Everglades: River of Grass

History of the Everglades

Aerial view of Florida Everglades
••• Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images

With 1.5 million acres of swamps, saw-grass prairies and sub-tropical jungles, Everglades National Park is one of the most unusual public parks in the United States. Located on the southern tip of Florida, the park is home to 14 rare and endangered species, including the American Crocodile, the Florida Panther and the West Indian Manatee. A large portion of the park is primitive, explored only by adventurists and researchers – but visitors have ample opportunity to walk, camp and canoe through the flat and watery park that is also known as “the river of grass.” This treasure is one of Miami's national parks.

Five thousand years ago, the Everglades encompassed much of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.

Evidence of early Native American settlers in the Everglades dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries. As Europeans landed in St. Augustine, Florida and moved around the region, other Native American tribes, most notably the Seminoles, fled south into the inhospitable swamp. In the late 1800s, a few rugged settlers founded the village of Flamingo, located at the very tip of Florida (and the end of the swampy Everglades).

By 1934, Congress signed an act that allowed for the creation of a park in South Florida. Initially, the park would encompass 460,000 acres of federal, state and private lands – but over the years, land acquisitions would increase its size. Today, the Everglades is the third largest national park.

President Harry S. Truman dedicated the park in 1947 with these words: "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 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."

In 1979, UNESCO declared Everglades National Park a World Heritage Site, for the area’s indigenous history and its diversity of flora and fauna.

Today, Everglades National Park is a protected area; however, it only encompasses one-seventh of the area known as the Everglades. Much of the northern stretches of the swamp are currently threatened by draining and development, and environmentalists warn that if the non-park areas are not protected, the world will lose an important and unique ecosystem.

Everglades National Park is open seven days a week. The Main Entrance of the park is near Homestead and Florida City, about 45 miles from downtown Miami. A seven-day permit costs $10 per vehicle at the main entrance station ($8 at Shark Valley), and $5 per person for pedestrians and cyclists ($4 at Shark Valley). A 12-month Everglades Park Pass is available for $20. Peak visiting season is from mid-December to mid-April (in the summer months, the number of mosquitoes all but prevent visitors from enjoying the park’s natural wonders).

For more information, contact Park Headquarters, 40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; (305) 242-7700; it is important to call ahead to find out what services are available, as some of the amenities in the western part of the park were damaged by Hurricane Wilma in October of 2005. For further information on the park, including history, camping reservations and other entrances north of Miami, visit the Everglades section of the National Park Service website.

Upon entering the park near Homestead (there are other entrances on the northern and western edges of the park, however, the Homestead entrance is the easiest from Miami and the most popular place to access the park), stop at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, which offers helpful dioramas and maps of the park, along with rangers who can answer questions. For information on activities available, read the Top Ten Activities in Everglades National Park.

You can explore Everglades National Park on foot, on bicycle or by boat. This can either be done alone (be sure to take along a good map and lots of water) or by guided tour. For a good starting point, read the Top Ten Activities in Everglades National Park.

Once at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, there are several tour options. The Anhinga Amble is a 50-minute guided stroll along a raised boardwalk.

Signs point out the various flora of the park, and alligators, turtles and wading birds are often spotted. Free.

Another free, guided tour is the Mahogany Hammock Walk, a one-hour program that highlights the history of the park’s pristine Mahogany stand.

For the more adventurous, a guided bike tour through hammocks, glades and pinelands can be done for $20 ($15 for those who bring their own bike). Bikes, helmets and water are provided; the length of the tour is about 2 ½ hours. The so-called “Slough Slog,” is a $20, 2 ½ hour tour through the swamp. Wear appropriate footwear and expect to get wet. Walking stick provided.

For campers, there is the Long Pine Key Campground, located seven miles from the main entrance, just off the main road. It has 108 drive up sites for tents and RVs. The park offers rest rooms, water, and a sewer dump station with fresh water fill, but no showers or hookups.

The Flamingo Visitor Center area of the park – located at the end of the main road – is a popular spot for canoeing. Canoe rentals are available, but the area was heavily damaged due to Hurricane Wilma and some services are on hold. Check with rangers, look on the internet or call for updated information.

The Shark Valley Visitor Center – off U.S. Highway 41, north of Miami and headed towards the Gulf Coast city of Naples – hosts guided tram tours run by an outside concession service. Cost is $14 for adults and $8.50 for children. Call 305-221-8455 for more information.

All visitors should bring water and snacks with them on all trips, as concession stands are scarce. Sunscreen, a hat and insect repellent are also advised. Average temperature in winter is 77 degrees, while in the summer the temperatures often stay at 90 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. The rainy season is June through October.