Everglades National Park - A Trip Report

Everglades is by far the most recognized of the four National Parks in southern Florida – the Big Cypress National Preserve (around 730,000 acres), the Biscayne National Park on the West Coast just outside Miami (around 175,000 acres), the Dry Tortugas National Park seventy miles from Key West (seven remote islands with a combined area of over 64,000 acres), and the Everglades (over 1.5 million acres). The Big Cypress National Preserve which is to the north east of Everglades was established in 1974 and the preserve allows with permits a wider-range of activities such as hunting, off-road vehicle use, and oil drilling. Biscayne National Park protects a marine ecosystem consisting of mangrove shorelines, a shallow bay, undeveloped islands, living coral reefs and is an ideal water-based recreation spot - fishing, canoeing, camping at the Boca Chita and Elliott Keys (primitive), and boat tours.

More than its sheer enormity, it is the unique ecosystem of the Everglades National Park that commands attention. The entire park area never exceeds an elevation of eight feet above sea level accounting for the giant swamp that is Everglades. The Kissimmee River basin in central Florida is responsible for the origin of this marshy land – during the wet summer months, flooding in the river basin results in a built-up shallow lake with an average depth of just 12 feet, but covering an area of 730 square miles (Okeechobee). The overflow results in the wide shallow river (“River of Grass” – 50 miles in width, one to six inches deep and moving at the rate of just 100 feet per day) flowing southward to the Gulf of Mexico in a gentle slope. The wet season is followed by six months of dry season. This creates a distinctive ecosystem that the wildlife at the Everglades has adapted to and they are in fact dependent on this natural cycle. The river empties into the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico creating a mix of fresh and salt water in the coastal areas, an ideal setting for mangrove forests. This park created in 1947 with the primary aim of saving the Glades is the first National Park created to protect a threatened ecological system. Water controls, exploitation, and the invasion of foreign species in that order are the primary reasons for the precarious situation at the Everglades. Case in point – the water controls has resulted in a reduction in the number of wading birds nesting in the Everglades over 90% in the last 75 years. The situation can be extended to all the major species distinct to the Everglades.

There are four visitor centers but if time allows only for a day-trip, it is best to focus the trip around one of those visitor centers. The visitor centers are:
  1. Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center – Open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM (May thru November 9 AM to 5 PM), this center is the easiest to access from Miami – zip down Florida Turnpike south to the last exit and follow signs. Four miles past is the Royal Palm Visitor Center which is also open daily and provides certain ranger led activities. A couple of trails are also on offer at this site: the Anhinga Trail a 0.8 mile loop trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail a 0.4 mile loop.
  2. Flamingo Visitor Center – Open from late November till May 1st, this visitor center is located 38 miles south east of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and can be arrived at by following the Main Park Road from the Coe Visitor Center, a scenic route with a number of trails from the park areas scattered along. The trails include the Pinelands Trail a 0.4 mile loop through sub-tropical pine forest, Pa-hay-okee overlook a 0.2 mile boardwalk that leads to an observation deck with panoramic views, Mahogany Hammock Trail a 0.4 mile boardwalk that goes through a dense hardwood hammock and the Westlake Trail a 0.4 mile boardwalk through Mangrove forests – an eclectic collection, no doubt! The visitor center itself is modest with a few exhibits and they issue wilderness permits. There are campsites (reservations recommended – 800-365-CAMP), canoeing (suggested routes include the 5.5 mile Nine Mile Pond Trail and others) kayaking, and boat tour options. A convenience store and gas station are at hand. A lodge and a restaurant were in operation at this site until the hurricane of 2005.
  3. Gulf Coast Visitor Center – Open daily from 8AM to 4:30 PM (May thru November – 9AM to 4:30 PM), this visitor center is located 3 miles south of Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) on Highway 29 in Everglades City. Wilderness permits are available from the visitor center. Picnic areas, marinas, several boat launching facilities, boat tours into the mangrove estuary and Ten Thousand Islands are on offer (tickets at the lower level of the visitor center). Canoeing/kayaking into the Ten Thousand Islands is popular as it provides a great opportunity to observe the birds, dolphins, manatees, etc – rentals available at the lower level of the visitor center.
  4. Shark Valley Visitor Center – Open daily from 8:45 AM to 5:15 PM (December thru April 9:15 AM to 5:15 PM), this visitor center can be arrived at by following Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) 30 miles west of the Florida Turnpike exit for S.W 8th Street. There are three trails available from the visitor center – the Bobcat Boardwalk trail a 0.4 mile loop that passes through saw grass marsh and a bayhead, Otter Cave trail a 1-mile loop that goes through a tropical hardwood hammock, and the 15-mile tram trail which can be experienced either by a tram tour or by biking.
Our day-trip was focused around the Shark Valley Visitor Center as it seemed to offer the biggest bang. By 10 AM the parking lot at the visitor center was at capacity, and we were behind a line of cars waiting to get in. Since patience was never one of our virtues, we parked along the roadside and walked in. Waiting in line would also have worked equally well, for spaces do open up at a rapid pace. Entrance fee is $20 per vehicle or $10 per pedestrian – they inquired at the entrance whether our car was parked outside and charged $20 for the four of us.

Even from the entrance, it is evident that in this exotic place we humans are mere visitors as wild birds, alligators, turtles etc. silently but firmly claim the territory as theirs. Whether the timing of our visit made any difference we do not know but it was simply divine to feast our eyes in these many wild birds and animals, and that too in their environment – maybe this is the mystique of a safari! There was no holding back in either quantity or quality.

The two smaller trails are both good allowing one to appreciate the exclusive flora and fauna of the place. The “not-to-be-missed” attraction however at the site is the 15-mile trail. The options are either to bike on your own or to partake in a 2-hour ranger led tram tour. Should you opt for the tram tour, plan to purchase the tickets as early as possible, for though we reached the ticket counter by 10:15 AM, we had to settle for the 1 PM tour. The tram-tour tickets came to $56 for the four of us. The tour itself is just outstanding – alligators, turtles, birds of various feathers including the endangered wood stork, ibis, spoonbills, anhinga, owls, egrets, and butterflies in large volume all added to the variety. The park ranger was very knowledgeable with a very high energy level that all of us on the tour came back with a greater understanding of the Everglades and its distinctive ecosystem – the tree islands in the vast prairie called “tropical hardwood hammocks”, smaller shrubbery islands called the “bayheads” and the Borrow Pits (artificial ponds formed when stones to build the scenic road were dug-out) were all pointed out and explained in great detail. The observation tower at the mid-point of the loop (farthest point) provides for a nice leisurely walk up from which one can appreciate panoramic view of the prairies. Right underneath the observation tower, a big colony of giant alligators was basking in the sun. On a side-note, the park ranger said most of the dead fish (after the early January freeze in Florida that year) in the clear stream were exotic fish introduced by humans as opposed to the native ones.

Having a good supply of water is compulsory, independent of the mode of travel. A cautionary note to bikers – bike route is counter clockwise of the tram route, giving the people in the tram a chance to observe the actions of the bikers – in general, too many of them were either too close to the alligators or were not inclined to be responsible riders (even the mandatory stopping for the tram was a tall order for some) - some bikers appeared unaware of the potential danger involved - we saw a biker falling off his bike and landing just a few feet away from a baby alligator - baby alligators are best left alone for it means the mama alligator is nearby.

Airboat tours and “alligator shows” are a sizable industry in the border areas of the park – they are not allowed inside the park as they affect the ecosystem in a negative way. Should you decide to go for one of these, one option is to choose the Miccosukee Indian Air Boat ride, offered just opposite the visitor center turning – the tickets are comparatively lighter on the wallet and also include a visit to the authentic Indian camp at the heart of the Everglades. The restaurant at the site is also a good reasonably priced choice.

Related Posts:
  1. A Trip Report to Kennedy Space Center, FL.
  2. Key West, FL - A Trip Report.
Last Updated: 02/2011.

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