The best way to see Everglades wildlife, other than the 15-mile bike ride in Shark Valley, is to camp out and take time to explore by hiking or kayaking. The deeper into the wilderness you go, the more opportunities.
Most people think of the Everglades as a national park at the southern tip of Florida, but the reality is that the Everglades is a vast eco-system, a “River of Grass” more than 60 miles wide and 100 miles long.
Between its source at Lake Okeechobee and its delta in Florida Bay, the Everglades flows over a porous limestone shelf through agricultural areas, wildlife refuges, water conservation areas and two national parks — Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Everglades National Park campgrounds
There are two developed campgrounds, both of which are accessible from the main park road in Homestead.
And there are more than 50 primitive campsites in the Everglades backcountry, most accessible by boat from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City.
Long Pine Key Campground — Long Pine is near the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park and features 108 drive-up sites available first-come, first-served for $16/night.
Reservations are not accepted at this campground, which is near the entrance to the park and the Homestead Visitor Center.
This is a beautiful campground, located in a forest of a tall pines with large sites large offering good privacy.
While you cannot reserve a space, it rarely fills up, rangers advise. When you go to check in, you are told to choose a site and then come back and pay for it. On the night we stayed there, those who arrived after the ranger left were met with a sign that said “Pick a site and see us in the morning.”
Long Pine is only a few miles from the fantastic Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, which means it provides a good opportunity for one of those only-if-you’re-camping experiences: Going go to the Anhinga Trail after dark with a flashlight to see how the alligators behave when they’re active. (They eyes glow red when you shine them with a flashlight.)
The campsite is also adjacent to the lovely 7-mile-long Long Pine Key trail, a favorite with fat-tire cyclists, and the pretty nearby Long Pine Key Lake.
Three things you should know about Long Pine Key Campground:
- The bathrooms are clean and convenient, but there are no showers.
- Your cell phone will get lousy reception, if any.
- No firewood is sold. We picked some up at the Home Depot in Homestead on the way into the park. Unlike most parks, you are told you can forage for dead wood and kindling.
Flamingo Campground — Reservations are accepted for the 234 drive-up sites at Flamingo, which are $20/night for boondockers (no hookups). Electric hookups are available on 41 sites in the T-Loop and run $30/night.
Reservations can be made for the Flamingo Campground through ReserveAmerica from Nov. 20 – April 15. Reservations are not necessary in the off-season months.
A ranger station/visitor center is located at the campground, and there is a concession for canoe and kayak rentals at the marina, which also has a store.
The Flamingo campground is in a big open field with few trees and if there is a wind off Florida Bay, can be breezy.
Mosquitos here, as in all of the Everglades, can be fierce, so be prepared. This is where the breeze can help, so sites near the water may have fewer mosquitos.
More than 300 species of birds spend the winter in Everglades National Park, and there is ample opportunity to see crocodiles and manatees in the marina area and the services, such as boat rentals, tour boats and the cafe.
Bring your kayak or canoe to explore backcountry trails, and small motorboats (5 HP and under) are allowed in many areas.
Backcountry Camping — There are a number of designated ground sites, beach sites, and elevated camping platforms (chickees) available in the park, most in the Ten Thousand Islands and along the rivers that feed the islands, and most are accessible only by boat from Flamingo or Everglades City.
Winter is the best season. Summer’s are hot, muggy, miserable and dominated by insects, not the least of which is Florida’s state bird — the mosquito. Relatively speaking, mosquitos lay low in winter (but not completely, so you still need to be prepared).
A backcountry permit is required for all wilderness campsites and issued the day before or day of your trip. Reservations are not accepted.
From April through November 16, wilderness permits are free of charge and can be obtained at either the Flamingo or Gulf Coast (Everglades City) ranger stations.
From late November through April, wilderness permits are $10 plus $2 per person per night. The maximum backcountry stay is 14 days.
Reservations for backcountry are made only in person up to 24 hours in advance at the Homestead or the Gulf Coast (Everglades City) Visitors Centers.
A few tips on getting back-country permits:
- For sites where only one or two campers are allowed (such as the chickee huts on platforms over the water), people will arrive at the ranger station a day early to secure permits on busy weekends. If you seek a permit for the day you arrive, plan to be flexible and have alternative sites in mind.
- There are a higher number of permits allowed for beach camping along Cape Sable (several hours paddle from Flamingo) so it is generally possible to snag back-country permits for these on the morning of your departure.
- A few back-country sites are accessed via the Florida Keys and you can reserve these by telephone the day before.
Big Cypress National Preserve campgrounds
This 1,200 square mile preserve boasts a wide variety of Everglades eco-systems, not the least of which are cypress swamps, of course. The northern section off of Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) is a prime destination for hunters in season and off-roaders, although hikers and mountain bikers are becoming more common.
Tourists and snowbirds, on the other hand, tend to gravitate towards the southern section of the Big Cypress Preserve along the Tamiami Trail. The maximum length of stay for any camping activity within Big Cypress is 180 days in a 12-month period
Unlike Everglades National Park, dispersed camping for backpackers and hikers is permitted anywhere in the preserve south of I-75. You must have a backcountry permit, which you can download from this page.
Bear Island Unit campgrounds — Okaloacoochee Slough
North of I-75, campers are restricted to the campgrounds in the Bear Island Unit, which has special restrictions that make access difficult:
- Access from US 29 is limited to hikers at a gate on the east side of the highway about a mile north of I-75. You can park inside the gate and trek the two miles to the Pink Jeep Campground.
- Backpackers can access the Bear Island Unit campgrounds from a recreation-area parking lot on the northbound side of I-75 at Mile Marker 70.
- Motorized vehicles and RV’s can access the main Bear Island campground from Turner River Road (County Road 839), a 20-mile drive on a gravel road that you can access from Tamiami Trail. (No access from I-75 or 29).
Be forewarned that these campgrounds are dominated by hunters in season and off-road vehicles (ORV) in an area of Big Cypress that has trails designated for noisy swamp buggies and ATVs. But hikers and off-road bikers are beginning to discover it, so don’t be discouraged. Best bet is during the week.
Bear Island, – Open year round, Bear Island is a primitive campground with 40 sites for tents or RVs. There are no hookups and the only rest room is a vault toilet. No dump station. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring. The camping fee is $10/night. Reservations are accepted. Click here to check availability and reserve a site.
Gator Head – Gator Head has 9 tent sites, no hookups and is open from Aug. 29 until June 1. Again, there are vault toilets. Fee per night is $10. Only off-road vehicles can access these sites, and you are required to have an ORV permit. Click here for availability and reservations.
Pink Jeep – Nine tent sites are open from Aug. 29 until June 1. There are vault toilets, but nothing else, not even drinking water. The sites are $10. Only off-road vehicles can access these sites, and a ORV permit is required. Check here for site availability and reservations.
Both may be used free of charge by campers paying for National Park Service campgrounds within the national preserve. There is a $10 fee for those campers not paying for national preserve campgrounds.
All of the campgrounds in Big Cypress offer access to a multitude of recreational activities, including hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, photography, and off-road vehicle trails. Two of the campgrounds — Pinecrest and Mitchell’s Landing — are along Loop Road, a scenic route deep in the Everglades. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Loop Road.
Burns Lake – Burns Lake has 10 RV and 5 tent sites, available only from Aug. 29 until Jan. 26. (The day-use area is open all year with backcountry access.) Like most of the campgrounds in Big Cypress, there are no hookups and the only rest room is a vault toilet. No dump station. The camping fee is $24/night. Check for site available and reserve yours today.
Midway – The Midway Campground is the most developed Big Cypress campground with drinking water, electrical hookups and restrooms. There is also a dump station and real rest rooms. Each RV campsite has its own picnic table and hibachi style grill. Covered picnic areas are located around the lake for day use. The 26 RV sites are $30/night, and the 10 tent sites are $24/night. Midway is open year-round. Click here for site availability and reserve your campsite.
Mitchell’s Landing – Popular with air-boaters, Mitchell’s Landing is open from Aug. 29 until April 15, Mitchell’sLanding is on the Loop Road and has 12 RV/tent sites without hookups, no drinking water and there is no dump station. The campground does have vault toilets, and sites go for $24/night. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and lantern pole. Reservations are accepted. Click here to reserve your campsite.
Monument Lake – Like Mitchel Lake, Monument Lake Campground is open from Aug. 29 until April 15. Unlike Mitchell Lake, Monument does have drinking water and flush toilets, but there are no electrical hookups or a dump station. An RV site is $28/night and a tent site is $24. Fire rings are available at the tent sites Click here for site availability and reservations.
Pinecrest (Group Camping) – Each of the four group sites accommodates up to 8 tents and 15 people. There are no hookups, no drinking water, no dump station and no rest rooms. This campground is open year-round, and each group site goes for $30/night. Picnic tables and fire rings are available at each site. There are no covered picnic areas, toilets, hookups, or water. Minimal shade. Available and reservations can be made online.
Big Cypress National Preserve consists of 729,000 acres of backcountry with miles of multi-use trails to explore. Dispersed camping is allowed, and a Backcountry Camping Permit is required. Permits are free and can be filled out online and printed.
State park campgrounds
Southwest Florida near Tamiami Trail
Chokoloskee Island Park, Chokoloskee — Rustic Chokoloskee Island Park has 35 RV sites and a handful of tent sites. The main attraction is the marina, which offers access to the vast Ten Thousand Islands for fishing, birding and kayaking. There are more than 60 boat slips. Rates vary by season with Dec. 1 to April 15 being the most expensive ($51/for RVs and $39/night for tents). Discounts available for longer stays. Visit their web site, www.chokoloskee.com, for more information and to make reservations.