One of the best ways to see Florida’s Everglades is to arrive on the Tamiami Trail and use the Shark Valley entrance.
It’s true that the southern unit of Everglades National Park, which you reach via Homestead, offers many more locations, a dozen hiking trails, camping and picnic areas, several outstanding kayak trails and a greater variety of habitats.
And Shark Valley has basically one trail – a smoothly paved 15-mile loop.
But this trail is so special, it makes Shark Valley hard to top.
At Shark Valley, the alligators and birds that line that trail in winter will amaze. The wildlife seems used to humans and goes about its business just steps from visitors. Here, you may have to walk around the alligators, who sometimes sun themselves with body parts extending onto the trail. In the first mile of the trail on a sunny winter day, you’re likely to count dozens of alligators, plus myriad birds, often right next to the gators.
In addition, this 15-mile bike trail is probably the best bike trail in South Florida. It’s 20 feet wide and the only traffic is the park tram, which will pass you three or four times in an afternoon.
Visiting Shark Valley in Everglades National Park
That handy 15-mile Loop Trail through Shark Valley was constructed in 1946 when Humble Oil drilled for oil here. Fortunately, the company decided oils wells here weren’t economic and the land joined the national park system.
To build the trail, workers dug a trench alongside the road and used the dirt to slightly elevate the path. The trench filled with water and, as the rest of the Everglades dries out in winter, the water here became the perfect habitat for wildlife, who concentrated here.
Your first challenge to visiting Shark Valley may be getting in – lines can be long on sunny winter weekends and the parking lot may fill up. That has happened to us, and it doesn’t mean you have to turn around. The driver can drop off passengers and then park along the roadside outside the park and walk back in.
Do the crowds ruin the experience? I always love to have nature to myself, but even in the most crowded parks – say the Grand Canyon in summer – the crowds build at only the most accessible points. At Shark Valley, once you leave the parking lot area, the crowd thins.
Three ways to see Shark Valley:
- Walk the trail on your own. I love to walk the trail for several miles because you see the most when moving slowly on foot. Last year, 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, something we might have missed on a bike or tram.
Bicycle the trail on your own or a rented bike. The flat pavement, abundant wildlife and expansive views make this the best bike trail in South Florida. A concessionaire rents bicycles here. Come early, though: They can run out on busy weekends. Bikes are all single gear bikes with coaster brakes. You can rent 20″ children’s bikes and bikes with child seats. Bike rentals start at 8:30 a.m. and may be rented until 4 p.m. Bringing your own bike is ideal, especially because you can stay later than the 5 p.m. return-time for rented bikes.
- Take the two-hour tram tour narrated by a park-trained naturalist. First-time visitors and those with less mobility should take advantage of the well-done tram tours. The open-air trams are covered and stop frequently to point out wildlife. Guides offer insights into this unique ecology and identify animals and plants. At the mid-point of the tour, there’s a 45 foot high observation deck with big views in all directions and a pond of alligators below. The tram tour is $25 for adults; $19 for seniors (62+) and $12.75 for children 3-12.
Tips on visiting Shark Valley
- If you bring a picnic, the only picnic tables are around the parking lot. Along the trail itself, there is little dry land 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 the Tamiami Trail for a picnic elsewhere. (Locations are west of Shark Valley in Big Cypr
- 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.
- One of the special winter activities at Shark Valley are ranger-led bike tours under a full moon. These trips are free (bring your own bike) but fill up immediately. But you don’t have to go with a ranger. Here’s a little known fact: The park is open 24 hours, though the parking lot is closed at 6 p.m. As long as you park outside the park, you can access the Loop Trail after closing time. That means you can do that full-moon ride on your own.
- Be aware: Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is now $25 per car, with a pass good for seven days. (As soon as you turn 62, get a senior pass. For $80, it offers lifetime admission. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks.)
- There are two short trails along the main Loop Trail. The Bobcat Boardwalk is a half-mile long through a hard-wood forest. The Otter Cave Hammock Trail is a quarter mile. Both trails are pleasant but no match for what you experience along the Loop Trail. (These are closed when there is flooding.)
- Best time to visit: November through April. Dry conditions result in animals gathering around the remaining water, so wildlife viewing is better. Mosquitoes are bad in the summer and there is little shade at Shark Valley. It’s possible to visit in summer and not see a single alligator; they spread out over the vast watery river of grass.
More information about Shark Valley and 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 $25; seniors (62+) $19 and children (3-12) $12.75
- 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) post office in America in Ochopee.
- Near Shark Valley is what I consider the best (and thus the busiest) kayak trail in the Everglades: the Turner River. Less busy is nearby Halfway Creek , where we’ve kayaked when the water was too low in the Turner River.
- 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 Ten Thousand Islands.
- A great saltwater kayak trail nearby is Sandfly Loop, which gives you a taste of the Ten Thousand Island. A more ambitious kayak camping trip is one to Indian Key.
- If you visit Everglades City, don’t miss the historic Smallwood Store.
Updated January 2017