You really need a car to get to the park, arriving off of US 1 from Miami and points north as well as southern points such the Florida Keys.
Car is the prime mode of transport though biking is popular as well. Off the limited road system, the waterways are best accessed via small craft like kayak or canoe.
There are three ways to get from the headquarters to the overlook. Walk, take the tram, or bike. It is a nice fairly flat, paved 15 mile (round trip) trail which serves for both the tram and the bike/hike trail. The first half of this trail was built in 1946 by Mobil Oil when they were exploring the possibilities of finding oil in the Everglades - fortunately for us there was none.
If you do not have your own bicycle, one may be rented at the tram office. They were $5.75 in 2005. Rentals are available from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and must be returned by 4:00 p.m.
I was not fit enough to do the bike ride, besides which I wanted to hear the narration that is given on the tram. But you probably will see much more in the way of wildlife if you go by bike. About half-way is a 65-foot-tall observation tower can be climbed to get a vulture's-eye view. Stay at least 15 feet from the alligators, and do not shout at them to try to get them to open their eyes. Also do not get near the baby alligators or you may incur the wrath of the momma.
The park service warns: There are no short cuts. If you become tired or are unable to complete the entire 15 mile trip, turn around and return on the same road. Be aware of vehicles coming up behind you. (These will all be trams or park service vehicles - no private vehiles are allowed on the road).
Bicycling the road takes an average of 2 to 3 hours, but varies with physical stamina and personal interests. The parking lot closes at 6:00 p.m., so be sure to allow enough time.
Along the road are four artificial ponds. These "borrow pits" are areas where limestone has been quarried, crushed into gravel, and then used to raise the level of the tram road. In the winter months, when the sawgrass prairie is dry, the borrow pits serve as water holes that attract a variety of wildlife. Look for alligators, wading birds, anhingas, and turtles around these human-made "gator holes."
You can take a tram tour of Shark Valley, but I loved the bike idea. It's a 15 mile trip, so even with stopping to see the wildlife, you're talking only 2-3 hours. The rental was $6 per hour, which seems pretty reasonable if you can't bring your own bike. The bikes are in good shape, but they're the kind that you have to pedal backwards if you want to hit the brakes. You also are required to pull to the side to give the path to the tram that also runs this route. I prefer the bike because you can take your time where and when you want to stop.
Be sure to bring plenty of water, because once you're half way done, there's no opportunity for turning back to get some. Especially in the humid climate, you can dehydrate easily.
Many people coming to the park are disappointed that they are unable to take an airboat ride within the park. You may find these offered by private operators along the Tamiami Trail (US 41) west of Miami, but be aware that the rangers and naturalists within the park highly discourage this activity as they are damaging to the natural habitat of the Everglades. Also be aware that they are very loud, so they will scare away birds and other wildlife in the area. Some tours include ear protection muffs to wear on their trips, others do not.
Though a car is the prime way to get around the park, one can also take the concessioner tram at Shark River. This is a 2 hour guided tour that allows visitors to see the park from the comfort of an open tram.
The destination is a viewing tower from where various birds and alligators can be seen. After a visit at the tower, the tram transports visitors back to the parking and boarding area. Current cost of the ride is $15.25 for adults. Seniors and children are less. See website for full rate information.
Access is fine, etc. Just be aware that in any park setting people are not paying the greatest attention to the road itself. There are so many things for us to look at out the side windows, in the sky, etc. that it becomes dangerous. Missed turns, quick turns, going the wrong way, we saw it all. One truck was even driving on the wrong side of the road for no apparent reason while coming out of a corner towards us. Scary. Be alert and very cautious!!
This trip was accomplished with the help of Wes Biggs, President of Florida Nature Tours. The package I paid for included his services as a guide, car and gas. For anyone visiting Florida who is into wildlife and especially birds, he is perhaps the best in the state.
Though unable to find website. An alternate is South Florida Birding with Larry Manfredi. He is another top birder and guide in the state.
Fly or drive to the 'gateway' cities of Naples (25 miles) or Miami.
Drive around the Park and neighboring areas.
Excellent views from the airplane over Florida. We flew into Ft. Lauderdale on JetBlue, and were over Florida as the sun rose. From there, we rented a car and drove to the Everglades.