NPS Adventures: Everglades National Park

Everglades Entry

I’ve been in love with the National Park Service for a long time. I was a kid on family roadtrips when I first discovered the Passport to Your National Parks and all of the cancellation stamps available at NPS sites. As a completist who was also in love with travel and new places, I was immediately hooked. I wanted all of the stamps. I wanted to visit every NPS site.

I’ve since passed on that love to my kids, who (at 4 and 7) just discovered the passport for themselves and have started their own collections. It also helps that we make it a point to visit NPS site wherever we might be (and that we live near Washington, DC – a city spilling over with national monuments and NPS locations).

Therefore, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the upcoming National Park Week (April 16-24, 2016), we’re starting a brand-new series called NPS Adventures. These posts will take a big-picture view of one location and highlight some of the best activities that site has to offer. This will usually be done through a kid-friendly lens and will almost always include activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience.

And pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

Glad to have you aboard! For our inaugural entry, we’re heading south. All the way down to the southern tip of Florida and the Everglades National Park.

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I’ve wanted to get down to the Everglades for a long time. Years! This year, during the kids’ spring break week, we finally made the trip. And it didn’t disappoint – so much so that we ended up staying an extra day, and we all still want to return.

I’ve been to a lot of national parks, including many of the most famous ones out west, and I’ve been to a lot of famous natural sites around the world, but I’ve never been anyplace like the Everglades. It’s such a unique environment, and it’s impossible to really know what it’s like until you’re there.

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As an enormous subtropical climate, the Everglades experiences two major seasons: wet and dry. Typically, the dry season (i.e., the high tourist season) runs from November to March, and the wet season (i.e., mosquito heaven) lasts from April to November. This year, because of strange weather patterns and El Nino, the park was under an unprecedented amount of water for late March.

Even though it may look flat and relatively barren from a distance, the park has a surprising diversity of ecosystems: freshwater sloughs, prairies, tropical hammocks, pineland, cypress, mangrove, coastal lowlands, marine, and estuarine. It’s shocking how just a few feet of elevation in either direction can cause an entirely different ecosystem (with its associated flora, fauna, and habitats) to develop.

(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)

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Will you see alligators? Yes. Yes, you will. Spend more than an hour in the park, look closely, and tread lightly, and you’ll see plenty. This is their natural environment, after all. I know there’s a lot of concern about these animals, but they’re actually quite tame and couldn’t care less about you…unless you start poking them with a stick or try to pick one up. Don’t do that.

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There are four main visitor’s centers, and three of those are at the primary entrances to the park. The Gulf Coast Visitor’s Center is at the northwest corner of the park in Everglades City and is the primary launching point for journeys into the Ten Thousand Islands. It’s the one visitor’s center we missed.

The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center is closest to Miami and and along the Tamiami Trail, about halfway to Naples. From here, there is a 15-mile loop road that leads to an old oil rig that has been converted into a lookout tower. The road is closed to private traffic, so it makes a fantastically quiet bicycle trail. If you’re short on time or energy, there are also two-hour narrated tram tours that make the trip every hour. The catch is that they cost an extra $24 for adults (and $12.75 for kids 3-12).

I gotta say, I’m decidedly not a fan of paying for tours within a national park that I already paid to enter. Since our youngest is only 4 years old and couldn’t handle a 15-mile bike ride with southern Florida sunshine and humidity, we opted for the tram tour. The guide was knowledgeable, and he talked for almost the entire two hours (except for the 15 minutes we spent at the lookout tower), so he clearly knew his stuff about the park. But asking for a tip at the end of the tour…after we had forked over the money for four tram tickets….and had paid to get into the park was just a bit too much.

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Would I recommend the tram tour? Probably not. It’s gorgeous and a pleasureable enough way to spend two hours in the park, but if you’ve got at least a day to spend, I’d absolutely recommend heading down to Homestead and entering the park near the Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center.

From here, you can drive all the way down to Flamingo, which is at the extreme southern tip of mainland Florida. If you’re at all interested in heading out into Florida Bay or canoeing in the park, you’ll need to check in at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center.

Before you get there, though, you have to make the 38-mile drive from the park entrance near Homestead. Along the way are several very worthwhile stops.

Hiking

The first stop after the visitor’s center is both one of the best stops and one of the most popular. The Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail both leave from a single parking lot, but beware of the vultures. You may wonder why there is a plentiful supply of blue tarps to borrow and why so many cars are covered with those same tarps. We were very confused, until we realizes that vultures like to hang out in the area and walk all over your car. The tarps help prevent any damage they might do.

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Both of these trails are worth doing, and both are very short. The Anhinga Trail is a beautiful boardwalk trail (0.8 miles) that winds through a sawgrass marsh. Bring your sunscreen since the entire thing is in direct sunlight, but this is one of the best and most reliable spots in the park to spot wildlife.

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Everglades5 Everglades6 By contrast, the Gumbo Limbo Trail (0.4 miles) is a short loop through a shaded hammock of gumbo limbo and palm trees. It’s one of the few places in the park that feels like a forest hike.

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Moving south on the road to Flamingo, the Pahayokee Overlook is another great stop. This is a very short (0.16 miles) boardwalk trail that leads to a raised platform overlooking the famous “river of grass.” The overlook really does provide a sweeping vista, and it’s a great place to stretch your legs.

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Everglades10Everglades9 Likewise, the Mahogany Hammock Trail is another easy boardwalk trail that leads through a dense, junglelike hardwood hammock. Like the Gumbo Limbo Trail, it reveals the remarkable diversity found in the Everglades and is a great place to walk, see different vegetation, and spot some wildlife.

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There are several other stops on the road to Flamingo, and all of them are worth checking out, but the above are the easiest (and most diverse) trails this part of the park has to offer. There are also a lot of more traditional trails around Long Pine Key and Pinelands that are worth checking out, but you should check with the visitor’s center on their conditions. Depending on the time of year, many trails are closed or under water. If you venture out onto those trails, make sure you’re prepared with sunscreen, water, insect repellent, and waterproof boots.

The farther south and closer to Flamingo you go, the more that mosquitoes and (biting) deer flies become a problem. Keep that in mind.

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Canoeing

If you’re interested in renting a canoe, you can do so near the marina store in Flamingo. Rates are $20 for two hours for a normal canoe, slightly more for a “family-sized” boat. That rate is also for two hours of water time, so depending on where you’re planning to paddle, you may be allotted more time.

We decided to check out the canoe trail near Nine Mile Pond, which is about 14 miles north of Flamingo. There are boats stored at the pond, so you won’t need to strap a canoe to the roof of your car, but you’ll need to head to Flamingo first to handle the paperwork and pick up everything you need (paddles, PFDs, and a key to unlock the boat). Ditto for when you’re done. You’ll need to head back to Flamingo to return everything before you can head north again.

The entire trail is five miles long and extremely well marked with 116 numbered PVC pipes. It should take about four hours to paddle the entire thing. If you’ve only got two hours, though, there’s a well-marked shortcut that shortens the trail by 1.5 miles. We had two kids in our boat, and my wife had never been in a canoe before. Despite that, we still finished in about two hours, so I wouldn’t worry about time.

Canoeing2Canoeing3 Beyond the wide-open Nine Mile Pond, the trail primarily winds through mangroves and shallow marsh prairies. Some sections of the mangroves are essentially tunnels, which is an incredible place to paddle, and the kids loved it. Once the shortcut rejoins the main trail loop (around PVC marker 82), you’re in wide open marshes with loads of direct sunlight. Keep that in mind.

The water is dominated by spike rush and sawgrass, and the depth varies, so you might find that some sections are fairly slow going or more strenuous. Keep going, though, since before you end up at Nine Mile Pond again, the trail passes through two smaller ponds (that feel enormous after 3.5 miles of mangroves) that are absolutely beautiful.

You’ll also want to keep your eyes open for alligators and crocodiles. We saw several and were within a few feet of most of them. Again, leave them alone, and they won’t bother you. It is truly an amazing feeling to be paddling through mangrove tunnels, mere feet from wild alligators. This is why you go to the Everglades.

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Junior Rangers

If you have kids, the Junior Ranger program is without question one of the best things you can do in any NPS location. Each park has a different program that reflects the specifics of that place, but the basic idea is generally the same: complete the assigned task, get “sworn in” by a park ranger, and be awarded a Junior Ranger badge for that park.

In southern Florida, the Junior Ranger program is somewhat combined among the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve. Kids are given an 18-page book of activities, and they have to complete any three pages to qualify for one park’s badge.

The three parks are identified by their mascots: Peter the Panther (Big Cypress), Diego the Dolphin (Biscayne), and Aleesha the Alligator (Everglades). If kids complete the tasks for all three parks (i.e., complete nine pages and get sworn in at each park), then they earn a special patch for their achievement.

Depending on your kid, your mileage may vary with the Junior Ranger program, but my kids are obsessed. Also depending on their age, it’s expected that you’ll be involved in the process to some extent. We’ve found them to be incredibly informative and great fun!

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