The Everglades is well known as Florida’s subtropical wilderness, yet, other than the name and general location, it remains a mystery to most. It’s a complex puzzle with many odd-shaped parts, but its fragile simplicity fits precisely into one complete natural environment. For anyone interested in the Everglades, it is well worth the visit. It’s really one of Florida’s best-kept secrets.
Great Blue Heron
Our recommendation when it comes to understanding and becoming intimate with the Everglades begins with a visit to the Everglades National Park located southwest of Miami and Homestead.
There are actually nine distinct ecosystems that comprise the Everglades. From hardwood hammocks to coral reefs, the area supports the biodiversity of its habitats found nowhere else on the planet. The Everglades, often called the “Glades,” includes a vast area, once covering almost the entire southern Florida peninsula starting at the Kissimmee River, flowing into Lake Okeechobee and spreading out in a mosaic of habitats from coast to coast. In 1947, a wilderness portion of the system at the southern tip was set aside as Everglades National Park. Since then several adjacent conservation areas and new parks have been set aside and protected by the state as well.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Florida’s legendary conservationist and author, called it the “River of Grass” and redefined its reputation from “worthless” muddy lowland to a precious slow-moving body of water. Some think of it as an impenetrable swamp, a vast forest of cypress trees, and home to the Florida panther.
The Everglades offers prime fishing for anglers
Boaters, riding along the coastline, experience the salt-water mangroves that have formed thousands of islands indistinguishable from one another. And avid anglers who fish the Florida Bay where fresh water flows from the Everglades to meet the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, know the Glades as prime fishing grounds.
Anyone who has driven across the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75 has gotten a glimpse of its vastness. Those who have ventured along the original highway crossing the Everglades, U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail), have gotten a slightly more intimate brush with the Glades.
The Big Cypress Preserve
Consider these wonderful Everglades experiences: witnessing a wild Florida panther in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park, taking a walk in a botanical swamp at the Big Cypress Preserve, biking the Everglades Shark’s Valley Trail and air boating through wet saw grass prairies. Any of these experiences are sure to give you a deep appreciation of the area in and around the Everglades National Park.
Explore the Everglades along mangrove pathways
Prior to reaching the park entrance, consider stopping at the Coe Visitors Center. The engaging, interactive displays and maps will acquaint you with the park’s unique habitats and wildlife. You’ll quickly find that Everglades National Park is probably much more diverse and complex than you thought. There are so many ways to enjoy it. Depending on your goals, the amount of time you have and the time of year you visit, park officials guide your choices and are more than willing to explain and assist you.
Everglades Anhinga strikes the perfect pose
At the southernmost reach of the Florida peninsula is the outpost of Flamingo, a 40-minute drive through the park from the Coe Visitor Center. Founded in the late 1800’s by gator poachers, plume hunters and moonshiners, Flamingo has a colorful history and its “end of the road” feel will engage your curiosity. Migrating flamingoes were once a common sight here, but are rarely seen anymore. You’re more likely to spot pink roseate spoonbills these days, still a wondrous sight.
Flamingo offers a basic marina, restaurant, Visitors Center, convenience store, rentals (kayaks, canoes, bikes, etc) and a camping area. There’s no other lodging available in the area due to the effects of past hurricanes. Most of the park officials assigned to Flamingo spend a lot of time on the trails and in the backcountry and are excellent resources for your interests.
Flamingo boat tours
To get an overview of the surrounding area, consider signing up for a boat tour. Two choices are available: a two-hour inland Backcountry Bay tour up the Buttonwood Canal or a Florida Bay coastal tour. Tours depart throughout the day. The Backcountry Bay tour takes you through Coots Bay and up to Whitewater Bay, part of the Wilderness Waterway Trail that starts/ends in Everglades City. The coastal tour takes you into the Florida Bay with the last tour leaving before sunset.
The American Crocodile is easily spotted in Flamingo. Distinguished from the American Alligator by its lighter gray skin and a triangular-shaped, narrow snout crocs inhabit the brackish coastal waters of Flamingo, South Florida and the Florida Keys. The area is the only main crocodile habitat in North America. Its alligator cousin has darker skin and prefers inland fresh water. While African and Australian crocodiles can be menacing, the American Crocodile is considered timid and less aggressive than the alligator.
Watch the waters carefully and you may spot manatees in the small harbor off the marina and in easy reach of the dock.You’ll also see osprey nests near the Buttonwood dam. If you’re lucky, you may observe a nesting pair, one sitting in the nest and the other circling above … if you are uber lucky, you might catch a peek of chicks in the nest ready to be fed.
The easy walking Anhinga Trail is filled with wildlife
Royal Palm Hammock, adjacent to the Taylor Slough, derives its name from the native Florida palm and is located just south of the main park entrance. Three trails are accessible from the center (Anhinga, Gumbo Limbo and Old Ingraham Trails). The popular Anhinga Trail is an easy boardwalk that will lead to a freshwater marsh teeming with wildlife. There you may see nesting anhingas, cormorants, green herons, moorhens, wood storks, herons, turtles and alligators of all sizes.
West Lake mangrove boardwalk
Filled with brackish water, West Lake is the jumping off point for a kayak trail. Or, you might consider the ½-mile mangrove boardwalk with wild bromeliads leading to the lake.
During Florida’s dry season, when the birding is the most concentrated, the Mrazek Pond resembles an Everglades wildlife poster. You won’t miss it when you spot the birders and photographers congregated on the roadside. It’s not uncommon to spot roseate spoonbills, egrets, coots, gallinules, ducks, herons and ibis. If you don’t know your species, ask a birder, as most are delighted to share his/her knowledge.
The Eco Pond is located west of the Flamingo Marina. The ½ mile loop around the pond has a well-worn path with a nice elevated observation platform for bird watching. Look for black-necked stilts, wood storks, egrets, ducks, coots, various resident and migratory birds. Hawks, eagles and other birds of prey are often flying overhead and in the nearby fields. Butterflies are also seen in abundant numbers.
On a side note, mosquitoes can be present anytime of the year depending on weather and rainfall, but they’re less numerous in the cooler months. Whenever you visit, it is always a good idea to be prepared with repellant.
Unless you are planning to camp in Flamingo (tent or recreational vehicle camping), then you may want to plan your accommodations in Homestead or Florida City.
The Wilderness Waterway Trail
Explore the backwaters in a canoe
For the serious outdoor enthusiasts, the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway Trail from Everglades City Flamingo to is considered one of the last real adventures in Florida.
Don’t Miss “Robert is Here” in Homestead
Stop at Robert is Here for a milkshake
As you leave or enter the Everglades, stop off at the famous farm stand begun by Robert – no last name, just Robert. Usually present behind the counter, he specializes in tropical fruits (carambola, star fruit, mangoes), unique bottled marinades, sauces, salsas and jams, and watch the visitors line up for the legendary fruit milkshakes. Key Lime is the most popular.
A Word about the Everglades:
“The park was created in 1947 to save part of the Glades, but its future depends on a healthier, more naturally functioning ecosystem in the entire region, where burgeoning human population thirsts for the same water that wood storks need to survive. We must create a balance among the competing demands of urban, industrial, and agricultural development, with a restored Everglades as its centerpiece. Nothing is yet saved for good.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
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