“Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.”
That’s how President Harry S Truman dedicated the area that became the vast Everglades National Park Dec. 6, 1947. Little has changed since then. Encompassing more than 1.5 million acres, or 2,358 square miles, the Everglades remains one of the world’s most diverse nature preserves.
“There is no place in Europe with a park this big,” said Don Asmuss, a native of Germany who immigrated to America many years ago and now RVs full time with his wife, Amy. “There are countries in Europe smaller than the Everglades National Park.”
The park plays host to hundreds of exotic animal species ranging from the nearly extinct Florida panther and West Indian manatee to the ever abundant “el lagarto,” a Spanish term for “the lizard” which aptly describes the lazy alligators lurking beneath the murky swamp water or basking in the morning sun. In fact, the Everglades is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles share the same habitat.
Gentle Ben meets Jurassic Park
Many Baby Boomers grew up watching the antics of Gentle Ben, the pet bear of young Mark Wedloe, who would accompany his park ranger father on airboat expeditions around the Everglades. Yet driving into the park and trying to take in the wide-angle view of towering cypress swamps and shady mangrove trees is like jumping into a time machine to a land before time.
Nearly completely flat – its highest elevation is only 10 feet – the Everglades resemble a National Geographic African plain with wildlife and fauna unlike what most Americans will see in their backyards.
A few hours from Mickey’s home in Orlando, the Everglades is an attractive draw for families wishing to experience nature in addition to more commercial activities in southern Florida. It’s not uncommon to bump into a family from Germany, college students from Brazil or Canadian snowbirds. The fact there is ample space for everyone makes the Everglades a restful escape from the hustle of Florida’s primary tourism industry.
Traveling the Tamiami Trail
Coming from the west, there are two ways to reach the Everglades. The first is along the famed Alligator Alley, also known as Interstate 75, a toll road which connects Naples to Fort Lauderdale. Zipping along at 70 miles per hour won’t give you much chance to stop and take in any scenery outside the two rest areas along the way, but it will get you to the park much faster. If you opt to take this route, gas up before leaving Naples because the next station is more than 50 miles away.
Those wishing for a more leisurely approach to the Everglades will enjoy the Tamiami Trail along Hwy. 41. While the speed limit is slightly slower than the Interstate system, there are ample places for RVers to pull along the road to rest, take pictures, fish or watch nature. Be wary, however; as experienced RVers say there’s always a possibility an alligator will mosey onto the road.
The Tamiami Trail follows the northern border of Everglades National Park and even cuts through the middle of Big Cypress, the first national preserve in the National Park System. A meeting place of temperate and tropical species, Big Cypress is a hotbed of biological diversity and the area serves as a supply of fresh, clean water for the vital estuaries of the ten thousand islands area near Everglades City. If you’re anxious to catch a peak of an alligator, the Big Cypress visitor’s center features a fenced in pond allowing safe viewing of nearly a dozen gators.
Leaving Naples, one of the first attractions you’ll see is at Big Cypress Bend. Owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve lies adjacent to the western border of the Big Cypress National Preserve. A 2,000-foot-long boardwalk winds its way through old growth cypress swampland.
Trails along century-old logging tramroads also provide access to the largest stand of native royal palms, and is home to many rare species of bromeliads and orchids. The Florida panther, black bear and wood stork are found here as well.
The Everglades’ Gulf Coast visitor center is one of the first stops outside of Naples. Located at Everglades City, in the northwest corner of the park, it serves as the gateway for exploring the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways that extends south to the Flamingo campground and Florida Bay.
A 90-minute narrated boat trip provides an excellent perspective of the saltwater ecosystem and you’re likely to spot a manatee, dolphin or osprey along the way.
For an adventurous up-close view of the Everglades, stop at any of a dozen docks offering high-speed, private airboat rides through the swampland. With their 30-minute eco-adventure tours, wildlife show and onsite restaurant, the Everglades Safari Park is a popular stop for organized tour groups.
In the heart of the “river of grass” that stretches 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, the Shark Valley visitor’s center is halfway between Naples and Homestead Wildlife abounds here in a freshwater ecosystem of sawgrass marsh and tree islands. A paved tram road extends into the marsh, offering one of the best opportunities to view alligators and the endangered snail kite.
Those wishing to explore alone can walk the short trails or bike. The round trip is approximately 15 miles. A two hour narrated tram ride provides an overview of the freshwater Everglades for $23 per adult and $12.75 for children. Bicycles are available to rent by the hour. An observation tower located halfway around the tram road provides a spectacular view into the sawgrass marsh. If you venture away from the visitor’s center, you’ll want to bring drinks and snacks since there aren’t any vending machines or restaurants near the observation tower, although restrooms are available. www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/tramtours.html
Encountering the Everglades
About 30 minutes from Shark Valley, RVers will merge onto the Florida turnpike for a quick trip to Homestead. Exiting the turnpike onto U.S. Hwy. 1, stop at the Super Wal-Mart to stock up on groceries, gas and other supplies before maneuvering a short distance to Hwy. 9336 which will take you to the park’s main entrance. You’ll want to stop at Robert Is Here fruit stand to sample a variety of fresh vegetables and tropical fruits as well as tempting and delicious Key Lime milkshake. www.robertishere.com
As you enter the Everglades, make sure to check out the Ernest F. Coe visitor center. There you can pick up a map and chat with a guide who can help you better plan your visit. The center will also have the most up-to-date schedules regarding ranger-guided activities and campground availability. Admission to the park is just $10 for seven days.
It’s relatively easy to find camping spaces at the Everglades National Park, even during the peak season. Camping is inexpensive at $16 for a regular site, but visits are limited to just 14 days from Nov. 1 to April 30. Site hopping is allowed, but camping may not exceed 30 days during a single year. Here’s a tip cost-conscious RVers will enjoy: From June 1 to Aug. 31, if you smile at a ranger, your campsite could be free. www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Long Pine Key campground is just seven miles from the main entrance. It features 108 drive-up sites, rest rooms, water, a sewer dump station with fresh water fill, but no showers or electrical hookups.
Flamingo campground is located 32 miles further away at the end of the main park road. It has 234 drive-in sites, including 55 with a view of Florida Bay. Cold-water shower facilities are located at Flamingo, but water temperatures generally don’t get above 80 degrees. Limited groceries and camping supplies are available at the Flamingo Marina and there are two dump stations with fresh water hookups.
Pets are allowed in campsites, but they are not permitted on any trail nor would you want to take one along as an alligator may find Fido to be a delicacy.
For the birds
Everglades National park is home to more than 350 different bird species including wading birds, land birds and birds of prey. You’re likely to see the long-legged white ibis just about everywhere and the great egrets are fun to watch as they stalk fish in shallow water with the intensity of a Labrador retriever eying a tennis ball.
Their dart-like jabs rarely miss the insect or fish they’re pursuing. Due to its temperate climate, the Everglades plays a key role in hosting migrating birds from around the world. The best time for bird watching is November to March.
About 50 pair of bald eagles make their home in the Everglades along with the red-shouldered hawk. Late at night, the hooting of the barred owl can heard for miles. While touring the mangrove islands, you’ll likely see giant osprey nosedive into the water and return with a meal.
Florida tree snails are shelled mollusks which live on the bark of hardwood trees. Their two-to-three inch spiraled shells can be found in some 60 different color varieties, ranging from nearly solid dark brown, to varieties boldly striped with pink, yellow and green, to solid white.
Gazing at gators
There’s one Everglades animal that has looked the same for centuries – the alligator. Measuring up to 17.5 feet and weighing nearly 600 pounds, alligators in the Everglades are surprisingly accepting of people. In the Royal Palm trail area, alligators frequently meander onto the path to sun themselves before awestruck tourists.
Rangers remind guests that alligators can run up to 30 mph for short distances. Yet, if they stay at least six feet away from the gators, they shouldn’t have to worry about an encounter with the critter’s powerful jaws that can crush turtle shells with 3,000 pounds of pressure.
While alligators are active all year round, they are particularly amorous from mid-April through May. Many RVers have been jolted awake by an awful noise of alligators barking. It’s described as the sounded like heavy equipment moving in the distance.
Nighttime is a particularly interesting time to go gator gazing. As the temperatures cool down, they become far more active and their reflective eyes make for an eerie encounter. When it’s really dark, you can take a flashlight along the Anhinga Trail and shine it over the water and see hundreds of glowing eyes staring back at you. They start feeding at dusk and it’s amazing to watch them snap at each other or leap out of the water to grab some unsuspecting animal prey.
With 156 miles of wilderness waterways within its boundaries, canoeing and kayaking are among the park’s biggest draws. In fact, many of the marine areas and shallow estuaries can only be navigated by paddleboats.
Canoes, kayaks and boats can be rented at the Flamingo Marina and the Gulf Coast visitor center for two hours for $16 up to $195 for an 8-hour boat rental. Rangers recommend that you bring one gallon of water per person and wear a long shirt and pants for sun and insect protection. Because some waterways are exceptionally shallow, wear shoes that can get wet in case you need to portage. Paddlers incur a $3 launch fee that offers unlimited opportunity over a seven-day period. www.evergladesnationalparkboattoursflamingo.com/canoe.php
Boats longer than 18 feet or with high cabins or windshields should not attempt the trip because of narrow channels and overhanging vegetation. Nautical charts are necessary for finding your way in the coastal zone, and are useful in planning your trip. If you’re planning to do a lot of canoeing or kayaking, rangers recommend reading A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park by J. Malloy. The 240-page guide sells for $14.51 and offers detailed information about every significant paddling route in the park including the Wilderness Waterway and 53 designated routes. It includes 22 trail maps; a rating system with hazards, mileage and paddling time; descriptions of every backcountry campsite. You can order a copy by clicking here.
Other major water trails include:
- Nine Mile Pond Loop – Located 11 miles north of Flamingo campground, this easily-marked 5.2-mile course takes you along a scenic trail through a shallow sawgrass marsh with scattered islands of mangroves. Watch for alligators, wading birds, and an occasional eagle
- Noble Hammock Trail – This 2-mile loop begins 9 miles north of Flamingo and winds through a maze of shady mangrove-lined creeks and small ponds. Sharp corners and narrow passageways require good maneuvering skills, although the trail is relatively clam even on windy days. Check for low water levels during the dry season.
- Hells Bay Trail – Experienced canoeists say this 3-mile trail is hell to get into and hell to get out of.” The sheltered route is marked by more than 160 numbered poles as it weaves through mangrove creeks and ponds to a series of small bays beyond Lard Can
- Leave the work to others and step aboard a nightly sunset bay cruise that departs from the Flamingo Marina. “The best part of the bay cruise is that you’ll leave the mosquitoes on shore,” said Danny. “But don’t worry; they’ll be waiting for you to return.”
Fishing for fun
With one-third of Everglades National park covered by water, anglers can enjoy excellent outings all year long. Snapper, sea trout, redfish, bass and bluegill are plentiful. During state open season, stone crabs and blue crabs may be harvested as can shrimp.
Due to the Everglades unique composition, freshwater and saltwater fishing are possible in the same park, although Florida law requires separate fishing licenses for each water type. Fishing from shore is very limited. However, for $600, two people can charter a full-day fishing trip with an experienced captain through the Flamingo Marina. Half day charters are just $450. www.fishingflamingo.com/trips.html
Become a slough sleuth
While an abundant number of trails will keep even the most active hikers occupied, more adventurous visitors can’t miss a 2.5-hour off-trail hike through saw grass and knee deep water. These ranger-led “wet walks” allow hikers to peek into an alligator hole or check out the interior of a cypress dome. Other ranger-led interpretive programs are offered year-round at the Royal Palm visitor center and during winter months at the Flamingo, Shark Valley and Gulf Coast centers. www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/sloughslog.htm
If you’re into creating your own adventure, check out the 1.6-mile Snake Bight Trail, where you’ll enter another world as you walk through tropical hardwood hammock with dozens of tropic tree species and excellent bird watching on the boardwalk at the end of the trail.
The truly adventurous will enjoy the 7.5-mile Coastal Prairie Trail, an old road once used by fisherman and pickers of wild cotton. The trail features open expanses of lush coastal plants.
The half-mile trail along Eco Pond at the Flamingo campsite offers a glimpse at a variety of wading birds, song birds and other wildlife. Alligators also cruise the pond. Bird watching is especially enjoyable at sunrise and sunset.
Activity doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. With the nearest large community more than 50 miles away from the Flamingo campground, the Everglades offers some of the most spectacular stargazing in the Southern United States. Rangers lead a nightly 50-minute starlight talk at the Long Pine Key campground’s amphitheater.
For those who prefer to hike by bike, there are lots trails that allow bicycling. Rangers lead a 2.5-hour “three-in-one” bike hike from the Long Pine Key campground through hammocks, finger glades and pinelands – some of the most diverse and endangered habitat in southern Florida. The cost is $20 per person ($15 if you bring your own bike) and it includes water. www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/rangerprograms.htm
The scoop on skeeters
Unlike the garden variety mosquitoes found in most parts of the country, tropical mosquitoes are attracted to the park’s 90 to 100 percent humidity, especially during peak skeeter season of July and August. Here are a few tips from experienced Everglades explorers to help keep deter the biting bugs:
- Avoid dark colors like blue, black, gray and even dark denim. Mosquitoes are attracted to the color like a magnet. Even something as small as a black cell phone case will be seen by insects as a possible refuge from heat and sun.
- Pulling off the road onto grass creates an artificial sunless zone which attracts mosquitoes from nearby plants. Opening the car door acts like a suction for insects attracted to the cold and dark areas under seats.
- If you stop to take pictures, roll up your car windows. Mosquitoes are attracted to the dark interior of the car. If you forget and return to find your car flooded with flying insects, rangers recommend turning the air-conditioners to high power to slow them down.
- Avoid flowery smelling soap, shampoo or perfume. Mosquitoes will be attracted by the scent which can linger on your body for up to a week after use.
- Insect repellent can help disguise attractive scents, but like perfume, each brand reacts differently to different body chemistry. Repellent containing DEET works for nearly 80 percent of visitors. But people still getting stung should try switching repellants. Don’t forget, sweating makes the repellent drip away. Don’t be afraid to apply it every few hours.
- Hide the Raid. Fogging for insects, even mosquitoes, on park property is not allowed. Not only could the chemical kill the insects, it could injure the birds who feed on them.
Where to stay
- Flamingo Campground, Everglades National Park, 305.242.7700, www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/flamcamp.htm
- Lone Pine Key Campground, Everglades National Park, 305.242.7745, www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/longpinecamp.htm
- The Jolly Roger Travel Park, Marathon, 800.995.1525, www.jrtp.com
- Knights Key Park, Marathon, 305.743.4343, www.knightskeyrvresortandmarina.com
- Sunshine Key Fun Resort and Marina, Big Pine Key, 800.852.0348, www.rvonthego.com/florida/sunshine-key-rv-resort-marina
- Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key, 305.872.2353, click here for information.
- Calusa Campground condominium Association, Key Largo, 305.451.0232, www.calusacampground.com