Pros: Natural Wonder of the WORLD, Absolutely Unique, Great Winter Destination, Senior Citizens!
Cons: Not Suitable for Summer Vacation Time, Mosquitoes Present Year Round
"There is no other everglades." It is true. No where else on earth does a similar ecosystem exist. Most of the tourists were very surprised when the park's guides told us this. We figured there was a similar ecosystem in the Pacific somewhere. But no! There are other great canyons (Grand Canyon), other great mountains (Yosemite), and other impressive geysers (Yellowstone) in the world, but "there are no other everglades." And this absolutely unique ecosystem and national park gem is dying. And it appears to be terminal. Be sure to visit this natural wonder of the world now before it is too late!
But when you visit, make time to visit all of the FOUR national parks/preserves of southern Florida --
1. Dry Tortugas National Park -- remote 19th century fort/prison island of Dr. Mudd is absolutely unique in the national park system, the most difficult national park to visit, but it is every bit worth the $165 boat fare with a great lunch, snorkeling, free guided tour, and a great beach walk on an adjoining key (if you visit before Feb. 1 when it is closed for bird nesting). If you can, reserve a campsite overnight.
2. Biscayne National Park -- next to Miami, 95% underwater, great snorkeling at the reef or a sunken barge on windy days, 8 miles of hiking trails on Elliott Key (the second largest key/island in the chain of keys of eastern Florida), camping on the island with great sunsets over Miami, and a great chance to pick up garbage (this was the most littered park I have ever visited in the nation due to hurricane and ocean garbage)
3. Big Cypress National Preserve -- my personal favorite of the four south Florida national parks; go for a ranger guided swamp walk up to your waist in alligator waters; enjoy a canoe trip on the Turner river, hike nearly eighty miles of swamp trail (the beginning leg of the Florida Trail begins at the southern border of this perserve) -- wow; one of the three most unusual hiking trails in America. Here are the TOP TEN things to do in the Everglades!
I. EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
Established in 1947 this park now comprises only 1/5 of the original everglades. Sadly, due to lack of water both in quality and quantity, this remarkable ecosystem is dying, and all plans for restoration seem unlikely to reverse the course any time soon. Around 1900 the great bird naturalist Auduboun wrote that when visiting the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades he could see birds fly overhead so thick the sky was darkened, and it would take 15 minutes for a single flock to pass, in numbers, tens of thousands of birds. Today, when I visited, I saw about 40 birds pass over my head. Some of those birds he saw are now extinct (e.g. The tour guide said, "I hate to break the news to you, but the Florida Flamingo in extinct -- the ones we occassionaly see in Florida are not supposed to be there, but usually "escapees" from a Florida theme or garden park and are a different Flamingo variety from the West Indies").
The simple fact is this: You can have the everglades OR you can have people (at present 5 million and growing) live in south Florida. You simply can't have both! The everglades is not an ecosystem intended to support millions of people. People need clean water and the everglades need clean water to flourish. Consequently, the only viable solution to saving this international biosphere is to ask several million people to move, which is not going to happen.
Though the quantity and quality of plant and animal life has been reduced by over 90%, still, when you visit, you will be amazed by even what remains!
I. EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
1. Hike the Long Pine Trail (14 miles) -- This trail is located six miles south of the main visitors entrance. All the hikes in south Florida are FLAT. This 14 mile "out and back" hike is a great way of enjoying the unique slash pine forests of the everglades. You will have great views of the limestone pockets and solutions (dissolved holes in the rocky surface) along the way on which Florida rests. Starting from the Long Pine Campground, you will be hiking on an old road. Make sure to leave time to explore off trail. At the end of the 7 mile, you will come to a pond frequented by alligators. Hike around it, and then enjoy your lunch. A great leisurely and flat day hike. You can also bike this trail. You may return on alternate trails if you wish which will lengthen your return hike.
2. Canoe the Nine-Mile Pond Trail -- This four hour canoe trail takes you into a remarkable small freshwater lake. It is located about 9 miles from Flamingo. The numbered poles from 1 to 115 are easy to follow even for a beginner canoeist. At the end of the trail, you will canoe through two small ponds, teeming with wildlife in the dry season. The second pond at the trails very end is home to the largest crocodile I have ever seen, about 15 feet. I also saw about a dozen alligators on the trail and many wading birds of all types. Be sure to keep your distance (about 25 feet, or in the case of the crocodile, 50 feet since they are very skittish) from all wildlife so as not to disturb and upset them in their home. Here you will truly see the "everglades" and understand why the name "glades" was given this area, i.e. "a large, grassy, open, and sunny area". Be sure to bring a clear gallon plastic zipper bag to place your map in, otherwise it will be wet and in tatters after a few minutes for oar splashing!
3. Hike the Coastal Prairie Trail (14 miles) -- This "out and back" hike begins at the back of the C loop of the Flamingo campground. You can park your car there. If you hike only one trail in the Everglades, this should be it. It is the southernmost trail on the continental 48 states. It moves through mangroves, hardwoods, cactus, and large marl prairies created by the salt water left by hurricanes, and ends on one of the few remaining natural beaches remaining in Florida. Developers were going to build condos here, until the frequent hurricanes disuaded them. This is the type of beach Ponce-De-Leon stepped upon in 1513 when he gave the land the name "Florida" or "flowers". Here you can truly picture what is was like when Spainish first set their feet upon the shores of Florida (Note: all the beaches of Miami are "fake" and "man made"). You will see the southern tip of the U.S. mainland, Cape Sable, in the distance. There are two camping sites just above the beach. Permit required. It is a great overnight trip for the backpacker, and an easy to follow trail. You will be hiking on an old dirt road for some of the hike. Mosquitoes are present in the winter here, but are quite bearable with just a little deet on your exposed skin. There are several other great hikes out of the Flamingo area, including the 6.5 mile Rowdy Bend Snake Bite Trail Loop which leads you to the Atlantic and gives you a great view of the "sheet of fresh water" from the glades spilling into the salt water ocean, but the coastal prairie trail is the hike to do if time only permits one hike. A marvelous and unique hike!
4. Tram Tour of Shark Valley -- This was a 7 mile paved "out and back" road built by oil drillers, but is now used by the park to take tourists deep into the heart of the everglades. The park service cut another trail to create a loop for tourists. If you have never taken the tram tour, be sure to take this 2 hour tour which will provide you with information and make your entire trip to the Everglades more meaningful. Our tour guide was one of the best we had all week. At the half way point climb a large observation tower. There are also three short trails which I recommend. Take the tour in the morning, and if you like, you can bike the 15 mile trail in the afternoon. You will see hundreds of alligators and birds of every kind!
5. Canoe the Ten Thousand Islands -- Spend one full day in a canoe on the western side of the everglades. The island may be a little hard to find, bring a map and GPS, but we found it in 1 1/2 hours. There are actually 34,000 islands, and it is very easy to get lost! But you can always find your way back to the main bay with a simply compass. Visit the nearby Sandfly Island. The Boggess family moved here in 1912 and farmed about 30 acres of tomatoes. You will see their homes foundation when you get off the dock. It is about 1 hour from the canoe rental stations to the island, and the dock has a bathroom and a great one mile trail to stretch your legs. Proceed towards the gulf and explore one of the small beeches/keys. Dolphins enter this area from the gulf. We spent the afternoon with a dolphin circling our canoe for a great afternoon of entertainment! (NOTE: We may have discovered the "fountain of youth" of Indian lore that Ponce never found on this hike. The water is fresh. See if you can find it.)
6. Visit the "Pa-Ha-Okee Overlook" -- Visit this short boardwalk trail on the way to Flamingo. It will take you about 15 feet above the ground for a great overlook. Just off the Flamingo road trail. A wonderful "bird's eye" view of the "River of Grass".
7. Hike the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails -- These two famous trails are located just minutes from the main visitors' entrance way at a place called Royal Palms, formerly a women's retreat center. The Anhinga trail (named after the marvelous bird which nests along the trail) is a boardwalk trail which always boasts many bird sightings. Remarkable. Snowy egrets (of plume hunter fame), turkey vultures, hawks, pelicans, and two dozen other birds, some rare, are always seen on every tour! The second trail is perhaps the best hardwood hammock (high ground with trees) in all of Florida. It is like walking through the garden of Eden! Both trails are less than 1 mile, but you can easily spend an entire day here!
8. Visit the Eco Pond Trail at Flamingo -- This 1/4 mile hike around a pond boasts some of the best birdwatching in the country. Senior citizens flock here every morning and evening for bird identification. Bring your binoculars for a remarkable birding experience.
9. Take a Boat Tour at Flamingo -- The "Sunset Bay Cruise" and the "Backcountry Pelican Cruise" are great for the guides information about the plants and animals of the everglades, and the tours will bring the wonders of the park to life for you. I always learned something new on each tour. The birds leave the mainland at dusk and fly for safety to the remote keys of off Flamingo and, consequently, will be flying overhead of boats that happen to be in the bay. On the Pelican Cruise you may see Dolphins from the Gulf. Look along the canal shoreline for the dreaded "Manchineel Tree" (nature's most poisonous tree though normal looking with light finely serrated green leaves and small "apple-like" fruit) which the native Calusas would tie their enemies to, cut the bark and allow the poinsonous sap and leaves to blister and infect the skin. Take both tours!
10. Attend a Ranger Evening Program -- Most campgrounds have an evening program from time to time. It is worth the time. We attended a musical tribute to Marjorie Douglas, the author of the seminal book, "River of Grass." at the Flamingo campground which was wonderful. Another presentation was on the stars (which are so beautiful in the Everglades and Keys without big cities nearby), and another on the plan to bring back the nearly exinct Florida panther.
Visit before it is too late! Every American should visit the Everglades at least once, just like Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. The everglades may not be there for your grandchildren.