Vacay.ca’s Jenn Smith Nelson explores the legendary south Florida attraction.
Story by Jenn Smith Nelson
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA — Canadians make up approximately 44,000 of the 1.1 million yearly visitors to Florida’s Everglades National Park.
The park’s abundance of wildlife, pristine ecosystems, variety of habitats (there are seven different ones!) and numerous adventure offerings, appeal to lovers of the great outdoors. Choosing how to make the most of a visit to the massive park can be the hardest part of planning your trip.
The Everglades span a remarkable size of just over 1.5 million acres — larger than Prince Edward Island. Found at the southern tip of Florida’s peninsula the park makes up the largest tropical wilderness and third-largest national park in the lower United States. The park is also recognized as a World Heritage Site, Wetland of International Significance and International Biosphere Reserve.
Though there are similar ecosystems in the world, the park, best described as a “40-mile wide slow-moving river,” is truly the only ecosystem of its type.
Here are six not-to-miss experiences in Everglades National Park:
The park is home to 600 diverse animal species including 35-plus species at risk, such as the American crocodile, Florida panther, wood stork and leatherback sea turtle. Manatees to snakes, snail kites to turtles and more fascinating creatures inhabit the park and can be viewed from a safe distance. Alligators, found in the park’s freshwater areas are particularly popular. In south Florida, freshwater from the park runs off into the sea and creates a brackish estuary. This is the only place in the world where crocodiles (found in salt water) co-exist with the more common American alligator.
Boasting more than 400 species of birds allows visitors to take in some of the country’s best birding. Migration season (during spring and fall) is the ideal time of year to go, as the peninsular area is a major stopping point for hundreds of non-native bird species. The Everglades are the most significant breeding ground for wading tropical birds. On a good day, visitors can see roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, egrets and more. If very lucky, perhaps even flamingos. Hint: Canoeing or kayaking in Florida Bay (or along Snake Bight trail) is an excellent way to view wading and shore birds.
Free Ranger Guided Tours
For those keen to learn about the park, free guided tours are a solid option with at least one tour offered every day. During the high season, additional park rangers are on hand to provide even more interpretive activities. These tours include activities such as nature walks, tram rides, hiking, biking and ranger-led talks on flora and fauna. For example, you will learn about the parks more than 1,000 plant species, such as sawgrass, which makes up most of the prairies in the Everglades, and is one of the oldest green plants in the world.
Take in unique perspectives on the park’s ecosystem by hiking. Four groups of trails are found in the park: Shark Valley Trails, Pine Island Trails, Flamingo Trails and the Gulf Coast Trails. One of the most well0trodden trails — which are also offered on a guided tour — is the Anhinga Trail boardwalk. This elevated wooden walkway is one of the best routes for viewing park wildlife — alligator sightings are common. While winding through Mahogany Hammock, a West Indian hardwood forest where the largest living mahogany tree in the country exists, wading birds and barred owls can be spotted.
Biking The Long Pine Key Trail
The flat bike trail features more than 35 kilometres (22 miles) of connecting trails, taking cyclists through a pine forest. Another route includes the 61-kilometre (38 mile) paved Main Park Road (accessed from the park’s Homestead entrance) where cyclists bike through the beauty of the multitude of hardwood hammocks and dwarf cypress forest found along the way. For those hoping to spot wildlife, Shark Valley marks the spot with its 24-kilometre (15 mile) round-trip loop. Touted as south Florida’s easiest and most scenic way to explore the park, wildlife such as otters, turtles, deer and alligators are often spotted.
Exploring the most untouched areas in the park is best done atop the water. Canoes and kayaks can be rented at both the Flamingo and Gulf Coast sites, where visitors can also take in boat tours. The Flamingo site offers tours into the mangrove backcountry of the park and also out into the open waters of Florida Bay. For an exceptional experience take a guided boat tour of Ten Thousand Islands at the Gulf Coast site. Iconic airboats have been a longstanding main attraction offering an exciting and adventurous way to see the park while learning about its species and ecosystem. Though fun, the boats can startle wildlife, so consider trying a quieter tram tour if wildlife viewing is high on your list.
MORE ABOUT VISITING EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
Website: Visit Florida
Getting There: Fly into Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Fort Myers (closest access to the Gulf Coast visitor centre) and drive to the Everglades, which is in a remote location so be sure to have enough gas as well as snacks for the ride. There are two main areas and access points: the northern section is accessible via Shark Valley and Everglades City, and the southern through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, near Homestead and Florida City.
When to Go: There are only two seasons in the Everglades: dry and wet. The most comfortable, yet busiest time of year to visit is the dry/high season (December-April). The wet season is from the middle of May to November.
What to Bring: Be prepared with bug spray. Mosquitoes are abundant during the wet season.
You May Also Like: There are three other National Park Service units within a day’s drive of the park, all equally worthy of a visit: Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Website: For more information visit the National Park Service website