Everglades National Park: The Complete Guide

Aerial view of Everglades National Park in Florida, USA
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Everglades National Park

Address
Florida, USA
Phone +1 305-242-7700

Everglades National Park, the third-largest national park in the U.S., is a vast, diverse and fascinating wilderness area that takes up most of the bottom tip of the Florida peninsula. The 1.5 million acres of wetlands are filled with millions of alligators, turtles, wading birds, fish, and many endangered species, including the extremely rare Florida Panther. Wilderness areas include pine uplands, sawgrass rivers, hardwood forests, mangrove islands, and boggy marshlands. Everglades National Park is only accessible from three different points, each quite some distance from one another. No roads run through the center of the park or connect one visitor center to another.

Visitors to Everglades National Park are virtually guaranteed abundant animal sightings, especially of wading birds and alligators, and the chance to experience and learn about the fragile ecosystem of the U.S.'s largest subtropical wilderness area. Whether you do a deep dive into the park or just visit for a few hours, the "untamed" nature of the Everglades is immediately obvious—this is definitely a place where wildlife and an often inhospitable environment are to be respected and given deference.

Things to Do in Everglades National Park

There are four park visitor centers accessed from the three park entrances. Activities and animal-sighting probabilities at each of these visitor centers vary according to the terrain.

Gulf Coast Visitor Center

The park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center is located in Everglades City, which, along with neighboring Chokoloskee, is the southernmost city on Florida's west coast. After a 2017 hurricane destroyed the permanent visitor center, a temporary center has stood in its place. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is the access point to the Ten Thousand Islands, a network of mangrove islands that starts at Marco Island and stretches down the rest of the west coast. There are bathroom facilities but no food or drink services at the visitor center, though these can be found in Everglades City. Boat rides from the center allow visitors the opportunity to spot a host of wading birds, including rare white pelicans, as well as bottlenose dolphins and, with any luck, endangered West Indian manatees. You're not likely to see alligators here, as they prefer brackish water and areas of dry land to sun themselves on.

Activities and services available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center include:

  • Interpretive displays
  • Maps and brochures
  • Backcountry permits
  • Ranger talks
  • Interpretive tours of the Ten Thousand Islands on a pontoon boat
  • Canoe and kayak rentals
  • Birdwatching from the shoreline

Need to know: Boat rides and rentals are offered through Everglades Florida Adventures, a park concessionaire. Camping in the Ten Thousand Islands is possible only with a backcountry permit, and primitive campsites with no water or facilities are only accessible by boat. Novice campers or boaters should not attempt wilderness camping or navigating the islands and the maze of waterways by boat. Many primitive campsites close from May to September, which is the bird-nesting season.

Shark Valley Visitor Center

Located on US 41, also called the Tamiami Trail, the Shark Valley Visitor Center sits on the northern edge of the "River of Grass," the vast area of freshwater prairie and slough that is actually a slow-moving river. The visitor center is located about 73 miles from Naples, on the west coast, and 40 miles from Miami, making it a reasonable day trip from either location. This is one of the park's most popular access points and offers nearly immediate animal sightings, including alligators sunning themselves right at the entrance drive. The visitor center has bathrooms, drinks, and snacks.

From the visitor center, a 15-mile paved loop road dips into the River of Grass and offers an easy introduction into the park's ecosystem. Visitors can walk, bike, or take a tram along the trail and readily spot alligators, American crocodiles, aquatic turtles, fish, including monster-sized alligator gar, birdlife, tortoises, and sometimes even otters or white-tailed deer. An observation tower at the trail's midway point offers sweeping views of miles and miles of wetlands.

Activities and services available at the Shark Valley Visitor Center include:

  • Interpretive displays
  • Maps and brochures
  • Ranger talks
  • Interpretive tram rides along the loop road
  • Bicycle rentals
  • Paved and unpaved walking trails

Need to know: Bike rentals, tram rides, and snack and drink services are offered through Shark Valley Tram Tours, a park concessionaire. December to March, Florida's dry season, are the busiest tourist months in Florida, and also peak viewing time for animals at Shark Valley, who gather in and around canals and watering holes. If you visit during this period, try to come mid-week, when the park is less crowded.

Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center

The largest and most comprehensive visitor center in Everglades National Park, the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is located on State Road 9336, 50 miles south of Miami on Florida's east coast. It's also the park headquarters. Located in the "swampier" section of the park, the visitor center is surrounded by dense forests and wet prairie and is another prime spot for wildlife watching. Services on-site include bathrooms and a nice gift shop that also sells snacks, drinks, and, crucially, mosquito repellant.

From the visitor center, guests will find walking trails with interpretive signage, wildlife-viewing platforms, and nearby, the Royal Palm Nature Center, with more informative displays, trails, and up-close animal viewing. Here, animal sighting possibilities include alligators (again!), roseate spoonbills, anhingas, and the usual vast range of wading birds and aquatic life. Though it's highly, highly unlikely you'll see one, Florida Panthers have been spotted around the visitor center.

Activities and services available at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center include:

  • Interpretive displays and films
  • Maps and brochures
  • Ranger talks
  • Paved and unpaved walking trails
  • Wildlife viewing platforms and boardwalks
  • Park headquarters
  • Campground

Need to know: Where there's standing water, there are mosquitos, and this side of the park, especially, is dense with them. Bring your own bug spray, or prepare to run from your car to the visitor center to buy mosquito repellant—they're that prevalent here.

Flamingo Visitor Center

Quite literally the end of the road, the Flamingo Visitor Center sits at the end of State Road 9336, where it runs smack into the Gulf of Mexico at Florida Bay. It's 38 miles from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, a drive made longer because there are so many good places to pull over to the side of the road and observe wildlife. Once you reach the water's edge, it may be possible to spot manatees, dolphins, and wild flamingos.

More developed than you might expect given its remote location, the Flamingo Visitor Center has a snack bar, a marina store, bathrooms, boat tours and rentals, a campground, and a gas station, in addition to interpretive displays and park info.

Activities and services available at the Flamingo Visitor Center include:

  • Interpretive displays
  • Maps and brochures
  • Ranger talks
  • Narrated boat tours
  • Bicycle, canoe, kayak, and fishing gear rentals
  • A developed campground
  • Backcountry camping permits
  • Paved and unpaved walking trails

Need to know: Boat tours and rentals, bike rentals and other paid services are offered through Flamingo Adventures, a park concessionaire. Bring or buy mosquito spray. If you're visiting for the day, either from Miami or Homestead/Florida City, time your visit so that you're not driving on the park road after dark.

Best Hikes & Trails

Because so much of Everglades National Park is underwater and so much of the backcountry is inaccessible, there are only a handful of hiking trails at the visitor centers, and they are short walks with no elevation change. There are no hiking trails from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. Top trails include:

From Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center:

  • Anhinga Trail: Accessed from the Royal Palm Nature Center, this .8-mile trail passes through a marsh and offers close-up views of wading birds and alligators.
  • Gumbo Limbo Trail: This .4-mile trail passes in the shade of palm and gumbo limbo hammock and is a prime viewing area for lovers of orchids and bromeliads.

From Flamingo Visitor Center:

  • West Lake Trail: This half-mile boardwalk is suspended over a mangrove swamp and stretches out into Florida Bay.
  • Snake Bight Trail: An unpaved, 1.6 mile trail and section of boardwalk is prime terrain for spotting gopher tortoises, white-tail deer, and raptors.

From Shark Valley Visitor Center:

  • Park Loop Trail: The 15-mile paved loop that's the centerpiece of Shark Valley has abundant wildlife viewing of a dizzying array of species and can be walked or biked.
  • Bobcat Boardwalk: This half-mile raised boardwalk crosses over a sawgrass slough and hardwood hammock and permits a close-up view of the park ecosystem.

Other Activities in the Park

  • Fishing is possible at the Gulf Coast, Flamingo, and Ernest F. Coe visitor centers. Fishing licenses are required for Florida residents and non-residents, and short-term licenses are available.
  • Canoe, kayak, and motorboat rentals are at the Gulf Coast and Flamingo visitor centers.
  • Biking and bike rentals are offered at the Shark Valley, Flamingo, and Ernest F. Coe centers. 

Camping and Hotels

There are developed campgrounds, some with electrical hook-ups, at the Flamingo and Ernest F. Coe visitor centers. Near the park visitor centers, the closest recommended hotels and motels are:

  • The Everglades Rod & Gun Club, with rustic cottages and a historic bar and restaurant, is in Everglades City, one mile from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
  • Those who wish to stay close to Shark Valley should consider Comfort Suites Miami-Kendall, 26 miles away, or the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, a tribal-owned hotel and casino 18 miles away.
  • Near Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, there are several budget to mid-range hotels in Florida City, 9 miles away. Florida City is also the last mainland stop before the Florida Keys, making a convenient, if not particularly scenic, base for exploring the park and the Keys.
  • At Flamingo Visitor Center, Flamingo Adventures rents houseboats and eco-tents and is developing a 24-room hotel with a restaurant scheduled to open in late 2021.

How to Get There

How you access Everglades National Park depends on what coast of Florida you're on and which visitor center you plan to visit. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is convenient to Fort Myers, Naples, and Marco Island on the west coast, and there is an international airport in Fort Myers. The Ernest F. Coe and Flamingo visitor centers are closest to Miami and Miami International Airport. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is on US 41, one of the two roads that cut across the state's southern end. It's closer to Miami but accessible as a day trip from Naples. A car is needed to reach all the park access points.

Accessibility

Park visitor centers and bathrooms are wheelchair accessible. Many of the most popular park trails are paved for wheelchair access. Non-paved trails may be rutty but have virtually no elevation change. Guided boat tours are wheelchair accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Whenever and wherever you access the park, bring sunscreen, a hat, water, and mosquito repellant, as well as a camera and binoculars.
  • Alligators may look lethargic as they sun themselves on dry land, but this should never be a temptation to get too close. Don't ever attempt to pick up or even get too close to baby alligators. Sure they're cute, but Mom is never far away.
  • Don't ever attempt to feed or touch wildlife, even raccoons and birds that are used to mooching snacks from humans.
  • Leashed pets are allowed on paved vehicular roads (but not the Shark Valley Loop) and campgrounds. They are not permitted on hiking and biking trails or in any wilderness areas.
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Everglades National Park: The Complete Guide