Shark Valley bike trail is full of wildlife in dry season
Shark Valley, the entrance to Everglades National Park off the Tamiami Trail directly west of Miami, is such a reliably wonderful outing that it’s one of my favorite places to take visitors.
It offers what I contend is the best bike trail in South Florida: A smooth 15-mile paved loop trail through Everglades National Park with no traffic. (A tram travels the same road, but it will pass you three or four times in an afternoon’s ride.)
On this trail, in winter you WILL see alligators. In fact, you may have to steer your bike around them and you will lose track of how many you spot. Wading birds are abundant. I’ve even seen two otters scampering along the waterway, just a dozen steps from the parking lot. The animals here seem accustomed to being watched and allow visitors to observe up close. There are no fences dividing you from them.
Note: Conditions as of February 2016 differ from past years. Historically high water has resulted in much less wildlife concentrated in Shark Valley. Alligators and wading birds are present but not abundant. The pathway is under 2 inches of water in some spots — easy to ford via bike, however. It’s still a great outing, just not as great as normal years — Bonnie Gross
Because of its length, the Shark Valley bike trail offers vast open spaces and a chance to get away from people while its smooth surface makes for carefree pedaling.
The same path makes a great walk, too. The advantage to walking is the slow pace allows you to notice the abundant wildlife.
On a visit during a busy winter holiday week, for example, we explored on foot. We were lucky enough to see a mother alligator in the brush just off the path surrounded by more than a dozen babies. One sat on her head; others crawled on her back. We could hear their little squeaking “Mama!” noises and watch the whole scene, which took place not 15 feet away from us. After 30 years in South Florida and uncountable Everglades National Park outings, this was a first for me.
I also recommend Shark Valley for families with small children and older adults, because the tram ride is an excellent way to experience the Everglades for those who can’t pedal or walk great distance. The staff and volunteers who narrate the Shark Valley tram tour are passionate about the place and first-time visitors, in particular, come away informed and impressed.
The 15-mile road was built by an oil company that hoped to drill here. (Happily, they’re gone and the road remains for recreational use only.) At the half-way point, an observation tower overlooks a gator hole, reliably filled with gators during the dry season.
November through April are the best times to visit Everglades National Park, and Shark Valley is no exception. Dry conditions result in animals gathering around the remaining water, so wildlife viewing is better. Mosquitoes can be bad in the summer and there is little shade at Shark Valley.
Whenever I go here, I am impressed with how many international travelers are present. Sometimes I think those who come from afar are more appreciative of the Everglades than those who live nearby.
A few tips to help you plan your visit to Shark Valley:
- Shark Valley is very popular on winter weekends, so the parking lot fills up. Overflow visitors park on the Tamiami Trail and walk in, but bikes may all be rented and trams may be sold out, so, it makes sense to get an early start here. Even on the busiest days (and on my last visit, it was jammed) you can still have a great time by walking on the path. There may be more people around, but the trail is long and few people walk far.
- If you bring a bike and there’s a wait to enter the park, you can park on the Tamiami Trail and pedal in. On a busy Sunday when there were eight cars ahead of us waiting for a parking spot, it took us about 20 minutes to gain entrance.
- If you bring a picnic, the only picnic tables are around the parking lot. Along the trail itself, there is little dry land beside the trail and no shade, so we’ve eaten our lunches near the observation tower sitting on a bench at the half-way point. Another good alternative: Use our guide to Tamiami Trail for a picnic elsewhere. (Locations are west of Shark Valley in Big Cypress.)
- Admission to Everglades National Park is $20 per car and $8 per person on foot or bike. Admission is good for seven consecutive days. (Here are national park free days for 2015.)
More information about Everglades National Park:
- Florida Rambler’s guide to visiting Everglades National Park,
- Information on tram tours at Shark Valley. The park is busiest from Dec. 26 through April 30, and reservations are recommended during this time period. You may reserve for the 9, 10, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. trams. Walk up visitation spikes in the middle of the day, so reservations cannot be made for the 11, noon or 1 p.m. tours. Adults are $18.25; seniors (62+) $17.25 and children (3-12) $11.50
- Shark Valley Visitor Center information
- Lots of folks on Yelp love Shark Valley.
- Here’s a YouTube video that gives you a taste of what it’s like to bike this trail and a video that shows how close one gets to alligators and birds.
Other things to do near Everglades National Park Shark Valley entrance on the Tamiami Trail:
- The section of the Tamiami Trail (pronounced “tammy-ammy” so it rhymes) that passes through Big Cypress National Preserve is designated a scenic byway. Here’s detailed information about this great roadtrip with a number of interesting stops.
- On the Tamiami Trail between Miami and Shark Valley, there are many places to take an airboat ride.
- Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery is 15 minutes west of the park and is well worth a visit.
- Big Cypress National Preserve has a nearby visitor center and information about exploring the area.
- Also nearby is the smallest (and cutest, I’d say) post office in America in Ochopee.
- You are 45 minutes away from Everglades City, a charming, historic city on the Gulf Coast. It’s a good place for fresh seafood such as stone crabs and for kayaking into the 10,000 Islands. We’ve written about a “tame” kayak trip from Everglades City and a more ambitious kayak camping trip on one of those islands, Indian Key. If you visit Everglades City, don’t miss the historic Smallwood Store.