Exploring Florida's River of Grass: Awesome Things to Do in the Everglades
If you've never been to the Florida Everglades, you might be under the impression there’s little to do in the swamp other than sweat, get eaten alive by bugs, or fear an encounter with an alligator. ;-) But nothing could be further from the truth. There are countless things to do in the Everglades for eco and adventure travelers. This is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. The Glades are also one of the most misunderstood and fragile ecosystems in the world, and underrated in the United States for enjoying incredible outdoor adventure. Which is exactly why you need to visit.
Where is the Florida Everglades?
The Native Americans who lived here called it Pa-hay-Okee which means "into grassy waters."
In 1947, writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas created another well known name for the Florida Everglades in her famous book Everglades: River of Grass. The "River of Grass" flows southwest through the Florida peninsula from central to south Florida, a natural filtration system between the enormous Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay off the southwest coast, with an average depth of just 4-5 feet!
The landscape here is primordial - swampy and marshy - and bursting with beautiful native plant species, exotic flowers, and some of the most incredible and endangered wildlife on the planet. Not only do the American alligator and American crocodile coexist here, there are also snakes, dolphins, bobcats, black bear, manatees, deer, and the elusive Florida panther as well. Although the Glades have been reduced to less than half of its original size through over-development and agriculture, it's still a big place. Everglades National Park spans roughly 734 square miles and the adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve adds 1,126 square miles to that area and the overall ecosystem.
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When to Visit
As the old joke goes, there are two seasons in the Everglades: dry season and mosquito season. True that! But keep this in mind: there are always exceptions. The most pleasant time of year (and most popular) is December through April during its winter dry season, when average highs are in the upper 70s and average lows in the low 50s. Summer brings rain most afternoons, so while you're likely to see more wildlife, hiking is more difficult and the no-se-ums and mosquitos are biting.
Things to Do in the Everglades
Hiking and Birding
There are tons of excellent nature trails throughout the Everglades from beginner day hikes to more advanced treks. Some can be wet and muddy depending on the time of year and some have elevated boardwalks enabling you to get deeper into the wetlands. Although the flora is unique, no doubt the biggest draw to these trails is the birdwatching. Birding in the Everglades doesn’t disappoint and depending on the time of year the number of species is amazing: from anhingas, herons, and the colorful American purple gallinule, to roseate spoonbills and bald eagles.
Everglades Airboat Tours
Crave a little adrenaline rush? Take an airboat ride from one of the many operators along Tamiami Trail (Rt. 41) and around Everglades City. These experienced captains will take you through mangrove tunnels, spot wildlife, explain the ecosystem, and fill you in on the local history which is usually pretty colorful.
Swamp Buggy Tours
Unique to southern Florida, Swamp Buggies have been used by “Gladesmen” for over 100 years. You’ll ride way up high as you explore the grasslands and cypress swamps on buggies with 4' tires. Operators will explain the fragile ecosystem and tell what is being done to preserve this sub-tropical wilderness through the Everglades Restoration Project.
Pole Boat Tours
Not interested in the zip and noise of an airboat or riding high on a big swamp buggy? Everglades Adventure Tours still practices traditional pole boating through the Glades, as it’s been done in their family for generations. Travel the way the native Seminoles and early travelers did up close and personal with nature. This is a relaxing way to experience the unique diversity of the Everglades.
Everglades Kayak Tours
The Everglades are a paddlers dream with some of the best kayaking in Florida. Bring your own or rent one from the many operators in the area. There are guided ecotours like Rising Tide Explorers, or you can explore on your own by arranging for a shuttle to your chosen starting point. Here is a good map of canoe and kayak trails from the National Park Service, and their resource page with canoe and kayak rentals, permitted tour guides, and camping info is the best we've found.
Most people don’t associate camping with the Everglades because well, it's mostly a swamp, and no one wants to camp in a swamp. But if you love camping, there's no more peaceful place to camp than in the Everglades National Park. Camp sites range from ground and beach sites to “chickees”, or elevated platforms, and the majority of sites are accessible by canoe or kayak which make for very low impact to the environment. Permits for backcountry camping in Everglades National Park are currently free and obtainable no more than a day in advance of the start of a trip from the NPS Flamingo Visitor Center and the Gulf Coast Visitor Contact Station daily, from 8 am to 4:30 pm. Campers must register in person as reservations are not accepted for any backcountry site.
There are several public campgrounds, elevated platforms, and camping areas outside the Park as well. Check out this map to see where you might want to pitch your tent. And depending on the time of year, bring plenty of bug repellent!
Fishing in the Everglades
Whether you prefer fresh or saltwater, Everglades fishing is excellent. A variety of inshore species such as redfish, snapper, snook, and sea trout can be found along the coastal areas of the 10,000 Islands and Florida Bay while bass and blue gill are abundant in fresh water. Places for shore fishing are limited but flats fishing is world class. Be sure to check licensing and seasonal requirements.
Gators, Manatees, and Panthers, oh my!
Manatees may sometimes swim into the Everglades as far as they can, looking for vegetation to eat since they're dedicated herbivores. They'll swim up channels and estuaries, though the drier winter months it may be too shallow. You're more likely to see alligators, black bear, bobcat, and other critters. There are several spots around the Everglades that offer guaranteed alligator sightings. Turner River Road, 7 miles east of the road to Everglades City on US 41 is a great place to spot gators in the water or sunning themselves along the banks from the safety of an elevated boardwalk.
Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery
Visitors to Florida will probably see Clyde Butcher's stunning large format, black and white photography in their hotel first without ever realizing he loved the Everglades so much, he called it home until just a few years ago. Located on Tamiami Trail (Rt. 41) in Ochopee, a visit to his original gallery and studio in the swamp is a must. Clyde is a tribute to Everglades conservation and his magnificent artwork is on display here and available for purchase. If you have the time, schedule a guided swamp walk which starts at the gallery, where you can step through Clyde’s inspiration and experience the primitive beauty of Big Cypress firsthand. You can even reserve a stay at the Swamp Cottage or Swamp Bungalow (he and wife Nikki's former home) tucked into the forest behind the gallery. Big Cypress Gallery, 52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, FL
Museum of the Everglades
In Everglades City, this museum first opened as a commercial laundry in 1927. It features some permanent exhibits as well as rotating exhibits documenting the 2000 year old history of the area and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Museum of the Everglades, 105 West Broadway, Everglades City, FL
Shark Valley Overlook
Shark Valley Visitor Center offers a great Everglades experience, where visitors can walk, bike, or ride a tram along a 15 mile tram trail. The 2 hour tram tour is excellent (and shaded). Book in advance if possible. US National Park entrance fee applies. 36000 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33194
Dating to 1906 and located on Chokoloskee Island, the Ted Smallwood Store is truly a step-back in time kind of place. It’s had it’s ups and downs with hurricanes and family differences but the ambience of that long gone era remains inside. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was at one time the hub of local activity and local residents maintain that there are spirits that frequent the store at night. So you may want to visit when it’s open. Smallwood Store, 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee, FL
The Smallest Post Office in the USA
If you're driving into the Everglades on Tamiami Trail (Rte. 41), you have to stop in to the Smallest Post Office in the USA. It's truly a working and official United States Post Office serviced by a friendly local postal employee but you'll have to pull the door open to meet her (trust me, she's in there). And while you're there, buy a postcard and she'll send it anywhere in the world for you, postmarked right from here:
Where to Stay in the Florida Everglades
You can explore the Everglades from Naples on the state's west coast, or Miami on the east and stay in one of the myriad of hotels in these resort towns. But if you want to base yourself in or near the National Park and Big Cypress Preserve, there are several nice hotels, motels, and B&B's to choose from.
Port of the Islands Everglades Adventure Resort (25000 Tamiami Trail E, Naples, FL) is a perfect base for families and outdoor enthusiasts to explore the 'Glades with beautiful rooms, an awesome pool, restaurant and marina with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Check rates now.
The Ivey House Bed & Breakfast (107 Camellia St E, Everglades City, FL) is a quaint B&B in a great location, with cozy rooms in a modern inn or rustic lodge. Plus there's a heated pool. Check rates and details.
River Wilderness Waterfront Villas (210 Collier Ave, Everglades City, FL) offer apartment style accommodations with fully equipped kitchens, pool, free wifi, and complimentary canoes - perfect for families. Click for more details.
Everglades City Motel (310 Collier Ave, Everglades City, FL) has very comfortable rooms, plus complimentary Wi-Fi, plenty of parking & loaner bikes to explore the town. Click for rates and more details.
Where to Eat in the Everglades
Havana Cafe - It's hard to beat the Havana Cafe for it's laid-back Key West ambiance and incredible food. The Cuban specialties, seafood, and homemade Sangria are fantastic, as is the Key Lime pie. 191 Smallwood Dr, Chokoloskee, FL
Triad Seafood Market & Cafe - For the freshest seafood and (when available) all-you-can-eat Florida stone crabs. 401 School Drive, Everglades City, FL
Miccosukee Restaurant - Located right on Rte. 41 in the heart of the Miccosukee reservation is this roadside diner, the only stop on Tamiami Trail for miles. While the food is decent, you have to try the Pumpkin Indian Fry Bread (with butter)! 500 SW 177th Ave, Miami, FL
IF YOU GO
Everglades National Park has several associated fees for private vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Click for the most current rates.
The Everglades are huge. Here are your closest entrances:
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is the entrance closest to the Greater Miami Area, Florida: 36000 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33194
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is the entrance closest to Naples, Florida: 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL 34139
The Flamingo Visitor Center is the southern most visitor center in Everglades National Park. It is at the end of the main park road and is accessible from the Main Park (Homestead) entrance: 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Flamingo, FL 33034
The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneham Douglas
The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald
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