Last updated on February 25th, 2020 at 10:59 pm
Natives, adventurers, fugitives, pirates and smugglers have all made their homes in the mysterious Everglades, and some still do, largely out of the public eye in back-country swamps accessible only by airboats or swamp buggies and oft-flooded unpaved roads.
Everglades National Park is only one part of a massive eco-system that begins near Orlando in the Kissimmee River watershed and reaches 175 miles south to Florida Bay.
The sections most associated with the Everglades, however, lie south of Alligator Alley, an area that includes Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Preserve.
This is not a pleasant place to live or even visit during scorching, humid summers, but it’s a wonderland for observing wildlife as the humidity lifts in winter. More than 300 species of birds settle down here and breathe life into this safe haven from winter’s invasion.
Many congregate around the Eco Pond, which is a short walk from the Flamingo campgrounds.
Camping in Everglades National Park
There are two developed campgrounds in Everglades National Park, and a half-dozen more in Big Cypress, not counting primitive backcountry sites accessible only by boat or a strenuous hike through often wet and swamping trails.
But if you’re looking to get way from it all, you can do it here.
Admission to Everglades National Park is $35 per vehicle, which entitles you to park access for 7 days. Camping fees are additional.
When I took my travel trailer to Everglades National Park in mid-October, campgrounds in the park looked pretty ragged, victims of a long summer of neglect. Only two campground loops were open, and the new Eco-Tent campground for “glampers” on Florida Bay was still taking shape. The walk-in tent campground on the bay, meanwhile, was waterlogged, while the grass was shoulder-high in Campground Loops B and C.
The drive-through campsites in A Loop (no hookups) and T Loop (electric only) were freshly mowed, though empty, even on a weekend. Only half of the electrical hookup stations were live in the T-Loop.
The campground was still emerging from a long summer sleep, when we visited and few others venture into this part of the world. Visitors are not really expected until after the weather breaks in early November. Even then, you are not assured of crowds. Flamingo is literally at the end of the road, 40 lonely miles south of the Homestead entrance to the park, and it takes a bit of a commitment to get there.
A new park concession, Flamingo Adventures, has taken over campground management and reservations as part of its overall administration of the Flamingo marina, store, boat rentals and boat tours, The new marina store was clean and stocked with basic convenience store supplies, including a few groceries, beer, wine and commonly needed camping gear, but it would be smart to buy and pack the stuff you need before leaving civilization.
Mosquitos here can be fierce at any time of year, so be prepared with a repellent that includes Deet. We’ve also found the Thermacell Portable Mosquito Repeller to be effective.
Bring your kayak or canoe to explore backcountry trails. Small motorboats (6 HP max) are allowed in many areas. If you don’t have your own, you can rent fishing boats, canoes and kayaks at the marina store. While gas is available for boats at the marina, there is no gas for cars, so be sure to fill up your venicle before entering the park.
Flamingo Adventures has introduced two new overnight options for visitors, houseboats and Eco-tents.
Houseboat guests can stay at the dock or roam the back country, but you miss all the best reasons for visiting the Everglades if you remain at the dock, according to Florida Rambler Bonnie Gross.
The Eco-Tents each have a queen bed and a deck with a view of Florida Bay. The tents are accessible via a boardwalk from the parking area.
All T-Loop and A-Loop sites are drive-through with a picnic table and fire ring. Only the T-Loop has sites with electric. Modest discounts ($2-$5) are available for seniors, active military, veterans and holders of a Park Access Pass.
- T-Loop RV sites with electric (no water): $47.52 per night, including tax
- T-Loop without electric. $26.40 per night, including tax
- A-Loop without electric. $26.40 per night, including tax
- Bayside walk-in sites: $26.40 per night, including tax
- Eco-Tents. $150 per night, plus tax, Nov. 1 to March 19; $129 a night March 20 to 28; $115 a night March 29-April 12; $75 a night April 13 to May 31. Rentals end in June.
- Houseboats. $400 per night plus tax if you cruise; $350 if you stay at the dock.
Campground reservations are accepted online through the park concession, Flamingo Adventures, or by calling 855-708-2207. If you book online, your campsite is automatically assigned. To request a specific site, you will have to call.
Campground loops B & C remain closed, according to park ranger Christi Carmichael.
There is no water hookup at any campsite in Flamingo. Before setting up camp in your RV, be fill your freshwater tank at the Fill Station next to the designated Bathhouse.
Long Pine Key Campground
Long Pine Key Campground is a short drive from the entrance to Everglades National Park and the Homestead Visitor Center, saving campers the 40-mile drive to Flamingo while still deep enough to provide a strong dose of the Everglades.
Unlike in the past, the 108 campsites can be reserved online or by phone, 1-855-708-2077, through Flamingo Adventures, the park’s new campground and marina concession. Previously, the only option was to show up on the chance that a site would be available.
There are no hookups for RVs, although each site has a fire ring and a picnic table. As is true in the Flamingo Campground, RV campers should stop at the water fill station before setting up.
Long Pine is only a few miles from the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, which means it provides a good opportunity for one of those only-if-you’re-camping experiences: 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 campground is adjacent to the 7-mile-long Long Pine Key trail, a favorite with fat-tire cyclists, and the scenic Long Pine Key Lake.
Five things you should know about Long Pine Key Campground:
- The bathrooms are clean and convenient, but no hot 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. You can forage for dead wood and kindling.
- Long Pine Key Campground is open seasonally from November 15 – May 31. It is closed June 1 to November 14.
Reservations are accepted online through the park concession, Flamingo Adventures, or by calling 855-708-2207. If you book online, your campsite is automatically assigned. To request a specific site, you will have to call.
Rates: $26.40 per night, including tax.
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, accessible only by boat from Flamingo or Everglades City.
Winter is the best season. Summer’s are hot, muggy, miserable and dominated by insects. Relatively speaking, mosquitos lay low in winter but not completely, so you still need to be prepared.
A backcountry camping permit is required for wilderness campsites, Reservations are not accepted, and permits are only issued the day before or day of your trip.
Wilderness permits are free from April through mid-November; $15 plus $2 per person per night from mid-November through April.
Permits for backcountry sites must be made in person up to a day in advance at the Flamingo or the Gulf Coast (Everglades City) Visitor Centers.
A few tips on getting back-country permits:
- Download the official Everglades National Park Backcountry Trip Planner, which includes a map of 48 backcountry sites.
- For sites where only one or two campers are allowed, arrive at the ranger station a day early to secure permits. If you seek a permit for the day you arrive, be flexible and have alternative sites in mind.
- 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
This 1200-square-mile preserve boasts a variety of Everglades eco-systems, not the least of which are cypress swamps. The northern section off Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) is a prime destination for hunters in season, and off-road vehicles, although hikers and mountain bikers are becoming more common.
Most visitors gravitate to the southern section of the Big Cypress along the Tamiami Trail.
Unlike Everglades National Park, dispersed camping for backpackers and hikers is permitted anywhere in Big Cypress south of Alligator Alley (I-75). Whether you are entering the back country for a day or a week, by car or on foot, you must have a backcountry permit, which you can download here.
Campgrounds along Tamiami Trail and Loop Road
Tamiami Trail is the original road dredged out of swamp land to connect the east and west coasts of Florida through the Everglades, eventually connecting Miami to Tampa.
The section that skirts through the Everglades is full of life and things to do.
Read more: Road trip: Tamiami Trail
There are five park service campgrounds along the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) managed by the Big Cypress Preserve. Only Midway has hookups (electric) and a dump station for RV’s. A second dump station is located at Dona Drive (2.5 miles east of SR 29 on US 41).
All of the campgrounds in Big Cypress offer access to 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. Both are primitive campgrounds and are first come, first served (no reservations).
Burns Lake has 10 RV (boondocking) and 5 tent sites in separate campgrounds on opposite sides of the lake. Sites are available from Aug. 15 until April 15, although day-use area is open all year with backcountry access.
There are no hookups and no water, so bring your own everything. The nearest dump station is at Dona Drive, 7 miles away in Ochopee. We camped here in February 2020 in our RV and loved it!
Although lacking shade, there is lots of separation between sites, offering a modicum of privacy. We also found the use of generators was minimal in the RV section, as if every camper respected the silence. (Officially, quiet hours are from 10 pm until 6 am.)
This campground is popular with off-road vehicles, but we saw few, even on a weekend. The campground is also set off the highway, so there was zero road noise. Very pleasant experience. We’ll go back.
Camping fee $24/night for tents and RVs. Holders of annual national park passes receive a 50% discount.
For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Nearby attractions include airboat and swamp buggy tours, museums, the Clyde Butcher art gallery, nature boardwalks and kayaking in the Turner River.
The Midway Campground is the most developed Big Cypress campground with drinking water, electric hookups and restrooms. The campground has a dump station and 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 with electric are $30/night, and the 10 tent sites are $24/night. Holders of annual national park passes receive a 50% discount.
Midway is open year-round, but sites are hard to get. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Be patient if no sites are available, and check back often for cancellations.
This campground is near the Big Cypress Preserve Oasis Visitor Center, Miccosukee Cultural Center, Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, and Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Art Gallery.
Read more: Shark Valley bike trail
A real gem, the well-groomed Monument Lake Campground is 8 miles east of Burns Lake on the Tamiami Trail.
Like Burns Lake, you will be boondocking: no hookups, no dump station. Unlike Burns Lake, Monument Lake Campground does have drinking water (central tap) and flush toilets.
Some RV sites are right on the lake, while others are set back a wee bit across the campground access road, backing up to a cypress forest. Fire rings (with grills) and picnic tables are available at all sites.
We really liked this campground, and boondocking was not an issue. Use of generators was a little more prevalent than we experienced at Burns Lake, but not obnoxiously so.
The tent camping area was on the other side of the lake from the RV sites and located next to the rest rooms and water spigot. The only RVs nearby were the campground hosts (volunteers), which do have hookups.
The campground is open from Aug. 29 until April 15. An RV site is $28/night and a tent site is $24; half price for those with a National Parks access pass. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.
Mitchell’s Landing is on the Loop Road and has 12 RV/tent sites without hookups, no water and no dump station. The campground has vault toilets, and sites are $24/night, payable on-site upon arrival. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and lantern pole. No reservations. Fee is $12 for campers with a National Parks senior or access pass. Maximum stay is 10 days from January through April; 14 days the rest of the year.
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. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Recreational activities include paddling, hiking, birding, fishing, and hunting.
Bear Island Unit campgrounds
North of I-75, campers are restricted to the campgrounds in the Bear Island Unit in Okaloacoochee Slough, 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 Alligator Alley. Park inside the gate and trek 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 accessible only from Tamiami Trail. (No vehicle access from I-75 or 29).
Be aware 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 bicyclists are beginning to discover it, so don’t be discouraged. Best time to avoid the noise of ATVs is during the week.
Bear Island Campground – 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.
Gator Head – Gator Head has 9 tent sites, no hookups and is open from Aug. 29 until June 1. Again, there are vault toilets. Only off-road vehicles can access these sites, and you are required to have an ORV permit.
Pink Jeep – Nine tent sites are open from Aug. 29 until June 1. There are vault toilets, but nothing else, not even drinking water. Only off-road vehicles can access Pink Jeep, and an ORV permit is required.
Three things you should know about Bear Island Campgrounds:
- There is no drinking water or electricity available anywhere.
- No dump stations or restrooms, only vault toilets.
- Campsite fee is $10 per night. Call 877-444-6777.
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.
Collier Seminole State Park
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.