Bike & Hike / Birding / Everglades / Kayak & Canoe / Southeast Florida

Visitor tips for exploring Everglades National Park

Anhinga on Anhinga Trail in the Everglades

An anhinga allows visitors to get close on Anhinga Trail in the Everglades. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park

The Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park is an easy walk. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Photographers on Anhinga Trail in the Everglades National Park

Photographers love the Anhinga Trail for getting close to wildlife. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Sign for Rock Reef Pass in the Everglades National Park

It’s not really a joke: This actually is a high spot in the Everglades, and thus has different vegetation. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Crocodile near Flamingo in the Everglades National Park

Crocodiles are much rarer than alligators but are often seen near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Egret in the Everglades National Park near Flamingo

An egret among the mangroves near Flamingo. Photo by Adam Fagen.

Folks who love the Everglades have spent decades trying to convince the world that this chunk of Florida should be saved.

It’s not clear that they’re winning.

Yes, there is Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, several state parks and a multi-billion-dollar “fix the waterflow” effort underway.

But saving the Everglades will take a long-term commitment and determination, and that requires a broad public understanding. And there’s no better to way to understand the Everglades than to visit.

This Everglades National Park visitor guide is designed for the first-time visitor and folks who don’t know the Everglades inside-out. The national park is a vast wilderness, and one can return again and again and find new places to explore. If you’ve done that, please add suggestions and comments to this article and share your knowledge and experience.

Which part of the park should you visit?

Your first decision in visiting the Everglades park is which entrance to use — there are three and they are many hours apart.

The essential Everglades experience — the opportunity to observe Everglades wildlife up close and and appreciate the vastness of this river of grass — can be found at either Shark Valley or the Homestead national park entrance. If you have time and want to explore the beautiful Thousand Islands area off the Gulf coast, then take the boat trip at the Everglades City entrance. That’s a wonderful outing, and it’s also a great place to kayak and camp on a wild beach.

The Shark Valley entrance to the Everglades park is off the Tamiami Trail (US 41) directly west of downtown Miami. Here’s a good look at how to walk, bicycle or take the tram on the 15 mile trail here. Shark Valley makes a great Everglades outing, and if you go only here, don’t feel you’ve missed out by not visiting the Homestead entrance.

Visitor Center and ranger talks

The Homestead entrance to the Everglades park is half-way between downtown Miami and the Florida Keys. It’s a route into the interior of the national park with many options to stop and explore. If you choose the Homestead route, pack a picnic lunch (the only food service in the park is in Flamingo) and plan to spend the day. For an in-depth visit to the Everglades, you’ll need to either camp in the park or stay in a Homestead motel.

The first stop, even before entering the Everglades park and paying your $25 per car admission (good for seven days), should be the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, because it offers well-designed interactive exhibits that help you appreciate what you are about to see. There’s a 15-minute film “River of Life” in the theater. Be sure to get maps here and ask any questions you have about planning your visit. We’ve found the Everglades park staff and volunteers here extremely helpful.

This is where you can get the schedule of ranger-guided programs. In winter, these range from 50 minute walks through interesting sites where you’ll have an expert to identify plants, birds and animals to bike rides, canoe trips and slogs through the slough. This is a good way for first-time visitors to learn about this unique environment.

The Anhinga Trail: Your ‘must do’

Four miles after entering the park you come to the one “must do” of the Everglades visitthe Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm. This is the best and most reliable place to see alligators and Everglades wading birds surprisingly close within the Everglades

Before it became a national park in 1947, this was Royal Palm State Park and it was this remarkable site teeming with wildlife that grabbed the attention of many who supported preservation.

On the Anhinga Trail, only a guard rail separates visitors from alligators. They appear oblivious, but it is still wise to give them space.

On the Anhinga Trail, only a guard rail separates visitors from alligators. They appear oblivious, but it is still wise to give them space.

The Anhinga Trail is an easy .8 mile paved and boardwalk trail. I have visited here at least a dozen times and have never failed to see several alligators clearly and close. A range of Everglades birds — great blue herons, great white egret, cormorants, anhingas, moorhen, coot, wood storks — are almost always visible. During winter and spring, anhingas nest in trees right next to the boardwalk. Some may think this trail is a little too Disney-like, because it  requires so little effort and the animals seem almost tame.

You will see families, strollers and wheelchairs, photographers with huge long lenses and you’ll hear more people speaking other languages than English. To me, the accessibility of this spot is beautiful; it guarantees a large number of people will have the Everglades experience and be convinced it’s worth preserving. And the animals here really are wild!

Tip: I always take visitors on the Anhinga Trail. In fact, my recipe for “one day in the Everglades” includes these ingredients: a fruit milkshake at Robert is Here on the way into or out of the park, a stop at the visitor center, a walk on the Anhinga Trail and then a walk on two or three short trails along the road.

Gator along Anhinga Trail in the Everglades National Park

An alligator floats along the surface near the Anhinga Trail. Photo by Adam Fagen.

At Royal Palm, there is another short trail, the Gumbo Limbo trail. While a pleasant walk through a vegetation typical of a dryer part of the Everglades, for first time visitors, I’d recommend skipping this one and driving down the main road a bit.

Stops along the main road

Along the main Everglades road, there are a series of stops with short walks that round out your experience. In one day, you can’t do it all, so I would recommend:

  • The Pinelands Trail is another half-mile walk, this time through another environment, a typical Florida pine forest. A longer trail is nearby, starting near the Long Pine Key picnic area.

    Barred owl at Everglades National Park. Seen just below the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. (Photo: David Blasco)

  • The Pa-hay-okee Overlook. The observation tower here gives you a chance to appreciate the grand sweep of the Everglades and dwarf bald cypress trees. It is beautiful at sunset. Look into the tangle of trees just below the overlook. We’ve seen a barred owl in there twice (in two different years.)
  • The Mahogany Hammock Trail. This half-mile boardwalk takes you through the sort of jungly Tarzan-movie setting that many people come expecting at the Everglades. It’s a good way to see what a difference a few inches of elevation makes. (A hammock is a tree island where slightly higher ground leads to a profusion of trees.) Look and listen: We’ve seen a barred owl here on several ooccasions.

Flamingo

The road continues  to Flamingo, where it ends at Florida Bay.

Should you drive all the way to Flamingo? You can have a great Everglades visit without it and it is far — 38 miles from the park entrance. Unless you’re camping, there’s no longer any place to stay there, so plan ahead. Flamingo’s former lodge was devastated in Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 1995, and there are plans now to build an environmentally friendly village there that will do justice to Everglades National Park.

Time permitting, there are good reasons to go to Flamingo:  As you drive south, the sawgrass gives ways to  mangroves and the landscape changes.  There are several ponds near Flamingo known for their spectacular seasonal displays of birds, including my all-time favorite, the roseate spoonbill. If you drive on, be sure to check for birds at West Lake, Mrazek Pond and Eco Pond. (At Eco Pond, you can take a very nice short walk around the pond and gain various vantage points. Wildlife photographers abound.)

At Flamingo, there is a cafe open in the winter with a view of Florida Bay, a small visitor’s center and the site of regular ranger talks.

Flamingo is also the place to take a narrated boat tour — either a  “back country” or Florida Bay boat tour operated by a concessionaire. The back country tour is your best way to see the endangered crocodile in the Everglades.  It is much rarer and shyer than the alligator.  (For another sort of adventure at Flamingo , you also can rent motorized boats and houseboats here.)

Tip:  As you head out of the Everglades at day’s end,  if you have time, stop back at the Anhinga Trail. The alligators that look dead in the noonday sun become more active at dusk, and it’s a thrill to see them silently glide through the water with only their tail gently moving to propel them.

More in-depth Everglades National Park experiences

Historic Cold War Nike base. This is a popular tour for history lovers and draws a different group of visitors to the park. Prompted by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S Army built a base here with nuclear missiles and featuring high security. The decommissioned base is well-preserved and includes a refurbished 1960 Nike Hercules missile.  Here’s my report on the fascinating tour.

My favorite long Everglades hike: If you have time, you might want to build in a longer hike, and my favorite is the Ingraham Highway. We took a long hike here because my husband David has a thing for old roads, and the Ingraham Highway was the original road to Flamingo. Now it is an 11-mile hike into the wilderness where, as you walk along the canal-lined trail, you’ll hear alligators splash into the water and see many birds. You can bicycle this trail on a fat-tire bike.

Best Everglades canoe and kayak trails: Bring your canoe or kayak or rent at the marina at Flamingo or from Tours In The Glades in Florida City . There are several trails;  I’ve paddled two I can personally recommend: Nine Mile Pond, a five mile loop through a vast shallow sawgrass marsh dotted with mangrove and tree islands, and Coot Bay/Mud Lake, an out-and-back paddle through mangrove tunnels and into broad open lakes. Both offer good wildlife viewing, including birds, gators and crocodiles.

Planning your visit to the Everglades:

If you are seeking a place to stay, Homestead offers the usual array of moderately priced motels.  While I haven’t stayed here, I know people who give high marks to the nearby Everglades Hostel in Florida City. The hostel rents bikes, canoes, kayaks and arranges outings. It is popular with European visitors.

We’ve stayed at Hotel Redland in downtown Homestead. A local businessman recently bought it and has turned the 1904 hotel into a bed and breakfast with a good home-cooking restaurant.  It’s a friendly place. There are a few rough edges, but it is clean, quiet and full of local character.

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17 Comments

  1. Hey Bonnie! Really great tips & guide for visiting Everglades National Park. Visiting the Everglades is a perfect way to gain insight as to what’s at risk. We all need to come together to Save the Glades!

  2. Bob Koch says:

    Hi Bonnie:
    I truly appreciate your guide for exploring Everglades National Park.
    We plan to visit the Everglades for 3 full days this coming February. I was
    wondering if we should try to divide our time between Homestead to Flamingo and Shark Valley or simply focus on the area around Homestead?
    Thanks, Bob

  3. Kathy P. says:

    Hi Bonnie – Thank you for your blogs! We are planning a trip for our family of 4 and we are following many of your recommendations. I have a question for you – our children are 5 1/2 and 8 1/2 and we’d love to do some canoeing or kayaking. We thought about just renting from the Flamingo Marina (as we’ll have a rental car, etc). Are there any canoe trails that you’d recommend for a family with smaller children that we could do in 2-3 hours that aren’t too strenuous? Thanks so much!

    • Kathy: I hope you have a fantastic time! I think your best bet is Nine Mile Pond . If you examine the trail brochure linked there, you’ll see that there’s an optional shortcut. The longer route might take four hours; I think with the short-cut, it would be the length you’ve described. It’s an easy trip. The only issue is if there is enough water if it is late in the winter; it can get shallow. You can check with the visitor center. You arrange to rent the boats at Flamingo; they’re locked up at Nine Mile Pond.

      One additional thought: The best Everglades paddle trail in my mind is Turner River, off the Tamiami Trail. Downside: It gets busy; it is so popular and it also can be too shallow in late spring. In addition, it may not be on you route.

  4. Patricia Myers says:

    Bonnie, I have been reading your articles for a few weeks now and how wonderful they are! What memories they bring. I was an Elderhostel coordinator for Barry Univ. and did many fun trips to the Everglades. I am now living in Fort Myers and have become a Florida Master Naturalist and Master Gardener, so everything you write about is of great interest. I hope to read many more! Thank you.

  5. Hello, Bonnie1 Thanks for your very detailed description of the Everglades. We are two guys from Italy and we are going to visiti Southern Florida this coming July. We can dedicate to the Everglades National Park two days only. May I, please, ask for your help in planning our visit? I mean: we’ll be coming from Key Largo: which entrance should we use? What should we do? I know that these questions might sound trivial, but sometimes internet is rathe confusing: I’ve found so many conflicting opinions about the Everglades! Well, in order to “help you help us”, I want to outline that we like pristine natural places, secluded beaches and hiking. Thank you for your patience. Lino & Vincenzo

    • Hi Lino and Vincenzo!

      First: Be prepared for heat and humidity and mosquitos. We consider summer the “off” season for the Everglades. Because there is a lot of water, the wildlife is dispersed, so you might not see the kind of wildlife you have seen photographed on winter trips, when animals gather around shrinking ponds.

      But if you’re coming all this way, DO include it.

      Coming from Key Largo, you may want to stop at the Homestead entrance. Be sure to visit the fruit stand Robert Is Here for a fruit smoothie on your way in and stop at the park visitor center. (Where are you staying? You might like the Everglades Hostel in Homestead, where there are lots of outdoors-oriented people and some excursions.)

      Definitely walk the Anhinga Trail and then pick a few other short walks that start off the main park road. There is no one long hike I’d recommend at that time of year. But you can ask the rangers at the visitor center.

      An alternative route to consider: If you take the Tamiami Trail (US 41) west from Miami, you could instead stop at Shark Valley, where you might enjoy bicycling the 13-mile paved route on bikes you can rent there.

      Then, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, there are really wonderful white sandy beaches, some quite deserted.

      Let me know what you’re thinking about your route and I’ll be happy to send you a few links to suggest stops on the Gulf Coast.

      Bonnie

  6. Chelsy Paige says:

    Hi Bonnie, thanks for this wonderful guide. Very useful indeed. I did my Everglades trip planning solely based on your guide and it was a resounding success. The description of the trails is enough to elicit interest, yet leaves out the right amount to be discovered and experienced. The ‘Robert is Here’ suggestion was amazing. I, however, didn’t follow your airboat trip suggestion as I had two young ones with me and I correctly guessed that they’d like the airboat ride.
    Flamingo was fun too. Enjoyed the day there. The ranger-led presentations were nice and informative.
    Thanks again.

    • Chelsy,
      So glad the information worked out for you. Honestly, under your circumstances, I’d go for an airboat ride too. Was it a good experience and would you recommend it? If so, please mention where you went. Thanks. Bonnie

      • Chelsy Paige says:

        Our airboat ride provider was Buffalo Tigers, and I am glad I chose them. In one word, fabulous. Our guide was knowledgeable and interested. He wanted to make it a great experience for us, and he did. The kids absolutely loved encountering alligators at close quarters. It was amazing.

  7. Pingback: Roseate spoonbill 3 | Blog

  8. Hi Bonnie, thank you for this great guide. I’m a first time visitor and I was wondering if you have any thoughts or suggestions on airboat tours. They seem like a must do and every site I find claims to have the most experience and offers the best tour. Private tours seem very expensive and I was wondering if they are worth it. Kind regards from Belgium.

    • Jan,
      Thanks for your question.

      I have mixed feelings about airboat tours. They are a long tradition in the Everglades and researchers use them to access tree islands and other inaccessible sites. They are not allowed in the national park because they do tamp down the sawgrass. I’m also am not crazy about the loud noise they cause.

      They are a thrill ride, though, and many people do feel they are an must-do. (I’ve taken visitors on them.)

      I don’t believe there is a big difference between the rides. They all will make sure you see alligators (but you don’t need to go on an airboat to do that.)

      If it were me, I’d choose one based on TripAdvisor reviews (under Miami activities.) There are several that get raves.

    • Beste,
      Wij zouden volgend jaar ook een bezoek willen brengen aan de Everglades. Wat is jou ervaring hier geweest ? Heb je evt info of tips die je ons kan doorgeven ?
      gr,
      Marleen

  9. Hi Bonnie, just a short message to thank you for all the effort put into writing this article and mantaining your excellent website. I’m researching a short trip to the Everglades and the Keys in December 2013 and the info I’ve found here has been extremely useful so far. I will certainly be coming back for more! Kind regards from Spain!

  10. What a great guide Bonnie! It really provides a perfect list of locations and activities for a future Everglades visit. Going out and actually visiting the Everglades, whether in Central or South Florida, probably provides the best convincing to save this unique and beautiful ecosystem of Florida. As far as saving the River of Grass goes, many new Everglades supporters expect instant results from efforts of reversing the effects of the C&SF Project; but, the reality of the solution is time and determination.

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