The Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million acre area that stretches over the southern part of Florida, is unique in many ways. The largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. (and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River), more than one million people visit the Everglades each year to explore and wonder at the differing eco-systems that exist here. Activities abound, from hiking and bicycling to kayaking, canoeing, camping or exploring by airboat. The Everglades have been declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance; there are only three locations in the world that appear on all three of these lists.
Visiting the Everglades allows you to explore a vast diversity of flora and fauna in nine distinct eco-systems: freshwater sloughs, marl prairies, tropical hardwood hammocks, pineland, cypress, mangrove, coastal lowlands, marine and estuarine. While there is a lot of area to discover, three days allows you to sample the various habitats and provides plenty of reasons to fall in love with the Everglades.
Take the Tamiami Trail, a two-lane road that used to the be the area’s only access to the Everglades to Shark Valley. Be sure to stop at a few of the roadside attractions (boat rides, alligator farms, 1950s style gift shops) to fully appreciate the history of the area. Walk, bike or take the tram along the Tram Road and stop at the Observation Tower for an aerial view. Continue west along the Tamiami Trail to Big Cypress National Preserve. The Florida National Scenic Trail’s southern terminus is located in the preserve and offers great hiking among the cypress trees or sign up for a pole boat tour for a bit of historic fun. Continue on to Everglades City for the night.
Everglades City is another entrance to the Everglades National Park; stop into the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to get your bearings, today is going to be spent on the water, exploring the Ten Thousand Islands and Chokoloskee Bay; the best way to do this is by boat. Sign up for a guided eco-tour led by naturalists or rent a kayak or a canoe and paddle at your own pace. Keep an eye out for dolphins, manatees, ospreys and pelicans among the mangrove islands. For an epic journey, head south and you’ll find the 99-mile (159 km) long Wilderness Waterway. It’s the longest canoe trail in the area, but don’t try to accomplish it all in one day—most paddlers budget eight days to complete the Waterway.
Head to Flamingo Visitor Center. If you haven’t had enough paddling, rent a canoe or kayak and take off on one of the many trails. For hikers and walkers, there are about nine different trails that start at the Flamingo Visitor Center and are of varying lengths (the Coastal Prairie Trail is the longest at about 12 miles (19.3 km) round-trip.
From Flamingo, start up the Main Park Road and make plans to stop at the various scenic stopping points for the rest of the day. Heading north, you’ll come to Mahogany Hammock, followed by Shark River Slough (pronounced ‘slew’) and Long Pine Key. When you reach Royal Palm Visitor’s Center, take time to wander Anhinga Trail, one of the most scenic and wildlife-heavy locations in the park, and the Gumbo Limbo Trail. Finish up at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center—chances are you’ll be making plans to spend just a few more days in the Everglades.