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Experience Everglades National Park
"There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them."
~ Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Novelist who founded Friends of the Everglades in 1969
There is only one Everglades. Nowhere else on earth are there so many kinds of habitats united by a freshwater slough, creating this remarkable collection of species in one concentrated area. Visitors can hike through a hardwood hammock and encounter furry animals like raccoons, foxes, cottontail rabbits, and even a black bear, and then travel a few miles and find manatees and bottle-nosed dolphins, wood storks and spoonbills – all creatures located almost exclusively in tropical climates.
You can visit habitats in many other areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but you have to come to the Everglades if you want to find all of these habitats in one place. This unusual variety results in one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in the country. Did you know that the Everglades is the only place on earth naturally occupied by both crocodiles and alligators?
River of Grass
Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947 after compiling 5 years of research to present convincing evidence that the Everglades is a river that sustains a delicate ecosystem with thousands of species as its dependents. That same year, Everglades was dedicated as a national park. Douglas succeeded in taking the most significant action in the area’s history to stop approaching development that could have wiped out this extraordinary ecosystem forever.
The Manatee: Florida’s Most Endangered Mammal
There’s something appealing about the manatee, a very large marine mammal that evokes a certain protective instinct among people who have an opportunity to meet one face-to-face. Manatees are slow-moving and gentle; they face more than their fair share of hazards as they make their way through the waters of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Collisions with fast-moving boats, as well as a decrease in appropriate habitat have led to a decline in the manatee population. They were listed as endangered as far back as 1967, well before the federal Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. Fewer than 2000 manatees live off the coast of Florida.
If you go out on a boat tour of Florida Bay or in several areas along the Wilderness Waterway, you may have the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures. If you happen to have a garden hose handy, turn it on and run the water in front of them – they love to drink it!
Are You a Birder?
Experts say that the everglades has more than 40 resident mammals, 10 lizard species, 360 bird species, and an astonishing 26 species of snakes.
Alligators laze in the sunshine and all but ignore the park’s human guests. Mangrove trees stand knee deep in the brackish water, growing roots that arch up and out before they plunge down into the water and sandy bottom.
If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, the Everglades should be a hot spot on your list!
If you’re a bird lover, there’s no better place than the Everglades, with its paths and boardwalks that provide close proximity to herons, ibis, storks and egrets.
So where are the Flamingos? Well, many years ago flamingos inhabited the area, but today, only occasional stragglers can be seen in the Everglades. In addition to birding, there’s a wonderful variety of tropical plants that grow in the everglades.
Your opportunities to look an alligator in the eye have never been better. When wandering certain trails you’ll find these creatures almost underfoot! At Shark Valley, they are everywhere. You should know that alligators are opportunistic feeders, they dine on whatever happens to swim toward their mouths (especially soft-shelled turtles) – so the chances of one leaping to gobble you up for lunch are very slim. That being said, it’s still wise to keep small children at a respectful distance.
There are plenty of boardwalks and paved trails where you can get within close proximity to both birds and animals. If you’re more adventurous, you can take a canoe or kayak trip along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway where you’re sure to experience personal encounters with wading birds and other water-loving animals. The Wilderness Waterway is one of the nation’s legendary paddling routes – true wilderness!
Experiencing the everglades as such is like seeing what Florida was like hundreds of years ago, before the transformation that brought spring break and theme parks.
A few more great pictures:Click thumbnail to view full-size
Protect Yourself from Mosquitoes
Get this – 43, yes 43!, distinct mosquito species call Everglades National Park home. I can tell you, however, that only the females of thirteen species bite, but that probably won’t bring you much relief. There are other biting insects in the park, too, such as sand flies, horseflies and no-see-ums, whose bite can be much more irritating than that of the mosquitoes.
If you visit during the dry season (December through April is the most pleasant and driest time in the Everglades) you won’t be bothered by many biting insects as they are mostly moisture-loving.
If you’re unlucky enough to visit during the wet season, here’s how to cope:
- Wear insect repellant – put it on before you go outside and keep it on all day.
- Pretreat you clothes with repellent – you can buy expensive clothing that comes pre-treated, or you can purchase repellant that is safe to use on fabrics and do it yourself.
- Avoid perfumes, scented lotions and aftershave – mosquitoes also love the scent of hairspray and flower-scented shampoos and conditioners!
- Keep away from dense vegetation and grassy areas – you can count on any trail with the word “swamp” in the name being loaded with mosquitoes.
- Stay out of the shade at dawn and dusk – for that matter, stay indoors at this time of day, if you can. If you just can’t, wear long sleeves and long pants and closed toe shoes with socks.
- Be prepared to accept that during the wet season, no matter what you do, you will get a few bites, so carry a topical anti-itch product with you on trails.
Everglades National Park Visitor Centers
There are four visitor centers located throughout Everglades National Park: Earnest Coe to the east (Homestead - this is where the park headquarters is located), Shark Valley on the north side (Miami), Gulf Coast to the west (Everglades City) and Flamingo to the south (in Flamingo).
You’ll find 18 miles of hiking trails in and around Flamingo , 55 miles of paved and primitive trails through the Pine Island pinelands (7 miles from Earnest Coe Visitor Center), and 15 miles of walking/biking trail in Shark Valley.
While I have not yet experienced all of Everglades National Park, I have to say that my favorite so far is Shark Valley. It’s a wildlife haven with 15 miles of flat, paved pathway that you can walk, bike or hop on the park’s tram tour. The open-air tram takes you down the paved road to a 45-foot observation tower, where you can walk up the ramp to view the sawgrass prairie; it’s a two hour tour. You can also rent bicycles at the Visitor Center (or you can bring your own) and explore at your own pace. Birds are abound here, as are alligators and turtles. I found it amazing to be able to be so close to such terrifying-looking creatures (the alligators, not the turtles!) with no barriers between you and them whatsoever.
Everglades National Park is close to Miami, and a short drive from Naples to the west. Due to its tropical location the park is accessible 365 days a year, unless it’s temporarily closed due to a hurricane (hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.)
Where to Stay Near Everglades National Park
Florida City is the closest community to the Everglades’ main entrance. You’ll find some great restaurants here. Oh, and if you’re in Florida City, you should venture to the Coral Castle, a massive structure that’s been called Florida’s Stonehenge.
Everglades City, near the Gulf Coast Visitor Center is another option for a place to stay – a great place to see beautiful sunsets.