Want to see the true Everglades? Being a Florida native and making the trip several time cross state, I would recommend to travel the less travelled road, US 41 or Tamiami trail at least once...or twice even. Its a one lane highway through the thick of the Everglades National Park. Lots of good roadsides to stop at. For example, a hike through the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge. Learning about the Florida folklore of the Skunk Ape at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. They also have an amazing collection of reptile, birds and orchid garden! One of my favorites is the Big Cypress Gallery, home of famous photographer, Clyde Butcher. Amazing photography of landscapes worldwide, especially here in my homestate of Florida. He has over 20 acres of swamp property to explore in which he conducts annual swamp tours. Beautiful. Cannot miss it if you love photography or idolize the serene, untouched everglades backcountry.
The Shark Valley area of the Everglades National Park features a beautiful 15-mile loop path - one of the best traffic-free bicycle trails in South Florida! You can walk it or bike it (bicycles are available for rent at the visitors center), or you can take a 2-hour guided tram tour. We opted to walk ~ 6 miles of the trail and saw LOTS of wildlife - alligators, birds, fish, turtles, lizards... It was incredible, and well worth the $10/carload admission fee (which was waived the day we went - a "National Park Day"!
If you go, get there early - it was nice when we arrived, and very crowded when we left 3 hours later. In fact, folks were parking on the street since the parking lot was FULL!
Not too far from the building of the Royal Palm Visitor Center is this easy 800m walking trail where you can see all sorts of wildlife. We saw 3 alligators, a turtle and many kinds of birds, including anhingas, herons and egrets. There is a boardwalk that goes through the marsh. There is a park ranger leading a guided walk everyday. Check the park's website (link below) for schedule.
We ended up spending about 2 hours here just to take photographs of the wildlife!
In 1968, we visited all of the short trails in the park. This trail is similar to the Mahogany Hammock Trail except it ends at a handicapped accessible (ramps) short observation tower. It is a good place to see the vast stretches of sawgrass sweeping to the horizon and islands of cypress trees.
The 1/4 mile trail which takes 15-30 minutes, is 9 miles south of Royal Palm and 13 miles from the main visitor's center entrance. Look for indigo snakes, vultures, and red-shouldered hawks among the wildlife in this area.
Another short stroll [0.5 miles (800 meters) round trip] around a freshwater pond which is actually man-made. It is the outfall for the Flamingo sewage treatment plant. There are a wide variety of wading birds, song birds, and other wildlife including alligators.
There is an observation tower at Eco Pond, located adjacent to the campground area, from which there is good bird watching, especially at sunrise and sunset. The platform is wheelchair-accessible viewing, but the path around the pond is grass.
Eco Pond is also a favorite location for animals and insects including a variety of butterflies. There are about 100 species of butterflies at the Everglades.
IMHO, Eco Pond is the primary wildlife viewing area near Flamingo. No dogs, fishing or boating is allowed.
The second best place to visit in the park is the Shark Valley Center. Here you can either walk, ride a bike or take a tram out to an elevated tower and look out over the glades. The tram ride is the most fun, and will provide you with many additional wildlife sightings.
We saw three nests of anhinga babies in different stages of development, a lot of rosette spoonbills, and baby alligators in addition to the wood storks, egrets, herons, ibises and cormorants that we saw at the Anhinga Trail.
A for more pictures and narrative see my Shark Valley tram trip.
This is a short trail that begins at Royal Palm, near the east entrance station. The trail, which is less than 1/2 mile, winds through what is described as a subtropical rain forest. Signs along the way describe the vegetation and climate of this area.
This is a nice walk to take in the springtime. The trees provide shade in the summer, but the humid conditions and lack of any breeze whatsoever would make this unbearable for anyone not used to a tropical climate. I would save this area for a winter of spring visit, when temperatures are far more pleasant.
The gumbo limbo trees seem miniscule in comparision to the towering Redwoods or giant Sequoias in California, but their ability to survive in this environment and their creation of natrual shade for other plants and animals make them unique. Along with the mangroves, these trees comprise most of the vegetation in this unique swampland
The best place to see wildlife in the winter is the Anhinga Trail. This was the case in the 1960s when we visited for the first time, and is still the case.
Normally there is a ranger talk/walk at 10:30 am, and in the winter they add a ranger talk at 3.30. You WILL see alligators (at least in the dry season).
Specifically this trail is half a mile round trip. It is a self guiding trail (although it is more interesting with the ranger pointing out specific birds) and it winds through a sawgrass marsh. In the winter, in addition to alligators there are turtles, anhingas, herons, egrets, and many other birds. The trail is paved or boardwalk, so it is wheelchair accessible.
My fiance is an avid birdwatcher - and he was in hog heaven while walking the Anhinga Trail. Since we didn't know we would be coming to the Everglades National Park when we planned our trip (the purpose of the trip was to attend his friend's wedding in Key West), so did not bring his bird guide, so he asked me to take photos of the birds so he can check them off his list.
The birds were plentiful, and beautiful, and very interesting to watch - but I have no idea what they are...
We saw lots of vultures too - I didn't take any photos of them... :-)
Driving from Key West to catch our plane in Ft. Lauderdale, we had approximately 1 hour to spend at the Everglades National Park. After getting our Passport to Your National Parks book stamped, we talked to the ranger on duty, who recommended the Anhinga Trail. He provided a map and directions to the trailhead and we were on our way.
We paid the $10/car admission fee and were at the trailhead in about 10 minutes. SO COOL - the Anhinga Trail is a boardwalk-type walking trail which brought us up close and sometimes directly above the wildlife. We stopped counting once we reached our 20th alligator sighting, plus saw turtles and many, many different birds. We were able to make the semi-loop trail in just about an hour (I take a lot of photos...) and were satisfied with our short visit.
We want to go back again and spend more time on some of the longer trails - the Everglades National Park is very large and has many outdoor opportunities, but I am very happy we were even able to spend a little time there.
This is a black vulture, a cousin to the ones we see a lot in the west. If you see one of these in the parking area, keep a close eye on them; they like to eat the rubber around your windshield and your windshield wipers.
Another bird I saw several of was the Great Blue Heron. This is the largest North American Heron with a hieght of about 4 1/2 feet. There are a few differnt subspecies of Great Blue Herons living in the Everglades.
It was a little early in the year for the Roseate Spoonbill when I visited the Everglades but I still got to see one. This bird got its name from the spoon shape of its bill. This enables it to keep a better grip on the fish it catches.
A bird that is frequently mistaken for the Anhinga is the Cormorant. They do look similar but the Cormorant has a shorter neck and can be distinguished from the Anhinga by the hook at the end of its bill. The Cormorant uses this hook to hold on to the fish as opposed to spearing it like the Anhinga.
One of the birds we saw that I especially enjoyed watching is the Anhinga. The name comes from the Tupi Indians in Brazil and means "Devil Bird" or "Snake Bird". The Anhinga has a bill that comes to a sharp point which it uses to spear a fish. The bird then flips the fish into the air and swallows it head first. If the fish does not come down head first the Anhinga catches it and tries again. The Anhinga can often be seen with its wings outstrecthed. I thought this might be designed to attract a mate; but the ranger explained the bird is drying its feathers after diving into the water.