Everglades National Park is a large expanse of wilderness, almost covering all of Southern Florida. With more than 1.5 million acres, the area is unlike any other place in the world. With characteristics of both North America and the Caribbean, it truly is unique. This is showcased in the mashup of pine and palm trees that dot the ever-spanning sea of grass.
One thing I noticed about Everglades National Park that makes it different from other parks I have visited, is that there is no place to get up high and look over the expanse. With the highest elevation around 12 feet above sea level, you are immersed in this wilderness. And I kind of liked that. I liked taking it in with it surrounding me, as opposed to being an observer looking down on it.
Everglades National Park covers a large area. But the majority of the park is in the backcountry and is accessible only by water. This takes a little bit of the overwhelm away because the park can still be thoroughly explored on a week’s trip if you don’t go into the backcountry. For the park’s website, click here.
Where to camp
There are two developed campgrounds operated by an authorized concessionaire. Long Pine Key Campground is about five miles from the park entrance on the Main Park Road and Flamingo Campground is about 40 miles further. The Main Park Road dead-ends at Flamingo.
I chose to stay at Long Pine Key Campground because it was more centrally located, although at Flamingo Campground you are closer to the ocean.
Everglades National Park four main area
Everglades National Park can be divided into four main quadrants. These include the Flamingo area, the Long Pine Key or the Main Park Road entrance area, Shark Valley on the northeast side of the park, and the Gulf Coast area on the northwest side of the park.
To get to Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast area from the Main Park Road, you have to drive out and around the park. It is 50 miles from the Main Park Road entrance to Shark Valley and 92 miles to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center area.
I never made it all the way over to the Gulf Coast area to explore. There is plenty to see in the other quadrants and I didn’t want to spend all that time driving.
A few miles after you enter the main entrance to Everglades National Park, you come to an intersection with a road to your left. Side note: Just before this intersection, I saw an alligator hanging out every day at dusk and dawn on the left side of the highway. Take the road to your left for a short distance to the Royal Palm area. The Royal Palm area was my favorite area in the Everglades.
Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails
The Anhinga Trail was my favorite in the entire park. I actually walked it twice, once on my first day and once on my last day. This 0.75-mile boardwalk has spectacular views of the sea of grass. It also is a wonderful place to watch wildlife. It also showcases a freshwater marsh.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail is named for the Gumbo Limbo Tree, a unique ornamental-looking tree. This 0.5-mile trail takes you into the dark forest canopy that dots Everglades National Park. As you explore the park, you learn that these clusters of mature trees are called hammocks.
Main Park Road
The Main Park Road takes you from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (at the main entrance) to the Flamingo area. The road is 38 miles and has several hiking and paddling options.
The Pineland Trail is an easy 0.5-mile loop. The Pinelands are different from the hardwood hammocks in that they are larger in area and not as numerous. While hiking the Pineland Trail look for rocks and solution holes where the ground has been eroded out.
Pa-hay-okee comes from the native Seminoles and means “great grassy waters.” This boardwalk is 280 yards roundtrip and takes you up to an elevated platform so you can get a little bit of an overview of the great grassy waters. The trail makes a loop, but only one side is handicap accessible with a ramp. The other side has stairs.
Mahogany Hammock Trail gives you a great tour of a tropical hardwood hammock. This 0.5-mile boardwalk shows you how these hammocks are little islands that dot the seas of grass. I also loved comparing how thick and dense they are to the openness of the Everglades.
Nine Mile Pond
As you continue toward Flamingo from Royal Palm, the Main Park Road enters the mangrove forest around Nine Mile Pond. The views change from seas of grass and hardwood hammocks to thick shorter vegetation. Here is where most of the water trails begin. I chose to paddle at Nine Mile Pond because the rental company already had canoes there. My best friend, Crystal, and I attempted a 5.5-mile water trail around Nine Mile Pond. However, we were there in the dry season. The water was low and we did not feel like fighting with the silt. We did paddle through the mangroves a little way and that was really nice.
The Flamingo area is a jumping-off point for the backcountry. Water trails take adventurers through mangrove forest, marine, and estuarine ecosystems all along the Gulf of Mexico side of Everglades National Park. Flamingo is where you can rent boats, kayaks, and canoes. You can also take boat tours and do other fun stuff.
I used Flamingo Adventures to rent our canoe. It is also the same company that runs the campgrounds in the park. They were wonderful and we thoroughly enjoyed them.
Snake Bight Trail
A few longer hiking trails can be found at Flamingo. They are fairly level and easy to walk or bike. When I visited Everglades National Park, I asked which one was best to do. Locals and park employees pointed me to the Snake Bight Trail.
This 2.8-mile out and back hikes takes hikers through three ecosystems of the Everglades. It takes you from the mangrove forests to the coastal prairie and then to the shore of Florida Bay.
Shark Valley is on the north side of the park off of Tamiami Trail (Highway 41). It gets its name from the Shark River, which is a slough or slow-moving river. A 15-mile paved walking and biking path takes visitors deep into the Shark River Slough with an elevated observation tower in the middle.
Don’t feel like walking or biking all 15-miles? The park also offers tram tours. Wildlife is abundant here.
Otter Cave Hammock and Bobcat Boardwalk
But if you don’t want to do a tram tour, walk, or bike the pathway, you can walk the tramway to Otter Cave Hammock Trail and back to Bobcat Boardwalk Trail for a taste of the area. This walk is about 1.5 miles. On this portion, the tramway follows a canal and the wildlife here is abundant.
Because most of Everglades National Park is swampy backcountry, an airboat ride is a must. This gets you into the Everglades and you can really get a feel for how wild and unforgiving the place is.
There are several authorized concessionaires with Everglades National Park. I chose Coopertown because they seemed less gimmicky and less like a tourist attraction. And our airboat ride was great. Our captain was informative and had a dry sense of humor. We saw several alligators and other wildlife.
Crystal and I debated between an airboat ride or a boat tour. I’m glad we decided on an airboat ride because we were able to get into the grassy areas and see the wildlife closer up.
Another way to experience the waterways of Everglades National Park is by one of its many paddle trails. If you don’t own a canoe or kayak or do not want to transport them all the way to South Florida, you can rent them for a very reasonable price.
Like I said above, I used Flamingo Adventures and they were great. Even though we didn’t complete our paddle trail, I’m really glad we were able to explore and play in the water.
Exploring Everglades National Park
I spent five days exploring Everglades National Park. There is so much to do there. I was a little bit leery when I was planning the trip because there’s not a lot of long trails. But I really enjoyed combining the shorter trails and exploring the many different ecosystems this amazing place offers.