo Visitor Center is located 38 miles from the entrance at the southern end of the park. This is the place to come to rent boats and canoes for the swamp walks. It is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (November through April).
  • Shark Valley Visitor Center is located north of the park on Highway 41. Here you can take a streetcar that will take you around the park’s attractions for two hours, or you can rent a bike to ride on your own. The hours of operation are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is located right in the city of Everglades City on the Gulf Coast, just west of Everglades Park. Here you can get backcounty permits as well as boat and canoe rentals. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April through November. 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. November through April.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center

We drove by the Shark Valley Visitor Center late at night when it was already closed. So we didn’t get a chance to see what’s interesting about the northern part of the park, where, by the way, Big Cypress National Preserve is still located.

And early in the morning, we visited the main Ernest Coe Visitor Center and then drove to the Royal Palm Visitor Center to finally see the alligators!

Hotels and campgrounds in the Everglades

Where to stay in the Everglades National Park

Garden Inn

As I said before, there is no set up lodging in Everglades NP at this time. So in case you want to watch sunrises and sunsets, it would be best to stay overnight as close to Everglades Park as possible. We recommend choosing one of the hotels in Homestead or Florida City while exploring this park. They are conveniently located just a few miles from the Everglades National Park. You can also stay overnight in Miami or Everglades City.

We spent the night for only $60 at the wonderful Garden Inn. And right after a hearty breakfast, which starts at 6 a.m., we went to see the park.

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Capmings

There are only two campgrounds in the Everglades National Park that you can drive to – Long Pine Key Campground (open October 1 through April 30, $20 a night) and the year-round Flamingo Campground ($20 to $30 a night, online reservations available). There are also quite a few campsites in wilderness areas, which are mostly relevant to park visitors who come here with their own boat.

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What to see in the Everglades

We arrived in the Everglades early in the morning and planned to do two trails here in its near side. And we also knew ahead of time that a part of the park called Flamingo had been destroyed by hurricanes, so we weren’t going to go to its far side in 2018. But in 2019, we stopped by Everglades Park again on our way back from the Florida Keys to Miami to see the restored Flamingo area and take a walk through Shark Valley.

Flamingo is the part of Everglades Park most affected by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The Flamingo Visitor Center in 2019 was still fenced off and never operated, and the administrative buildings were closed.

After stopping by the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, we found that it was still closed. Good thing they gave us a map at the entrance. So if you have tours and canoeing trips planned, it’s best to arrive by the time the center opens to check out all the current events in the park and check with the rangers for information on trails. We then stopped by it again (on the way back) for a park visit stamp, but there was nothing special about it. Everything is pretty familiar, as we’ve seen more than once at other parks, like Great Smoky Mountains.

Florida panther statue in front of statue at visitor center at Everglades National Park.

Here comes another Florida resident – a cougar! We noticed that “Look out for animals!” road signs in the southern part of the state have a cougar silhouette instead of our usual moose or cows

Trails

If you want to know what you can basically do in the park, here’s a list of trails you can walk on your own.

Trails at the Shark Valley Visitor Center:

  • Shark Valley Loop Road 15 miles. The trail is a road to a lookout tower with a panoramic view of the entire area.
  • Bobcat Boardwalk 0.4 miles. (30 minutes) A wooden boardwalk with railings through fields of swordgrass.
  • Otter Cave Trail 0.5 miles. (20 minutes) The start of the trail is on the west side of the road to Shark Valley Tower and leads to the cliffs.

The Shark Valley entrance is on US-41 between Miami and Maples, near the Big Cypress Nature Preserve.

Alligator skull on the left and crocodile skull on the right

The American crocodile has a narrower snout, sharp teeth, and is lighter in color than the alligator. Alligators live mostly in the Everglades.

For walks in this part of the park, it’s worth renting a bike or signing up for a streetcar tour. Bike rentals are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Price is $9 for 1 hour.

A ride in the carriage train will cost $25

Familiarize yourself with the amount of fines for park violations and never disturb the locals.

Trails at the Royal Palm Visitor Center:

  • Anhinga Trail 0.8 miles, (1 hour). A classic trail in the Everglades that winds along the decks of Taylor Swamp. You can see alligators, turtles, herons, and other animals here.
  • Gumbo-Limbo Trail 0.5 miles, (30 minutes). This trail takes you to a very different world: a forest of green palms, mosses, orchids, and gumbo-limbo trees (Burzer family).

Trails in the Pineland area along Route 9336:

  • Long Pine Key Trail 28 miles, (4-5 days). This is a whole network of trails through pine forests, where 200 other plant species grow besides them!
  • Pineland Trail 0.4 miles, (30 minutes). And this is the short version of a walk through Florida pine forests
  • Pa-Hay-Okee Trail 0.2 miles, (15 minutes). It’s a walk along a boardwalk to a lookout tower where you can admire the “sea of grass.”
  • Mahogany Hammock Trail 0.2 miles, (15 minutes). Trail through a jungle-like forest where the largest mahogany tree in the U.S. grows.

Trails near the Flamingo Visitor Center:


(need to clarify which are destroyed by the hurricane and which are not)

  • West Lake Trail 0.4 miles, (30 minutes). A walk through the mangrove forest near the lake.
  • Rowdy Bend Trail 5.2 miles, (3-4 hours). Trail through the downy bend forest (one of the mangrove species). A good spot for bird watching.
  • Snake Bight Trail 3.2 miles, (2.5 hours). The trail runs parallel to the canal where alligators and birds live, and ends at Florida Bay. Warning: there are lots of mosquitoes!
  • Christian Point Trail 3.6 miles, (2-3 hours). The trail winds through a forest of downy trees and ends at the Gulf, too.
  • Coastal Prairie Trail 15 miles, (1-2 days). This is an old road leading into the bay that was formerly used by fishermen.

Tours

  • If you want to take a boat tour, you should go straight to the Flamingo or Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
  • By the way, from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center you can also take a trip to the Gulf of Florida, a place called the Thousand Islands.
  • Streetcar tours are to Shark Valley. Learn more – https://www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/
  • And we had, as I said, only two trails planned. But on the way we came across another little trail into the pine forest and decided to go there too.

Pinelands Walking Trail

The start of the Pineland Walking Trail is right on Highway 9336, 7 miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. There’s a convenient large parking lot and an informational billboard about the trail. The most important thing to know:

  • it’s a circular trail only 400 yards long;
  • there is no elevation gain;
  • it can take about half an hour to complete.

I was generally surprised that pine trees suddenly grow in the subtropical nature of Florida. They are not, of course, as powerful as those in the parks of California. And we did not see the usual mountains that are characteristic of pine forests, so we did not have to pant, climbing to the next height, as we did, for example, in Yosemite Park.

But the pine trees are also skinny, but as they are supposed to grow on the karst rocks. But it’s a so-called nature hike that introduces the flora of this section of the Everglades Park.

Tip. There are trees with acid-green foliage and black-yellow bark growing along the trail. You shouldn’t touch them, as they are poisonous.

Pa-Hay-Okee Trail Information:

  • A circular trail on a 0.2-mile boardwalk;
  • no elevation gain;
  • 15-minute hiking time.

Parking for the Pa-Hay-Okee Trail is 21 miles from the Visitor Center. The strange-sounding word Paheyoki translates to “sea of grass” in Native American, which you can actually see as you walk along the bridges over the swamp.

We immediately saw this sea of grass and understood what was meant. Indeed, the place looks as if it is an ordinary sea, but it is not the ground but water under your feet.

And the grass itself is not ordinary at all! It is a sword-grass, very sharp!

There is a gazebo in the middle of the trail where you can take a shelter in the shade and sit. We watched the birds there, which are constantly flying over the sea of grass. And there are cypress trees growing around the trail.

Anhinga Trail


Anhinga Trail information:

  • A circular trail on a 0.8-mile boardwalk;
  • no elevation gain;
  • 1 hour trail time.

This is the very first trail in Everglades Park and begins at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, 4 miles from the park entrance.

The paved portion of the trail is the old road from Homestead to Flamingo. From it branches off the wooden bridges that lead over Taylor Swamp. This place is a true refuge for the animals, as there is water all year round. That’s why it’s so easy to come across an alligator. Which is what happened to us as soon as we started our walk.

We were still walking along the main trail and suddenly we saw the behemoth swimming in the creek. And there was a heron standing right next to it! Alligator didn’t pay any attention to it – it was going about its business. Heron was not afraid either: she stood on her thin legs, and continued to think about something (see video):

We arrived in the Everglades in late spring, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see the birds arrive and nest. But all of them – herons, white herons, roseate spoonbills – breed here in the summer.

As we strolled along the decks, we saw more small birds on the tree branches and lizards fanning their gobies. Too bad we didn’t see turtles among the large lilies. There are a lot of fish swimming around and according to the information there are even raccoons, but we had no luck with them again.

Then we reached the islands where the alligators hang out. And there we saw a couple of sloths that were just sleeping peacefully. We got cheeky and approached them almost closely to take a picture and they didn’t even wake up.

But in general we have to be careful with alligators. Modern descendants of the dinosaurs are quite nimble and quick. Park workers recommend staying at least 4 meters away from alligators.

Flamingo

In 2019, before our trip to Mexico, we traveled through Florida again and stopped by Everglades Park. We really wanted to see its far-flung area called Flamingo, which was finally opened after the devastation of Hurricane Irma.

The road to Flamingo goes through wetlands. Various birds can be found along the road and above it.

Our review of a trip to the Everglades National Park

Was it worth it to get out of the Miami beach area? Absolutely! I was most excited about the wildlife in the Everglades. We just pulled in and there were birds flying around! I was worried we wouldn’t see anyone and everyone came out to greet us. So if you pick the areas most undamaged by the hurricanes, around the Royal Palm Visitor Center, you could well say that the introduction to the Florida Everglades has taken place.

Of course, my regret is that we drove very late in the dark past the part of the park where you can go boating (Shark Valley) and everything was closed there, and then we were out of the way. And there’s also the Big Cypress Preserve, which is also interesting to look at and compare the local southern cypress trees to the cypress trees in California that we saw while riding the 17-mile drive. Here’s another reason to come to Florida again. And it’s all just outside Miami!

Of course, I’m very pleased that we safely saw as many as five alligators! And not in some zoo, but in their natural habitat. I was reminded of the Northern swamps, where there are lingonberries and no crocodiles. But here in Florida, it’s very different: there are pine trees, cypress trees, grass as sharp as alligator teeth, lots of birds, and these swamps occupy a huge space. Some swamps people drain and build towns with wildly expensive real estate there, people move there from the northern states and live in the warmth. And in the fall, there are hurricanes, destroying everything, and the swamps are still standing. Florida is an amazing place, after all!

To sum it up, visiting Everglades National Park provides the best opportunity to touch wildlife and enjoy beautiful views almost alone in such a beautiful place! It would be a great addition to a beach vacation in Miami and one to remember for a long time!

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