From exquisite orchids to fearsome crocodiles, the Everglades' reputation suggests a kind of mysterious no-man's land. Yet the National Park Service has made this, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, remarkably friendly to curious humans. Paved trails and tram tours make it easy to explore this biodiversity gem.
Facts and figures
- The third-largest park in the lower 48, Everglades spans 1.5 million acres
- The main visitor center is named for Ernest Coe, who led the effort to establish Everglades National Park
- It is the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie in North America
- The park receives about a million visitors a year
The Calusa people once lived among the mangroves of the southwestern Gulf Coast here; they fished, foraged and used abundant shells to make tools and architectural formations. Many Calusa people eventually died from European-borne disease or migrated away, and the Seminole began to arrive in the early 1800s.
From 1817 until the late 1850s, the U.S. fought a series of wars with the Seminole people. As the tribe was pushed out, hunters and real estate developers moved in. In the first decades of the 20th century, conservationists such as Ernest F. Coe and May Mann Jennings began movements to save the ecosystem. President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation to create Everglades National Park in 1934, and the park was established in 1947.
Things to see and do
This vast park’s three entrances—the main one in Homestead, Shark Valley and Gulf Coast— do not interconnect so it makes sense to pick one and plan excursions around that region.
From Homestead, head to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to get your bearings and learn about the park. The Anhinga Trail, just four miles from the park entrance, is a good place to start. Less than a mile long, this trail through a sawgrass marsh offers the chance to see the bird for which the trail is named, as well as alligators, turtles and herons.
Other good options a little farther into the park include the Pineland Trail, a half-mile paved loop through pines, palmettos and wildflowers; the Pahayokee Trail, with its overlook across the wide-open "river of grass" and the Mahogany Hammock Trail, a lovely boardwalk where you'll see the largest living mahogany tree in the U.S.—and possibly a bald eagle. From mid-November through April, camp at the first-come, first-served Long Pine Key campground and also farther south at the Flamingo Campground, which sets half of its sites aside for reservations in the high season.
On the northern side of the park in Miami lies Shark Valley, where a concessioner runs two-hour tram tours (reservations recommended late December through April). However, you don't need to take a tram to see the route: The 15-mile Tram Road can be walked or ridden by bike. At the halfway mark, a 45-foot observation deck provides sweeping views. The adjacent Big Cypress National Reserve has campgrounds, including Midway and Monument Lake. Both are within a half-hour drive of Shark Valley's visitor center.
From the Gulf Coast entrance at the northwestern edge of the park, you'll find many waterborne trails. Traveling by boat is a great way to see the Everglades. Here or at any of the visitor centers, ask about boat tours that might be available from authorized companies. Availability can vary depending on conditions at the park. The same goes for canoeing and kayaking, with a number of available guided and self-guided options. Camp at the adjacent Big Cypress National Reserve.
Best time to go
The park essentially has two seasons: dry and wet. You want the former, so around mid-November through March is the time to go. Summers are muggy, stormy and packed with mosquitoes.