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 (there will be no food service in the park until facilities at Flamingo re-open) 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 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
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 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.
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.
- 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.
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 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. (It will take years to complete, this being the federal government.)
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.)
Flamingo is a the best place to see crocodiles in the Everglades. While it is much rarer and shyer than the alligator, on a recent visit, one large croc posed with his mouth wide open at the Flamingo boat ramp for all to see.
Similarly, manatees are seen only by the lucky, but they do frequent the Flamingo marina. (We saw three on an April 2018 visit.)
As of April 2018, many facilities at Flamingo remain closed because of hurricane damage, including boat tours and the cafe. The whole place has an “end of the world” feel to it, with several buildings in disrepair.
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. Also, the walk is quieter and less crowded.
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, offered during the winter season.
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 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.
Free admission 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.
If you arrive by trolley, you will have limited options within the park, but it does bring you to what I consider the real highlights. If you arrive by trolley, you should stop at visitor center and look at the exhibits and watch the video. Then, take the next trolley to Royal Palm, where you can walk to trails: the famous wildlife-filled Anhinga Trail and the jungly Gumbo Limbo Trail. Bring lunch or a snack; you won’t find any food service here. Here are details of the trolley system.
Planning your visit to the Everglades:
- 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.)
- 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.
- The Everglades National Park website
- Camping in the Everglades | Reserve a campsite at Flamingo
- Everglades National Park map
- 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.
- 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.
- Knauss Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, in Homestead.
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.