How to make the most of your Everglades National Park visit
Everglades National Park reveals its magic and beauty when you experience it up close. It doesn’t look like much from a car windshield.
This Everglades National Park visitor guide is designed for the first-time visitor and suggests ways you can get to know the Everglades and see some of its famous wildlife.
It is based on four decades of visits by a South Florida resident who loves this land and these waters. I’ve paddled every trail in Everglades National Park and hiked nearly every trail. (Some feature shoe-sucking mud and even the park rangers don’t recommend them!)
Which part of the Everglades should you visit?
Your first decision in visiting the Everglades National 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 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 this area is also a great place to kayak. But this entrance to the park offers a different experience from the other two. (If you have time, do them all.)
The Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National 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. We highly recommend the experience of biking in Shark Valley. In recent years, the bird and alligator sightings have actually been better along Shark Valley than from the Homestead entrance.
Shark Valley makes a great Everglades outing, and if you have time to go only here, don’t feel you’ve missed out by not visiting the Homestead entrance.
Homestead entrance, national park visitor center and ranger talks
The Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park is half-way between downtown Miami and the Florida Keys. It’s a route into the interior of the park with many more options to stop and explore.
If you choose the Homestead route, pack a picnic lunch (there will be no food service in the park until your reach Flamingo 38 miles away) and plan to spend the day.
For an in-depth visit to the Everglades, you’ll need to either camp in the park, stay in an eco-tent in Flamingo (sort of a glamping experience) or stay in a Homestead motel. (In 2023, motel accommodations will open at Flamingo, providing another option.)
The first stop, even before entering the Everglades park and paying your $30 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 very good 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 and knowledgeable.
Be sure to check 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 and these experiences may end up being your Everglades favorites.
The Anhinga Trail: Your ‘must do’ in Everglades National Park
Four miles after entering the park you come to the one “must do” of the Everglades visit — the 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. (Note: Winter is the time to see a profusion of wildlife.)
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.
The Anhinga Trail is an easy .8 mile paved and boardwalk trail. I have visited many times in winter and have never failed to see several alligators clearly and close. A range of Everglades birds — great blue herons, snowy egrets, cormorants, anhingas, moorhen, coot, wood storks — are often visible. During 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!
A ranger in the visitor center made an interesting observation on my most recent visit: Sightings of wildlife along the Anhinga Trail have not been as profuse in recent years as Everglades restoration has brought more water into the glades, he said. He used to count 40 or 50 alligators along the trail; now he’s more likely to see a half dozen. The concentrated wildlife was a function of animals seeking rare pockets of water during the dry season; those pockets of water are a less rare, thanks to restoration work — a good thing for wildlife!
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.
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 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 described below. (These trails are accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.)
Stops along the main road in Everglades National Park
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 you choose perhaps two or three of these:
The Pinelands Trail is a 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 (which is very nice place for stop for the picnic you packed.)
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 in later afternoon light. 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 also seen a barred owl here on several occasions. It’s a shady trail; good for warm days. That mahogany tree? It’s the largest living specimen anywhere!
West Lake: This is a good stop if you want a place to picnic. It’s 30 miles beyond the Homestead entrance. It reopened in early 2022, better than ever now that 2017 hurricane damage has been repaired. This stop has only a few covered picnic tables and a restroom. There is also a boardwalk a quarter mile through the mangroves to an overlook at the lake’s shoreline, where you see trees damaged by that 2017 storm. (This trail can be buggy, so be prepared.) There is also a boat ramp, which is the launch site for the West Lake Canoe Trail, which hugs the southern shore of the big lake and is eight miles long one way.
The end of the road: 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 only one option for lodging. Flamingo’s former lodge was devastated in Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 1995, and they are currently building an environmentally friendly village here that will do justice to Everglades National Park. (It will be completed by 2023.) New accommodations in Flamingo opened in 2019 — 20 eco-tents, which are described below.
Time permitting, there are good reasons to go to Flamingo: As you drive south, the sawgrass gives way to mangroves and the landscape changes. There are several ponds near Flamingo known for their spectacular late-winter displays of birds, including my all-time favorite, the roseate spoonbill.
If you drive on, 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. When birds are present, wildlife photographers abound.)
If you have more than one day in Everglades National Park, we highly recommend visiting Flamingo. Here’s our guide of things to do in the Flamingo area, including kayaking into Florida Bay and hiking trails.
Flamingo is a the best place to see crocodiles in the Everglades. While they are much rarer and shyer than the alligator, on recent visits, several crocs posed, one with its mouth wide open, at the Flamingo marina and boat ramp.
Similarly, manatees frequent the Flamingo marina. (We have seen several in the marina in every visit in the last four or five years.)
Accommodations and marina activities at Flamingo are managed by the concessionaire Flamingo Adventures, with whom you can book boat tours and rent kayaks, skiffs and bikes. You can even rent houseboats — the first non-camping accommodations in Flamingo since 2005. (While expensive, we loved our houseboat experience; read about it here.)
In 2019, eco-tents — a cross between tents and cabins — became available in Flamingo. Guests share a central bathroom facility, like at a campground, but stay in a cabin-like structure with electricity, beds and linens. Here’s our review of the eco-tents in Flamingo. (Rates for the eco-tents vary by season. They are $95 a night in winter 2023 and we had no trouble getting a last-minute spot on a weekday in January 2023. Without furnishings, the screen-enclosed tents are rented for half price off season.)
For all camping, eco-tents, houseboats and boat rentals, go to Flamingo Adventures.
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 noon sun become 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. Also, the walk is quieter and less crowded. Some nights, there is a ranger guided walk; check the schedule at the visitor center.
More in-depth Everglades National Park experiences
Since the Everglades National Park admission is $30 for seven days, a multi-day visit is economical. Here are ideas for things you might do if you have additional time.
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, offered at 2 p.m. every day during the winter season.
Best Everglades canoe and kayak trails: Bring your canoe or kayak or rent at the marina at Flamingo or from Nine Mile Pond, a five mile loop through a vast shallow sawgrass marsh dotted with mangrove and tree islands. (You can reduce this loop to 3.5 miles by taking a shortcut noted in the article.)
If you’re on your own and it’s not too windy, you can kayak along the shore of Florida Bay by bringing your own or renting kayaks at the Flamingo Marina. Details are in our Flamingo guide.
For a more adventurous kayak-camping trip that doesn’t require reservations far in advance, I’d recommend canoe-camping Flamingo to Cape Sable. It’s 11 miles and you camp on a wilderness beach. (But no swimming: Crocodiles!)
The ultimate Everglades adventure — not for everyone — is paddling the Wilderness Waterway. This is a multi-day camping trail that requires you to arrange livery service to drive you back to your starting place and car. Here’s the park service’s brochure on the trail.
Boat tours at Flamingo: The marina at Flamingo offers two boat tours — one into the back country and one into Florida Bay ($40 adults; $20 kids). Both include naturalist guides who point out and identify wildlife. Details.
Free admission to Everglades National Park via the Homestead National Park Trolley
FREE admission to the park is available on winter weekends if you take the Homestead national parks trolley system. It’s a really good deal.
If you arrive by trolley, you will have limited options within the park, but it brings you to some of the real highlights. If you arrive by trolley, you should stop at the visitor center and look at the exhibits and watch the video. Then, take the next trolley to Royal Palm, where you can walk two trails: the famous wildlife-filled Anhinga Trail and, if you have time, the jungly Gumbo Limbo Trail. Bring lunch or a snack. The trolley also makes a 20-minute stop at Robert is Here, so it’s a good chance to buy a yummy fresh-fruit milkshake to sustain you. Here are details of the trolley system.
Planning your visit to the Everglades
- Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park to $30 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 to all national parks. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks.
- Do not rely on cell phones for critical communication while visiting the park. This is a large wilderness area and most cell phones won’t have service, even along the main roads. AT&T has a tower at Flamingo and service is good for their customers.
- The Everglades National Park website
- Camping in the Everglades
- Everglades National Park map. (Be sure to check for updates and closed areas.)
- The Anhinga Trail
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride
- Robert is Here, the funky fruit stand near the Homestead entrance. I consider it an integral part of the “visit the Everglades experience,” and the free trolley does make a 20-minute stop here.
- If you are spending time in the Everglades, the rural area around the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park is full of interesting places to visit and tasty experiences, including Fruit and Spice Park, Schnebly Redland’s Winery plus strawberry farms and a historic railroad village. This is a guide to visiting the Redland region. This includes the extremely popular Knauss Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, open only fall to spring.
When to visit Everglades National Park? Not summer
There are few places in Florida as inhospitable in summer as Everglades National Park. It is unbearably hot and mosquitos and no see ums are miserable. With water everywhere, the wildlife is not as visible. (The best concentrations of birds require the Everglades to be drying out, which generally occurs later in the winter.)
All the programming in Everglades National Park is built around the winter season, roughly Thanksgiving through Easter. You can have good experiences, however, in the fall — mid- to late-October if you check the weather for good days — and in the spring through the end of April. Both October and April are likely to be in 80s and pretty humid.
More Everglades experiences from Florida Rambler
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.