Florida’s Everglades have been a source of mystery and folk tales for centuries. Its thick mangrove forests, impenetrable hammock vegetation and the dense sawgrass marsh has prevented all but the most determined individuals from exploring the Everglades and has helped create its mysterious reputation. Sailors would regularly tell tales of seeing mermaids in the more easily navigated waters surrounding the Everglades, there are stories of swamp spirits and numerous tales about the “keepers of the Everglades” (the alligators). Some say the Everglades are haunted by apes, whilst others claim that there are still skunk apes living in the Everglades today. There are modern myths too about a “Lost City” where Al Capone allegedly produced moonshine in the 1930s, others about spirits who have saved flights by diverting them away from disaster and secret hide-outs for lost children and gangs.
This watery world is also a rare and beautiful one. It is one of America’s unsung wild places and home to many endangered and rarely seen species such as American crocodile, Florida panther and West Indian manatee. It is one of the world’s globally important wetlands, listed alongside other famous places such as The Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Pantanal in Brazil and for this reason it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. It is a fascinating place; beautiful, mysterious and ancient. A haven for nature lovers and anyone who enjoys walking, sailing, fishing or bird-watching.
The Everglades system reaches from central Florida, near Orlando, all the way south to Florida Bay. It is actually a complex system of interdependent ecosystems that include sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rockland, the estuarine mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands and the marine environment of Florida Bay. The area is defined by two distinct seasons, the wet season that brings flooding and the dry season which brings drought. These two seasons have a dramatic effect on the park’s appearance and the lives of the different species that live or visit the area throughout the year.
The National park protects around one fifth of the whole ecosystem and visitors can explore the different habitats, rent kayaks, take boat tours and join ranger led activities. A guided Eco Tour is another way to get close and see the Everglades and there are numerous companies that offer Kayak, boat, canoe or airboat trips. Although airboats are not allowed within the National Park boundaries.
There are 3 ways to access the Park by car and the entrances are found at Homestead, Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast. Each area offers the visitor a slightly different perspective on the Everglades ecosystem.
The main entrance at Homestead connects the Royal Palm Area with the Flamingo Area in the bay. From the main visitors centre near the entrance is a 38 mile road that winds its way through the different ecosystems to the Florida Bay. The park has done a fantastic job at creating a variety of short walks and trails that give the visitor access to otherwise impenetrable habitats and provide a rare glimpse of this watery and extremely fragile environment. Highlights include the Anhinga Trail which offers the best opportunity to see alligators, turtles and wading birds close up and the Gumbo Limbo Trail that lets you experience the sensation of walking through dense tropical hardwood hammock. At the Pinelands Trail you can explore the subtropical pine forests that are maintained by fire and at Pa-hay-okee there is a boardwalk and observation platform with a panoramic view of the famous sawgrass marshes (or River of Grass as it is popularly known). There are other trails too that explore mangrove, lake and pond habitats. For those wanting to get out onto the water there are numerous canoeing trails. At the Flamingo centre you can pick up maps about the different canoe trails and longer overnight hiking and kayaking trails. At Flamingo’s harbour there is the opportunity to rent kayaks or join a boat.
The Shark Valley entrance is located in Miami. Here there is a 65ft observation tower which offers a panoramic view of the Everglades, as well as excellent opportunities to watch alligators, turtles, wading birds and snail kites. There are also cycling trails, bikes to rent and a guided Tram tour.
The Gulf Coast Entrance is located in Everglades City. This is the parks western saltwater gateway and visitors can join boat tours that go around the coastal mangroves. It is here that one can launch a trip to explore the Wilderness Waterway that connects Everglades City to Flamengo, or the Ten Thousand Islands – a mosaic of mangrove isles.
Tip: Take plenty of water, insect repellent and a picnic or barbecue. The food options are extremely limited within the park, however there are plenty of designated camping and picnicking facilities within the National Park.
Links to useful resources:
For more information about the park and the activities offered in and around its boundaries click here: http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm
For boat rentals and tours within the park see: http://www.evergladesnationalparkboattoursflamingo.com/
If you want to go hiking or canoeing click here to access downloadable maps and information: http://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/trailguides.htm
For those interested in getting out into the marine environment head for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Lago. Here you can go diving, snorkelling, canoeing or take a glass-bottom boat tour: http://pennekamppark.com/
Note: Airboat rides are not permitted within the National Park itself. However, boats and canoes are welcome and trips can be arranged in the park. For information about accessing longer hikes and over-night canoeing trails that requiring camping in the park talk to the rangers at the visitor centres.