Resting on the southern tip of the country, Everglades National Park is a natural habitat for elusive and exciting animals. It's also a true geological wonder recognized as a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance.
Seasonal Considerations in the Everglades
Weather is an undeniable motivator when it comes to visiting Florida, and since it is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, Everglades National Park is no exception. There are two basic visitor seasons in the Everglades, based around the wet and dry months. The dry months of winter are high season when activities and facilities are open and in full swing. The wet months of summer see a decrease in visitors as well as restricted hours or limited availability for recreational activities.
From December until April, visitors to the Everglades can experience clear skies and pleasant temperatures, typically ranging from 53 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. This weather is pleasant in itself and, as an added benefit, it eliminates mosquitoes, flies, and other insects that might make a visit less pleasant.
It's also easier to view the forty plus species of mammals that live in the area during the dry season. This is because the receding water levels make it easier to predict where they will congregate. As a result, ranger and wildlife programs are in full swing during this season.
Wet season is a less popular time to visit the Everglades, because it often means daily thunderstorms, annoying bugs, and humidity of 90% or even higher. Because of the weather, it becomes harder to view the wildlife that makes the area so intriguing, and many programs shut down as a result. While May through November is not the most popular time to visit the Everglades, the one upside is that a touch of solitude can be nearly guaranteed.
Entering to Everglades National Park
Spanning more than 6,000 square kilometres, Everglades is a large and seemingly overwhelming park, but it's easy to access its northern and southern entrances.
The northern portion of the park located in Everglades City can be easily accessed via Shark Valley, a scenic 15-mile paved road loop that lies 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike. It's about an hour's drive from Miami along the two-lane Tamiami Trail (US 41), which offers roadside attractions. There is a shuttle service into the heart of the park from Shark Valley Visitor Center.
The southern entrance lies in Homestead and is more accessible even though it's less scenic. It brings guests to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center via S.R. 9336 and lies about an hour and a half from Miami. The city of Homestead, which has been designated as the Gateway to the Everglades, operates a free guided trolley ride from the historic downtown to the park every weekend from November to May.
All park visitors must purchase a seven-day pass, so it's best to plan at least a few days in the park to make the most of it. Those traveling by private car must pay $20, while those traveling by motorcycle are charged $18 and pedestrians or cyclists pay $8. Entrance is free to those using the trolley from Homestead, and parking is available at the pickup point.
For those interested in boat rentals, visitors can rent canoes or kayaks for the whole family, for time allotments anywhere from two to 24 hours. Canoe and kayak rentals cost between $20 and $65, depending on style and rental time. Permits to camp cost an additional $20.
Everglades National Park Activities
The park's ranger programs are recognized as a quintessential experience by National Geographic. There are fifty options available, and all are free upon entry. These tours can be taken on foot, in canoes or by tram, depending on your preference. They are a great way to spot wildlife, like alligators and the many bird species native to the area. One of the popular and unique ranger programs is the tour of the Cold War era Nike Missile Base built during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Shark Valley Loop
The second highest rated visitor attraction by TripAdvisor, the Shark Valley Loop is another must-see. Drive or cycle this 15-mile scenic loop or take a Shark Valley Tram Tour to learn about the area's ecology.
Airboat rides are a fun and exciting way of exploring the unique geology of the Everglades. If you prefer to get out and about on your own and are comfortable on the water, renting a canoe or kayak is a great way to get around into the rich river ecosystem of the Everglades. You can also rent fishing skiffs for a day out on the water, but make sure you have the proper permits.
- Bayshore Loop: The Bayshore Loop hike is a 1.3-mile easy hike that passes through the original fishing village of Flamingo and encapsulates the best of hiking in this area of the park. It is also a great place to birdwatch along the mangrove-lined edge of the Florida Peninsula.
- Anhinga Trail: The Anhinga Trail is the number-one rated tourist attraction in the Everglades by TripAdvisor, and is considered the most reliable place to spot alligators and wading birds like great blue herons. It's an easy trek at less than a mile, and it follows a paved or boardwalk trail.
- Mahogany Hammock Trail: This easy and wheelchair accessible hike is less than a mile, and it leads hikers through a dense "Mahogany hammock" forest cover to the central feature: the largest living Mahogany tree in the country.
Where to Stay
There are two drive-in campgrounds in Everglades National Park, as well as backcountry camping options.
- Long Pine Key Campground: This campground is located in a lush forest of tall pines near the Homestead entrance. There are 108 drive-in campsites available here for both tents and RVs on a first-come first-served basis from November to May (the campground is closed from June to October). There are washrooms and fresh water available, but no electrical hook ups.
- Flamingo Campground: This campground is located at the very southern tip of the park and is known to be quite breezy and home to a lot of mosquitos. It is open year-round and reservations are recommended for the high season (November through April). There are 234 drive-in sites as well as 64 walk-in sites, some with electrical hook ups. There are flush toilets, showers, and fresh water. A visitor center located in the campground offers boat rentals.
- Backcountry Camping: There are many backcountry sites available in the Everglades, and permits are required during the winter months. You can camp without backcountry permits in summer, but it is not advised because of weather and the presence of bugs. The park does provide a full backcountry guide for those thinking of this option.
There are a variety of hotels available in Florida City and Homestead for visitors who prefer not to set up camp outside. Options include:
- Courtyard Miami Homestead: Winner of a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, this hotel offers a pool, high speed internet, and close proximity to the park for around $200/night.
- Floridian Hotel (Homestead): The Floridian Hotel has also received a designation of excellence from TripAdvisor. It offers guests updated rooms from $135/night.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Visit
The Everglades are quite unlike most other places in the country, so keeping a few key things in mind will go a long way.
- Bring insect repellent. Even when traveling in winter, mosquitos may still be bothersome.
- Weather changes can happen quickly, so be sure to pack accordingly.
- There are four indigenous poisonous snakes in the park (diamondback and pigmy rattlesnakes, coral snakes and water moccasins) as well as alligators, sharks and barracudas.
- Before your trip, read The Everglades: River of Grass, which often considered the seminal book about the area.
- Visit Robert is Here, a famous tropical fruit stand near the park.
Out on the Edge
The important thing to remember before visiting the Everglades is to do the proper amount of research. It is a vast park that can be accessed from different points, offering very different experiences. It's also an extremely remote and unique ecosystem that poses its own blessings and curses. Decide what your priorities are beforehand, be it spotting wildlife or cruising around on an airboat, and go from there. Make sure to take into account the weather and all other aspects of the park's unique nature that might impact your trip.