I learned in April how very different Washington’s National Parks are from Florida’s–there’s hardly any hiking! But these parks are still very worth an other-wordly visit.
I have been so busy with a job that actually has work for me to do, I have been seriously neglecting the posting here. But I am eager to share all the details of my Everglades NP trip!
Similar to Saguaro National Park, there are separate units of the park–three, in this case. I visited two of the three areas, the Miami Entrance (aka Shark Valley) and the Homestead Entrance (which contains Royal Palm and Flamingo areas). One $30 fee covers 7 consecutive days worth of entrance for all three (or flash your America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, which are sold at the gate). With 1.5 million acres of wetlands, layers–whether they protect from sun, rain, or bugs–are vital here. Florida has a ‘rainy’ season (typically May-November) and a ‘dry’ season, and I’ve heard the bugs during the rainy season are hellacious. Typically there are fewer ranger programs in the rainy season. I was also a little disappointed there was no newspaper with trail info like you get at Rainier or Crater Lake NP.
I stayed in Homestead, FL, which is close to both Everglades and Biscayne NP. From my hotel, it was a very short drive to get to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which is actually before the park entrance. I gulped a bit at the panther crossing sign, but later a ranger assured me there was maybe six in the entire park, and he’d never seen any in the actual park in over 30 years. Phew! I got my passport cancellation and quickly set off for the Royal Palm Visitor Center.
In visits to 15 national parks over the years, I’ve learned the parks have two types of wildlife. There’s the “hope to see and probably won’t” type, which I’d classify as not seeing anything more exciting than a deer on a typical visit in parks like Rainier, Olympic, Crater Lake, Channel Islands, and Saguaro. Then there’s the “they’re still wild animals but yeah, they’re guaranteed” category, which so far for me is bison in Yellowstone, and gators in Everglades. I am not sure if this is year-round or not, but I’ll vouch gators are guaranteed in Everglades NP, and very likely if you park at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and do the Anhinga trail.
I actually made a 1.3 mile loop of the Gumbo-Limbo and Anhinga trails. The Gumbo-Limbo tree is a cousin of my beloved Pacific Madrona tree, and this bark is rumored to have been used in the first iteration of chicken gumbo! I also took delight in the tiny lizards everywhere, scurrying about. I completed the Gumbo-Limbo portion and saw in the wetland behind Royal Palm was a gator swimming about–my first wild alligator! I took delight at the creature swimming far away and continued to the Anhinga trail, named for a water-dwelling bird. The trail is along a slough, which means plenty of opportunities to see birds, fish, and gators between the pavement and boardwalk over the water. There was a snowy egret right along the trail as well, but the gator swimming around, including under the boardwalk, was the highlight.
I could have delighted at a bench on the boardwalk all day, but with my day being unexpectedly clear due to some cancelled paddleboarding at Biscayne, I had all day to explore the park, so decided to finish the Anhinga trail and head westward to the Flamingo Visitor Center. I had my closest gator encounter of the day while finishing the trail, with one chilling right next to a platform. I can’t believe I even got it’s eyes open on my cell phone camera!
On the drive to Flamingo, there were tons more pullouts for trails, campgrounds, and signs along the way. I delighted in the sign informing me I was crossing Rock Reef Pass, Elevation 3 feet. The flat landscapes made sightseeing easy, with me seeing various ‘hammocks’ (clumps of trees, typically hardwood, that form a tiny ecological island) dotting the savannah-like plains. I stopped at one on the way (Pa-Hay-Okee, which offered stunning vistas of said savannah-like area), but decided to press on to Flamingo and see how much time was left for others after.
The Flamingo Visitor Center is undergoing renovations, so was in a small trailer instead of the beautiful pink buildings being upgraded at this time. Flamingo is very unique as it’s where “the black water” of Buttonwood Canal meets the jade-green sea water of Florida Bay. Plenty of ranger programs happen here, so check in advance!
I headed towards the bay, where I was greeted by two volunteers who let me know there was both a manatee and a nesting crocodile–yes, crocodile!–in the water as well. I had been informed crocodiles were extremely rare in the park, with this being the northern range of the American Crocodile’s typical area.
While far smaller than their Nile and Australian counterparts, they are still very dangerous, so I let my zoom lens do the work for me.
I wished I had arrived a bit earlier for a ranger talk, but with my skin sizzling, I decided to meander back, making some pit stops along the way. I started along the Snake Bight trail, which was supposed to be 1 mile each way with amazing birding, but got positively swarmed by bugs, so turned back rather quickly. I then decided on a whim to pull off for a few sights here and there, including this stunning example of a mangrove tree.
But the piece du resistance, for me at least, of the Homestead area was the Mahogany Hammock trail, located between Royal Palm and Flamingo. This 0.4 mile boardwalk into a hammock of mahogany trees delighted the senses like no other hike I’ve done before! I stopped and breathed in the fragrant air like I would in a garden, not in a national park! The scent reminded me of plumeria, as the mahogany, palms, strangler figs, bromeliads, and air plants swayed above me. Certainly work a stop and gawk (the shade helped, too!). While I wish there were more miles of trails similar to this one, not every park is for hikers, and the Homestead area is especially great for paddlers, with miles of aquatic trails and tons of chickees to paddle to and camp on. Hopefully next trip, but with only two and a half days to explore, I enjoyed my first day in Homestead plenty!
Best Beer Bet: I was excited to see Miami Brewing Company nearby the Homestead entrance, but I wasn’t too impressed by their beer, and the $40 price tag for a sampler (of four + a pint) and a burger was astronomical! Check out Exit One Taproom in Homestead instead for a wide variety of options–or push to Key Largo for some frozen cocktails!
Shark Valley Entrance
Close to Miami and Fort Lauderdale is the Shark Valley area of the park. I checked out of Homestead and drove about an hour to this entrance. There were increasingly more and more fan boat companies dotting the road to the entrance, but every review I read advised skipping those and saving money for the Shark Valley tram tour. I entered the park and found easy parking before stepping out to the early-morning heat. The Visitor Center here is a hybrid, with the NPS on one side, and Shark Valley Tram Tours on the other, so check your merch carefully if that is a concern. I purchased more sunscreen and a tram ticket. On a Monday I was able to walk up without a reservation, but I’d recommend one highly on weekends. The bathrooms here are pit toilets, FYI.
The tram tour is run by an NPS-approved concessioner, but our guide was an actual park ranger named JP. He was absolutely wonderful at pointing out critters, and explaining ecological and biological features of the park. I’d super-recommend adding this on to your visit. The two-hour tram tour takes you on a 15-mile paved loop, also open to bikes (which you can rent as well), to the Shark Valley Observation Tower, which has bathrooms and water (warm tap water).
If you thought there were lots of gators on the Anhinga trail, they’re multiplied seemingly by the thousands here, and seemed far larger, at least to me. While we stopped a fair amount to see gators at the beginning, after a few we started zipping past them. JP also talked about park history, which was equally interesting to me. I knew about Florida’s Native American tribes, but I guess I had made assumptions about how far the Trail of Tears reached, so knowing some tribes were forced out from as far as Florida was sobering but important. As much as I love National Park land, the reminder it was not always ‘our’ land is an important fact. I reapplied sunscreen, taking note to get the tops of my legs, just before we stopped about halfway at the Observation Tower.
JP let us know we had 15 or so minutes to wander about here, so I hoofed it to the tower. At 70 feet high, the tower is the highest viewpoint in the park, although you cannot go all the way to the top anymore (unsure why, but as I am not fond of heights, the current deck was high enough). Regardless, it still offers panoramic views (boasting up to 20 miles!) of the area around you, including swampy water directly below us I could see gators in from above. I loved the mid-century style of it, reminding me of the Space Needle and other architecture from that era. As I was either significantly older or younger than everyone else on the tram, I was the first up, which was nice to get some pics and then head back to allow others a chance to see the vistas. There was a little trail here as well, the Borrow Pit trail, but I didn’t want to be the one holding up the tram, so I stuck close to the waiting area.
Our last leg of the journey was a bit more bird heavy. Is it spoiled to say I didn’t even glance upward for Great Blue Herons? It was nice to get to see more exotic (to me) birds like Anhingas and the Swallow-Tailed Kite, pointed out by JP. Between the various areas of the park, I had seen all but one creature from my wildlife wishlist, the Roseate Spoonbill. But there was one more wild treat still!
I wandered around a little, after disembarking the tram. Right at the beginning, just off the road JP had pointed out there was a mama gator guarding her babies, and I was on the other side of the tram, so hadn’t gotten a close look. They did have caution tape around the area, but I was shocked at the sight before me! What must have been 20 tiny gator babies, with their resting mother. With that final memory, I left the park, headed to my conference in Fort Lauderdale a little pink, a little bug-bitten, and a whole lot happy.
Best Beer Bet: Depending on where you are headed after, there’s many options in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. I chose one near my hotel, Invasive Species Brewing, and was blown away by their IPAs.
All in all, I had a wonderful time at Everglades National Park. It felt like another world. I’d love to return for paddling, chickee-camping, and hopefully, the sight of a Roseate Spoonbill. But Florida also had another National Park I was available to visit–Biscayne!