The Everglades is a vast tropical wetland area covering around 1.5 million acres of Sawgrass grasslands, swamps, waterways, rivers, sloughs, hardwood hammocks, inlets, mangroves, estuaries and islands covering almost the entire bottom end of the peninsula that is Florida. Much of the area is wilderness and inaccessible, with other areas only accessible by small boat or limited to small tracks.
The name ‘Everglades’ is derived from seeing the blades of sawgrass shimmer and ripple as water and wind move them past them, creating small waves across the grasslands, hence the name.
The Everglades has many unique geographical features, one of the most apparent being ‘sloughs’ small waterways formed when a river, like the Shark River in the Everglades takes a new course after floods, leaving behind a series of small lakes where it previously flowed. Each flood may create new courses for the river to flow. ‘Keys’ (or cays) are also another geographical term, meaning a small island of sand above a coral reef, and there are thousands of them just rising above the water off the Florida Coastline, including the area they call “Ten Thousand Islands” off the south west coast. Hammocks are small stands of hardwood trees that stand like islands of trees in the middle of grasslands. They occur when a mound of soil creates enough land for trees to grow on top.
Overall the Everglades are just 20 feet or so above sea level, with the waters flowing southwards through the wetlands to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is the permanent home to less than 1000 people, but also home to thousands of alligators, racoons, snakes, other animals and millions of birds, crabs, fish and insects including mosquitoes. There are two seasons – the rainy season (May to October) and the Dry season (November to April) – and the Mosquitoes and biting flies enjoy both. As much as using a repellent works, the best protection is to cover up as much as you can. It is not a place to wear just your bikini or shorts!
In earlier times, people saw the swamps and mosquitoes as a wasteland that if they could drain it, and fill with soil, they could create valuable real estate for farms or housing, whereas today the unique nature of the Everglades is recognized for its value as a breeding ground for millions of fish, turtles and other marine life.
Originally the Everglades covered an area of around 3 million acres, but 1 million acres of the Everglades became sugarcane fields and agriculture. The remaining 2 million acres became a water conservation area and protected wetlands as part of the Everglades National Park. Outside of the Everglades National Park – there are also the Big Cypress, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks too.
There are three entranceways to the Everglades National Park – on the east coast south of Miami, there is Florida City and the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and Royal Palm Visitor Center; then the Shark Valley Visitor Center, roughly half way between the East and West Coast; and Gulf Coast Visitor Center on the west coast side.
Most people choose to visit the Everglades during the dry season, and if you intend to camp or stay nearby, you need to book to ensure a place to stay. The Everglades are managed by the NPS (National Parks Service) of South Florida.
Most people coming to the Everglades – head to it from Miami and there are a number of Tour companies to choose from. These include –
- Everglades River of Grass Adventures – 17696 SW 8th Street, Miami. See www.theriverofgrass.com Tel: 954 389 0202
- Coopertown Airboat Ride –22700 SW 8th Street, Miami. See www.coopertwonairboattours.com Tel: 305 226 6048
- Buffalo Tigers Airboat Tours – 29701 SW 8th Street, Miami. See www.buffalotigersairboattours.com Tel: 305 559 5250.
- Tiger Tail Airboat Rides – U.S 41, Miami. See www.tigertailairboattours.com Tel: 305 439 2745
- Airboat in Everglades – 17696 SW 8th Street, Miami. See www.airboatineverglades.com Tel: 888 893 4443.
- Captain Jack Airboat Tours – www.captainjackairboattours.com Tel: 1 844 326 2628 at 200 Collier Avenue, Everglades City. They also have an animal sanctuary too.
- Everglades Florida Attractions – 200 Everglades City . See www.florida-everglades.com Tel: 239 695 4400 OR 1-844 326 2628.
- Everglades City Airboat Tours – www.evergladescity-airboattours.com Tel: 1877 222 6400. Have smaller personalised tours.
- Wootens Everglades Airboat trails – www.wootenseverglades.com Tel: 855 803 9774. Located at 32330 Tamiami Trial East in Ochopee (about 7 minutes from Everglades City). They also run ‘swamp buggies’ too – a sort of tractor with seating up top.
- Everglades National Park Boat Tours – www.evergladesnationalparkboattoursgulfcoast.com 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City. Tel: 1 239 695 2591. Tours depart from Parks Docks, Chokoloshee.
AIRBOATS – are almost synonymous with the Everglades, a unique way to skim across the water, with the flatboat below you, and an engine that propels a large fan behind you, with a fin out back to control the direction you’re heading in. It’s a fast but noisy way to see the Everglades. Depending on where you are – you can also walk on along boardwalks, bike or kayak – but you need to check first to make sure that you are on a recognized pathway. The Visitor Centers will give you advice on what you can and can’t do.
Most people will also stop at the Visitor Centers to see and learn more about what they are seeing here in the Everglades.
ALLIGATORS and CROCODILES –
There are both Alligators and Crocodiles in South Florida, but Alligators or often just called ‘Gators’ are better known here in the Everglades. South Florida is one of the only places in the world where both Crocodiles and Alligators can both be found.
The most visible differences between Crocs and Gators is their snout shape. Gators have U shaped snout, whereas Crocs have more of a pointy V shape. Remember the song “Never smile at a crocodile…” ? Well, particularly if he or she smiles back at you! The Croc has big sharp teeth on both its upper and lower jaw that you can see, but a Gator has its lower jaw teeth pretty much hidden. Their skins are also a bit different too – the Gator skin is much smoother than a Croc’s. Croc’s also can live in saltier water than alligators, who prefer to live in more freshwater areas.
Both Alligators and Crocodiles can also run fast on land too, up to 11 miles an hour, but only for short distances. They prefer to catch their prey unawares, and no doubt you have seen movies or nature shows where the prey is caught by stealth and dragged back into the water. They may well look asleep or have just the eyes showing above the water, but don’t get too close, or they may give you a surprise. Having scared you, you should know that in recent years the number of fatal attacks on humans by alligators numbers between zero and three, and injuries from bites that required medical attention, less than 10 a year.
WHERE TO GO –
The Ernest F Coe Visitor Center is roughly an hour or 50 miles southwards from Miami, and the road leading south eastwards from the Coe Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the southern end is a further 38 miles further on.
- The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center – 40001 State Road, Homestead, is just outside the Park and is open year round with displays, films, brochures, maps, books, toilet facilities and information to help you find the things you want to see in the Park.
- Royal Palm Visitor Center –(about 4 miles from Coe Visitor Center) is next to the Anhinga Trail – which is about half a mile long – but allows you to see sawgrass marshes, alligators, turtles and many birds such as herons, egrets and others on this short walk. A second trail, the Gumbo Limbo Trail also about half a mile long takes you on a walking track that leads you through the Gumbo Limbo trees, royal palms, ferns and air plants.
- Long Pine Key Trail – not far from the Park Entrance (on the road to Flamingo Visitor Center) is where you can camp and picnic, and hike or bike ride and a few miles further on is the turn off to the Pahayokee Overlook (a short distance from the main road). Here you can look down over the ‘rivers of grass’ sawgrass from the Lookout observation platform and boardwalk. The West Lake Trail is about one of the trails that leads off the main road to the Flamingo Visitor Center. It is also about half a mile long with a boardwalk that takes you just above the mangroves through the trees.
- Flamingo Visitor Center – is on Florida Bay on the coast and is about 38 miles from the Ernest F Coe Visitor Center, or around an hour’s drive, depending on how often you stop. Here you will find brochures, maps, displays, and backcountry permits as well as a small store and public boat ramp, with a number of walking and canoe trails leading from here. There are also some camping facilities and canoes, kayaks and motor boats that can be hired. The short Eco Pond Trail is about half a mile long, and from the trail you should be able to see alligators, ducks, wading birds and softshell turtles in the water. There are lots of mangroves close by and some of the other trails that you could check out are Snake Bight Trail, Rowdy Bend Trail (both bike trials), Guy Bradley Trail, Bayshore Loop Trail, Bear Lake Trail, and Christian Point Trail. During summer, a lot of these trails can be extremely muddy with lots of mosquitoes. There are also a number of canoe trails and it is important to understand the weather, tides and distances involved before you paddle off, and also be aware of power boats and the wake they can create as they pass by. Mosquitoes stick very close to the shore and mangroves, so the further out you are, the less likely you are to encounter them. The silence of the water with birds, wildlife, mangroves, sky, sounds and smells with just you and your canoe can however make for a memorable trip. You may also be able to stay overnight on one of the “Chickees” – small platforms set up for this purpose, but check with the Visitor Center.
- Wilderness Waterway – is a backcountry waterway canoe trail that leads from Flamingo north to Everglades City. It is around 100 miles long – and possible depending on weather, tides and other factors to travel the distance along the beaches or inland through the waterways. This is a true wilderness area, so the trip is only undertaken by those looking for a true wilderness adventure. To find out more about a 5 day trip – see www.evergladesadventures.com
- Everglades City – calls itself the “Fishing and Stone Crab Capital of Southwest Florida”, the gateway to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress national Preserve and also the 10,000 islands. There are many tour companies operating from here – see Tours above. In Everglades City there is canoe hire, sightseeing tours, fishing and crabbing, kayak fishing, bird watching, animal and wildlife tours. Everglades City is around 1 ½ hours driving distance from Miami, and about 2 hour’s south of Tampa. To stay over see Ivey House B&B or Everglades City Motel.
- Air Tours – See www.wingsaerotours.com Tel: 239 695 3296 Located at 650 Everglades City Airpark Rd. The flights operate between November and May and fly over many parts of the Everglades that you will never see from the ground or water. Also over the 10,000 islands too. It is a great way to see this unique part of the world.
- Chokoloskee Island – is a tiny island town near Everglades City. Here you will find an old Indian Trading Post store, started in 1906 which is now a museum. There is also a tour company operating from here – See www.evergladesareatours.com Tel: 239 695 3633 located at 238 Mamie Street, Chokoloskee Island
- Shark Valley Tram Tours and Visitor Center – is in the north of the Everglades National Park, about 37 miles west of Miami and here you can take a 2 hour open sided tram-bus tour to see some of the Everglades National Park at its northern end. There is also an observation tower to see over the grasslands, and you can also do walking or biking too to see birds, animals, including alligators and plant life.
- The Miccosukee Village – is an Indian Village located at Mile Marker 70 off Highway 41 at Tamiami Trail, just west of Shark Valley Visitor Center. See www.miccosukee.com Tel: 305 552 8365. Get to experience the history, culture and lifestyle in a real village, and see crafts, doll making and beadwork. There is also a Restaurant here where you can enjoy Everglades specialities including Pumpkin Bread, Alligator and catfish. There is also an alligator show, museum and airboat tours of the Everglades that start from here.