EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
The Everglades is a 1.5-million-acre wetlands preserve on the southern tip of Florida. It gained national park status on December 6, 1947, when President Harry S. Truman dedicated the area as Everglades National Park to ensure the protection of its wildlife and plant habitats. Although the park is primarily a fresh-water ecosystem, it also encompasses approximately 485,000 acres of the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico salt water areas. This ecosystem reaches from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee. From there the waters from the lake slowly move south toward the Florida Bay. The Florida Bay is a shallow bay with an average depth of 4-5 feet, with the deepest point being 9 feet. The bay is separated from the ocean by dense mangrove islands, sandbars, and the Florida Keys; thus providing limited water circulation.
A River of Grass
Everglades National Park has often been called the “River of Grass” (or a swamp by others). It is really a long, shallow river nearly 50 miles wide and more than 100 miles long. The dominant life form in the “river” is periphyton, a mossy golden-brown substance found floating in the water. Periphyton is a complex mixture of algae, cyanobacteria, heterotrophic microbes, and detritus that attaches to submerged surfaces in an ecosystem. It serves as an important food source for invertebrates, tadpoles, and some fish.
Sawgrass marsh makes up about 70 percent of the Everglades. In the northern Everglades it is tall and dense – in some areas the water is barely visible. In the south it tends to be short and less dense. Sawgrass has serrated, razor sharp blades that can cut through clothing.
Everglades National Park is much smaller today than in years past. Around 50% of the wetlands has been destroyed by construction and drainage projects. The restoration of the Everglades has been an issue for many political debates in Florida. Both the state and federal governments are committed to restoring and protecting the Everglades.
Calusa (kah LOOS ah) Indians lived on and controlled most of the southwest coast of Florida. The Everglades were central to life in the Calusa Indian villages. Many were located on the mouths of rivers above the Everglades. The natives traveled by canoes through the Everglades to hunt alligators, turtles, shellfish and small mammals that were essential to their food supply. The teeth and bones of wildlife and reeds from the plants in the Everglades were used for making tools. The Native Americans called the area “Pahayokee (pay-HIGH-oh-geh), meaning “grassy waters”. The Calusa declined with European expansion to the area. Some were killed, but most died of diseases brought in by the European settlers.
Everglades National Park Weather
There are two seasons in the Everglades: wet and dry. The area alternates with seasons of flood and drought.
The wet (summer) season accounts for around 80% of the average annual rainfall in the area (50+ inches) and lasts from May through November. The humidity and temperatures (90+F) during this time are high. Most afternoons have thunderstorms (and occasional hurricanes) that bring rain to renew the fresh-water supply. Hurricanes can be good for the ecosystem because they make new areas for plant growth, seeds are scattered, and waters are moved in the normally shallow, slow moving river. Recent hurricanes have impacted the Everglades (Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, Irma).
Rainfall is the primary method water enters the Everglades and evapotranspiration (the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and other surfaces and by transpiration from plants) accounts for 70-90% of the rainfall leaving the area.
The dry (winter) season begins in December and goes through the month of April. It brings cooler temperatures (55F-77F) and little rain. The dry season is especially important for the reproduction of the birds and wildlife in the area.
As mentioned above, the Everglades has a dry season where drought like conditions are perfect for fires. The Florida Everglades have recently experienced fires around the Big Cypress National Preserve (March 2017 and 2018). Although fire may seem to be a destructive element to nature, most often it is not. Fire is essential for maintenance and new growth of the land.
Environmental factors are always changing the ecological system. The climate and frequency of rain, storms, and fire all change the Everglades on a continual basis.
Everglades Water Supply
Approximately one third of people living in Florida (around 8 million) relay on water from the Everglades for their fresh water supply. This makes protecting the Everglades extremely important.
Plant Life in Everglades National Park
As mentioned above, wet sawgrass prairies and periphyton are plentiful in the Everglades. The river holds mangrove and cypress swamps, pinelands and hardwood hammocks. Hammocks are dry land that rise out of the grassy river. Tropical and subtropical trees such as the southern live oak grow on them.
The oldest and tallest trees in the Everglades are cypresses, the roots specially adapted to grow underwater. Big Cypress Swamp is well known for its 500 year old cypresses.
Link to Big Cypress Swamp Website: https://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm
Wildlife in Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is home to at least 350 species of birds, 50 reptile species, 300 species of saltwater and freshwater fish, and 40 species of mammals. The ecosystem provides protection for 14 endangered and nine threatened species, including the Florida panther, the Atlantic Ridley turtle, the leatherback turtle, the West Indian manatee, the snail kite, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, and the American crocodile. There are at least 36 species that live in Everglades National Park that are protected, threatened, or endangered.
The Everglades are a refuge for large wading birds, such as the wood stork, great blue heron, egrets, and the roseate spoonbill and it is the most important tropical wading bird breeding ground in North America.
This area is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist together in the wild. Crocodiles are mostly found in small numbers in the coastal areas of the Everglades. Alligators stay more inland, near the freshwater.
Even mosquitoes play an important role to the Everglades. The larvae of grown mosquitoes are food for fish, which in turn become an important food source to the diets of the wading birds.
Pythons have become an invasive species to the area. In the last few years, professional trained python bounty hunters are now being paid to help remove these large snakes from the area as they pose a threat to the ecosystem food source.
Visitors to Everglades National Park
The Florida Everglades is visited by more than one million people from all over the world every year. It is the third biggest national park in America. Only Yellowstone and Death Valley are greater in land mass. Everglades National Park provides a fantastic learning experience to those of all ages and is also a great family adventure. Photographers find the landscape and the wildlife the perfect setting for great photos.
The busy visitor season is from December through March. This is the driest time of the year, the temperatures are cooler, and there are fewer mosquitoes.
If you are considering a trip to the Everglades, be sure to bring along water and an insect repellant. Protective clothing may also be necessary depending on what you are doing or where you are going.
Everglades National Park Visitor Centers
The park has 4 visitor centers:
Shark Valley Visitor Center
Address: Everglades National Park, 36000 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33194
Hours of Operation
8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Mid-December – Mid-April
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Mid-April – Mid-December
Hours are subject to change. Phone 305-221-8776.
Visitors wanting to explore alone can walk the short trails and portions of the tram road, or bike. An observation tower located halfway around the tram road provides a spectacular view into the sawgrass marsh.
Guided tram tours, bicycle rentals, snacks and soft drinks are available from Shark Valley Tram Tours, Inc.
Shark Valley Trails:
Bobcat Boardwalk: sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests
Otter Cave Hammock Trail: tropical hardwood forest with small footbridges over a small stream.
Tram Road: flat, paved road used for tram rides, bicycling, and walking. You may see alligators, herons, egrets, turtles, and snail kites. An observation tower provides panoramic views of the tropical hardwood hammock.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (Park Main Entrance)
Address: Everglades National Park, 40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034
Hours of Operation
Mid-December through Mid-April 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Mid-April through Mid-December 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Hours subject to change. Phone (305) 242-7700
The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is open 365 days a year. It offers educational displays, orientation films, and informational brochures. Special collections by local artists are often displayed. Books, film, postcards, and insect repellent may be purchased in the adjoining bookstore. A series of popular walking trails begin only a short drive from the visitor center.
The main park road runs 38 miles from the Ernest Coe Main Entrance through the park to the Flamingo Visitor Centre. A series of walking trails along this road begin a short drive from the visitor center.
Trails from Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center:
Anhinga Trail: Four miles from the main entrance, this is a 0.5 mile round trip trail that is self-guided. The trail winds through a sawgrass marsh, where you may see alligators, turtles, herons, egrets, and other birds, especially during the winter. Because of the wildlife, this is one the most popular trails in the park.
Gumbo Limbo Trail: This self-guided, 0.5 mile round trip tail is 4 miles from the main entrance. The paved trail meanders through a shaded hammock of gumbo limbo trees, royal palms, ferns, and air plants.
Pahayokee Overlook: Located 13 miles from the main entrance the trail is 0.25 miles.
An observation deck on this loop provides views of the Everglades.
Mahogany Hammock Trail: Located 20 miles from the main entrance this trail is 0.5 miles round trip. It is a self-guided boardwalk that meanders through a dense hardwood hammock with gumbo-limbo trees, air plants, and the largest living mahogany tree in the United States.
Flamingo Visitor Center
Address: Everglades National Park, 1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy, Homestead, FL 33034
Hours of Operation
8am – 4:30pm mid-November through mid-April
No regular hours off season – intermittent staffing (Mid-April through mid-November).
Hours are subject to change. Phone (239) 695-2945
The Flamingo Visitor Center lies roughly 38 miles south of the park main entrance at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Visitors should expect to drive about an hour before arriving at Flamingo.
The Flamingo Visitor Center offers educational displays, informational brochures, and backcountry permits. Campground facilities, a public boat ramp, a marina store, and hiking and canoeing trails are located near the visitor center.
Flamingo Marina Rentals and Boat Tours (239) 695-3101
Houseboat, canoe, kayak, bicycle rentals and boat tours are available through the marina store. The marina is open year round.
West Lake Trail: Located 7 miles north of the Flamingo Visitor Center on the park road, this is a 0.5 mile round trip trail. It is a self-guided boardwalk trail that wanders through a forest of white mangrove, black mangrove, red mangrove, and buttonwood trees to West Lake.
Eco Pond Trail – Near the Flamingo Visitor Center this 0.5 mile round trail allows visitors to walk around a freshwater pond while watching wading birds, song birds, ducks, alligators and softshell turtles.
Gulf Coast Visitor Center
Address: 815 Oyster Bar Ln, Everglades City, FL 34139
Hours of Operation
9:00 am to 4:30 pm Mid-April- Mid-November
8:00 am to 4:30 pm Mid-November – Mid-April
Hours subject to change. Contact by Phone: 239-695-3311
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center serves as the gateway for exploring the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways extending to Flamingo and Florida Bay accessible only by boat.
The visitor center offers educational displays, orientation films, informational brochures, and backcountry permits.
Boat tours and canoe rentals are available.
Restaurants and stores are located nearby.
Ten Thousand Islands Boat Tour: (1 ½ hours, fee charged). Discover the Ten Thousand Islands of the Gulf Coast. Concession operated boat tours are narrated by naturalists year round.
Everglades Highlights: (30 Minutes- held on the grounds in front of the Gulf Coast Visitor Center). Join park staff for a short talk about important features of the Everglades; ecological, historical and environmental issues are discussed.
Paddle the Wilderness: With a ranger as your guide, paddle through the Ten Thousand Islands to look at wildlife and mangroves while you learn about the park’s natural and cultural history.
*Reservations are required 7 days in advance. For reservations and further trip details, call the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at 239-695-3311.
Three authorized airboat businesses offer professional airboat tours inside Everglades National Park. All three (Coopertown, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park) are located along US Hwy 41/Tamiami Trail between Miami and Shark Valley.
Everglades Safari Park
Everglades National Park Prohibited Activities
Personal Jet Skis and Airboats
Swimming is not recommended due to low visibility and the presence of alligators and crocodiles in fresh water areas and sharks, barracuda and sharp coral in the salt water areas.
Visiting Marco Island and the Everglades
Visiting the Everglades from Marco Island requires a car. There is no public transportation available to Everglades National Park from Marco Island.
Everglades City is a 45 minute drive from Marco Island and is the closest entrance to the Everglades from the island. Loop Road, which is a 16 mile drive (gravel road) offers visitors a chance to see the beauty of the Everglades and wildlife of the area. There are several airboat and swamp buggy rides and boat tours from Everglades City.
Everglades City Airboat Tours
Captain Jack’s Airboat Tours
Jungle Erv Airboat Rides
Captain Doug’s Airboat Tours
Wootens Everglades Airboat and Swamp Buggy Tours
The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center is a 40 miles past Everglades City where a tram ride is available.
Another fun adventure is a jet ski adventure from Marco Island around the Ten Thousand Islands of mangroves off Marco Island.
Captain Ron’s Awesome Everglades Adventures
We highly recommend a day trip to Everglades National Park to our guests at Sea Mar Condo (www.seamarcondo.com). On one of our recent trips there we saw almost 30 alligators, many wading birds (including a roseate spoonbill), and a python.