At 38 miles beyond the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park, the outpost called Flamingo is too far down the road for many park visitors.
I always advise visitors that you can have a splendid day in the Everglades without ever reaching Flamingo.
But if you have two days in the Everglades, consider making the trek to the end of the road — Flamingo, Everglades Natonal Park.
Once a remote fishing village, Flamingo is located at the end of the Florida peninsula and beyond it are the shallow waters of Florida Bay, full of birds, crocodiles, manatees, sharks, fish, dolphins and dozens of uninhabited mangrove islands.
When you visit Flamingo, you have an excellent chance of seeing a number of fascinating species.
The Flamingo Marina itself is a reliably good place to see manatees. For three days in a row during November 2020 visit, the manatees bobbed in the marina each day, visible on and off. (The Florida Bay tour boat, which leaves from the marina, starts its narration by explaining that there is a resident population of manatees here, all descendents of a single manatee mama.)
Crocodiles, the salt-water cousins of the more commonly seen Everglades alligator, enjoy the marina area too. A couple of crocs hang out along the shore of the Buttonwood Canal, which is the body of water where the marina is located. It’s not uncommon to see a croc sprawled out on the boat ramp, resting in the sun with his mouth agape.
You don’t have to be an expert birder to spot an osprey, either. For several years now, ospreys have built a big messy nest right in the middle of the busy marina (where the bridge/dam on the Buttonwood Canal is located.) In November, the osprey adults were occupying the nest and in spring when we visited, you could see and hear their recently hatched chicks.
One mile west of the marina, the small body of water called Eco Pond, directly across the road from the campground, can be an excellent birding location in winter. One year in November, there were a half dozen of my favorite – the vivid pink roseate spoonbill – in residence, along with wood storks, big beautiful white pelicans and a variety of other herons, egrets and other birds. In January 2022, the Eco Pond had no birds at all. That’s the way it is — you see birds that find great conditions one day and then they move elsewhere the next.
What’s there to do in Flamingo?
The area has a few hiking trails (I’ll cover them shortly) but a ranger in the Flamingo Visitor Center gave the best advice when he told us: “If you want to experience this place, be in a boat.”
Boat tours from Flamingo, Everglades National Park
The Flamingo Marina offers several boat tours – one into the Florida Bay, one up the Buttonwood Canal through Coot Bay and Tarpon Creek into the Whitewater Bay. Details on boat trips are here.
I have taken both commercial boat tours in the past, but not recently enough to comment on them. TripAdvisor reviews range from raves to yawns. I have no doubt if you are unfamiliar with the Everglades, the naturalist narrators will provide lots of useful information and identify the wildlife you are likely to see from the boats. (I saw the tour boat recently making sure everybody got a chance to spot manatees and crocodiles before even heading into Florida Bay.)
Kayaking or canoeing on your own from Flamingo
My preference is to get out there and paddle to experience the area up close. You can explore both the freshwater and the saltwater environment in Flamingo via your own kayak or by renting one at Flamingo. Details on rentals here.
The most common kayak outing at Flamingo is to paddle up the Buttonwood Canal, where you are likely to see crocodiles, a variety of birds and a pretty mangrove shoreline.
If you are lucky enough to spend time in Flamingo, I hope it is when the winds are light so you can paddle in Florida Bay. The waves and weather on Florida Bay can get serious enough to make it unsafe for paddlers, so it is important to check the forecast when making plans.
If bay waters are smooth, I recommend exploring the shoreline both east and west of the Flamingo marina.
Paddling west from Flamingo in Florida Bay
If you paddle west (you’d make a right turn when you reach Florida Bay), you are kayaking along the shore of what was the original fishing village of Flamingo. Watch for pilings in the water, some of its last traces. In its heyday (1890s to 1920s), Flamingo was a series of shacks built on stilts along the coast between present-day Flamingo and Cape Sable.
About a mile from Flamingo, you will come to an island close to shore, Bradley Key. This is the only nearby island in Florida Bay that you are allowed to land on. If you kayak around Bradley Key, you will find a landing beach on the opposite site, where you can stop and picnic.
We loved our canoe trip to Bradley Key in January 2022. We packed a picnic and had perfect weather. With low tide, the mainland shoreline along our route was filled with a variety of shore birds.
When we reached Bradley Key, however, we saw the downside to low tide. The island has a small sandy beach. But at low tide, you can’t reach it; it is edged with 40 feet of shoe-sucking mud that must be crossed. This was comical — we sank to our mid-calf in mud; it was like trudging through quick sand.
On the beach, though, it was just us in a beautiful wild spot as we dined and waited for the tide to come up enough to float us out.
Paddling to Cape Sable for wilderness camping
If you continue paddling along the coast toward Cape Sable, you pass along the shores of a coastal prairie that has a year-around wetland home to hundreds of crocodiles.
The most adventurous campers paddle along this shore all the way to the beaches of Cape Sable on the Gulf Coast, where camping is permitted. Here’s our report on a recent canoe-camping trip from Flamingo to Cape Sable. (We loved it so much.)
Before you go, you must acquire a back-country permit at the Flamingo ranger station. While some back-country camping locations have a limited number of permits, there are many permits for beach camping along Cape Sable, so it’s generally possible to obtain a permit for these on the morning of your departure, according to the National Park Service website.
Allow four to six hours to reach East Cape Sable, 11 miles away.
Paddling east from Flamingo in Florida Bay
If you turn left at the marina, you’ll be entering a shallow area that turns to mud flats in low tides. If you stay close to the shore, however, you should have enough water to paddle, and you also improve your chances of observing wildlife. (We saw a crocodile and numerous varieties of birds in the mangroves along the shore.)
As you paddle along the shore, you’ll come to Christian Point, where you have a choice. You can take a left turn around Christian Point and continue close to the shore and perhaps see birds in the extensive mud flats that will be on your right. (I know it’s counter-intuitive that there is deeper water along the shore; it’s a tip from a ranger who says it was dredged.)
Your second option is to paddle out to the marked boating channel a bit further out into the bay and venture further into Snake Bight. (A bight is a small bay within a bay, so “Snake Bight” was probably somebody’s idea of pun.)
We paddled in the boat channel deep into Snake Bight, which is shallow except in the boating channel.
We saw thousands of birds here – flocks of white pelicans, at least a dozen roseate spoonbills, and flocks of a great variety of herons, egrets and other birds. It was spectacular – the sort of scene for which the Everglades is famous.
Unfortunately for us, we did not time our paddling trip to the tides and faced a surprisingly strong outgoing tide the whole way into Snake Bight.
My advice to you: Go near high tide. We were told the birds are actually easier to see at high tide because they will be compressed into reduced mud flats. If possible, paddle into Snake Bight on an incoming tide and paddle back during slack or an outgoing tide. (Note the tides will run an hour or two later than what you see listed for Flamingo. If I were to do this again, I’d talk to a ranger at the visitor center to time my trip.)
You will pass a few fishermen zooming by in this area, known for excellent fishing. But largely, when you paddle into Snake Bight, you see no evidence of man. It’s just you and the solitude and wildlife of Florida Bay.
Nearby inland kayak trails
Other options for kayakers include several kayak trails:
- Nine Mile Pond is the nearby trail I recommend. It’s a marked trail through mangroves and shallow lagoons, where a 14-foot crocodile is king of the pond. You can arrange to kayak here via the Flamingo marina operation.
- A challenging, twisty trail through the mangroves, Hell’s Bay Trail is sheltered, so it’s good for windy days. Here’s a Florida Rambler report on Hell’s Bay Trail.
- A shorter version of Hell’s Bay is across the road, Noble Hammock: a 1.9 mile loop through a maze of mangrove tunnels and small ponds. It’s a good choice for windy days when you can’t go out in the bay. You’d never be able to follow this trail without the more than 120 numbered PVC pipes that mark the trail. Spotting the next PVC pipe is part of the fun. Some report seeing wildlife on this trail; our only sighting was spiders in the mangrove tunnels.
- Mud Lake Canoe Trail travels through mangrove tunnels and lakes. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the Mud Lake Canoe Trail.
- The 8.1 mile-long West Lake Trail hugs the shore of a large open lake (not good choice for a windy day) and through back-country Alligator Creek to a wilderness chickee camp site (wilderness permit required.) We’ve paddled here and seen little wildlife, however.
It’s worth noting that small motorboats (up to 6 HP) are permitted on West Lake itself, although they are not permitted to leave the lake. The West Lake parking lot has a public-access boat ramp, a dock and restrooms, and serves as trailhead for a half-mile trail through mangroves to a boardwalk overlooking the lake. (This area including the boat ramp is closed during winter 2021-2022 as hurricane damage to the boardwalk is being repaired.)
Hiking near Flamingo
I have long looked for good hiking trails in Everglades National Park and this time, a ranger explained to me why I haven’t found many: It’s a swamp. Of course. This really isn’t hiking country.
(And “swamp” is not an entirely accurate term; the Everglades is a slow-moving river.)
Two shorter trails – the two-mile Bayshore Loop Trail and the one-mile Guy Bradley Trail – are located essentially within the Flamingo Marina/Campground complex and are definitely worth taking. (You can get a copy of the trail map at the visitor center.)
As I reviewed longer hiking options near Flamingo, it seemed like a process of elimination: Coastal Prairie Trail “several feet of water on the trail;” Christian Point “challenging, with shoe-sucking mud;” Snake Bight Trail “worst mosquitos in the park.”
Our helpful ranger said the only trails that aren’t too wet (in November and probably always) are those built on old raised roadbeds – Bear Lake Trail and Snake Bight Trail. Both can have fierce mosquitos, so be prepared.
The Bear Lake Trail is well maintained, although the 1.5 mile dirt road to the trailhead is incredibly rutted and pothole-filled. Once on the Bear Lake Trail, you get regular glimpses of the canal along its side and at lower water levels, this can be a good place to see birds and gators. In the wet January of 2022, we did not see any.
The trail ends at a small open portion of the shoreline at Bear Lake, where people fish or just enjoy the view.
The Snake Bight Trail: We had once tried to hike Snake Bight Trail and turned back – the mosquitos won.
This time, the ranger told us, the mosquitos weren’t bad. No, it was a rattlesnake that had prompted hikers to turn back this week, he said. Apparently an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake had stretched himself across the trail and wasn’t slithering away.
Considering ourselves forewarned, we equipped ourselves with long sleeves, pants and mosquito-netting hats, kept a vigilant eye for snakes and set out to master the Snake Bight Trail.
Our verdict: No rattlesnakes and, somehow, virtually no mosquitos!
On the other hand, this tropical hardwood forest is so thick and jungly that you rarely get much of a view. At the end of the 1.8 mile trail, you reach Snake Bight, the section of Florida Bay into which we had paddled the previous day. There is a very nice short boardwalk there with a lovely view of Snake Bight. At high tide, you might have good birding here. (We saw just a few at low tide as the birds were spread out across the bight.)
Still, I can only recommend Snake Bight Trail to avid hikers who want the experience of delving into a thick Everglades forest.
Accommodations in Flamingo
I have lived in Florida long enough to remember – and to have stayed in! – the old cabins at Flamingo. Before Hurricane Wilma (2005) there was a motel and cabins adjacent to the big pink visitor center at Flamingo. That destructive hurricane (which followed destructive Hurricane Andrews in 1992, which also damaged Flamingo) left Flamingo without anything but camping accommodations until 2019.
In 2019, a new concessionaire got a contract to manage Flamingo and new amenities have followed.
Your options at Flamingo now include:
- Camping, either in your RV or in a tent. Here’s a comprehensive story on camping in the Everglades from Florida Rambler.
- Staying on a houseboat, either on the dock ($350/night) or in White Water Bay ($400/night). Here’s my report (sneak peek: It’s expensive, but I loved it): A houseboat adventure in Everglades National Park
- Staying in an “eco-tent” adjacent to the Flamingo campground, a canvas cabin-like tent on a platform with comfortable beds, linens, electricity and a fan ($90/night.) Here’s our review of the eco-tents after a two-night stay during their first month.
- Here’s information on all Flamingo camping, boating and accommodations.
The next closest lodging is in Homestead, a little more than an hour away.
Soon, however, Flamingo will have another option: Lodging under construction in 2022 between the visitor center and the campground with views of Florida Bay. (It looked like a lodge to me, but the park describes it as a restaurant and 24 cottages.)
Everglades National Park will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2022 and the goal is to have the new visitor center and lodging open by then.
Planning your visit to the Everglades:
- Florida Ramber insider tips for visiting Everglades National Park.
- Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is now $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 park workers say service is good. (We found we had cell phone service 11 miles away at East Cape Sable.)
- The Everglades National Park website
- Map of Flamingo campground, including eco-tents.
- Map of kayak trails near Flamingo
- Camping reservations in Everglades National Park
- The Anhinga Trail
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride
A note from the editor:
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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.