The iconic Everglades is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the continental United States, once reaching all the way from the Orlando area in Central Florida to Florida Bay. It was an enormous wilderness of wetlands containing sawgrass marshes, freshwater sloughs, mangrove swamps, pine rocklands, and hardwood hammocks.
The Native Americans who lived there named it Pa-hay-Okee, which means "grassy waters." The word Everglades comes from the word "forever" and "glades," an old English word meaning "a grassy, open place." In 1947, the government set aside 1.5 million acres, a small fraction of the Everglades, for protection as Everglades National Park.
The park is vast and it takes several hours to drive from end to end. It may seem difficult to know where to begin since so much of the park is swampland and inaccessible by car. Start at one of the park's visitor centers:
- Ernest Coe Visitor Center: Located at the main entrance of the park in Homestead. The center offers educational displays, orientation films, informational brochures, and a bookstore. A series of popular walking trails begin only a short drive away.
- Shark Valley Visitor Center: Located in Miami and offers educational displays, a park video, informational brochures, and a gift store. Guided tram tours, bicycle rentals, snacks, and soft drinks are available from Shark Valley Tram Tours, and two short walking trails are located off the main trail.
- Flamingo Visitor Center: Offers educational displays, informational brochures, campground facilities, a cafe, public boat ramp, a marina store, and hiking and canoeing trails located near the visitor center.
- Gulf Coast Visitor Center: Everglades City is the gateway for exploring the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways that extends to Flamingo and Florida Bay. The center offers educational displays, orientation films, informational brochures, boat tours, and canoe rentals.
- Ranger-Led Programs: Each of the four visitor centers offers ranger-led programs that range from guided tours to talks about specific animal species.
- Shark Valley Tram Tour: This excellent two-hour narrated tram tour leaves multiple times every day and completes a 15-mile loop where you may see alligators and many species of animals and birds.
- Anhinga Trail: This self-guided trail winds through a sawgrass marsh, where you may see alligators, turtles, and many species of birds, including anhingas, herons, egrets, and others, especially during the winter. This is one of the most popular trails in the park because of its abundance of wildlife.
- Mangrove Wilderness Boat Tour: This private, naturalist-led boat tour goes through the dense, swampy part of the Everglades where the water is brackish. You may spot alligator, raccoons, bobcat, mangrove fox squirrel, and a variety of bird species including the mangrove cuckoo. The tour lasts one hour and 45 minutes, and the small boat accommodates up to six guests.
- Pahayokee Boardwalk and Overlook: This raised boardwalk and observation platform on an easy walking loop provides sweeping vistas of the famous "river of grass."
- West Lake Trail: This half-mile self-guided boardwalk trail wanders through a forest of white mangrove, black mangrove, red mangrove, and buttonwood trees to the edge of West Lake.
- Bobcat Boardwalk Trail: This half-mile self-guided boardwalk trail travels through the sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests.
- Mahogany Hammock Trail: This half-mile self-guided boardwalk trail meanders through a dense, jungle-like "hammock" of vegetation including gumbo-limbo trees, air plants, and the largest living mahogany tree in the United States.
- Ten Thousand Island Cruise: This private, naturalist-narrated cruise travels through the saltwater portion of the Everglades and the world's largest mangrove forest. On the 90-minute cruise, you may spy manatees, bald eagles, ospreys, roseate spoonbills, and dolphins.
- Airboat Rides: Since the majority of Everglades National Park is managed as a wilderness area, airboats are prohibited within the majority of its boundaries. The exception is a newer section in the northern area that was added as parkland in 1989. Private airboat operators are allowed to offer tours in this area. They are located off of US 41/Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami.