If there is one certainty in the Everglades, it's that you're bound to be surprised. Far from the monolithic swamp that is often portrayed, Everglades National Park is a complex mosaic of expansive saw-grass prairies, moss-draped cypress forests, mangrove islands, and placid waterways. The pervasive silence is broken only by the occasional canoe paddle or the riffle of an angry bonefish. And it is vast: In the lower 48, only Yellowstone and Death Valley National Parks are bigger, and within the park's 1.5 million acres (607,028 hectares) is the country's largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. All you have to do is show up.
One-Night Stand: Thwarting most expectations of the Everglades, a hike or bike ride along the seven-mile (11-kilometer) Long Pine Key Nature Trail is one of the few ways to check out the park—and stay dry. The route between Long Pine Key Campground and Pine Glades Lake links a series of hardwood hummocks that rise above grassy wetlands. These unique habitats harbor the most diverse life found this side of a coral reef: some 900 species of critters, from wild turkeys to white-tailed deer, black bears to gators. And if you're ever going to glimpse a panther, it'll be here.
Three Days or More: Of the epic trails in the U.S., the one you likely hear the least about is the Wilderness Waterway. The 99-mile (159-kilometer) route wends amid thousands of mangrove islands from Everglades City to Florida Bay and is a grail among canoers and kayakers. Plan on ten days to paddle the whole shebang, or opt for a weekend-length loop from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center that links the Lopez River, Sweetwater Bay, and Rabbit Key campsites. It's 31 miles (50 miles), give or take, and you'll camp on the ground, covered platforms (chickees), and a beach. There's a strong chance you'll see dolphins and manatees along the way. More options may soon be available, as the park rebuilds sites damaged by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. Come prepared with charts and permits, plus the ever useful Guide to the Wilderness Waterway of the Everglades National Park, all of which are available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, near Everglades City.
Must-Do Secret: Everglades National Park doesn't stop on the mainland. A third of the park—800 square miles (1,287 square kilometers)—lies offshore in Florida Bay and tends to be overlooked by everyone but avid fishermen. Anglers come for the tarpon and wary bonefish (nothing has more ounce-for-ounce fight); but even if you're not a fisherman, it's worth going out on a boat for a day with a guide. The water is shallow and placid, with greenish blue sea grass just under the surface. Estuaries and islands harbor thousands of subtropical birds. It's a prime place to kick back, dangle your feet over the gunwales, and let your binoculars roam.
Vitals: For paddling information and backcountry permits ($10), visit www.nps.gov/ever. Canoes ($35 a day) and kayaks ($45 a day) are available from North American Canoe Tours (www.evergladesadventures.com), in Everglades City. The Ivey House B&B ($50; www.iveyhouse.com) has comfy rooms just outside the park, also in Everglades City. Guests there receive a 20 percent discount on NACT rentals.
PLUS: The Top Five
The Thrill Factor
Five unexpected itineraries that scream action
Trips Through the Ages
Five classic adventures that will never go out of style
Five off-the-charts escapes that reach deep into the wild
Moments to Live For
Five of life's most essential experiences, done perfectly in the parks
Pick up the June/July 2006 issue for 50 top adventures in the national parks; how to move to Montana; the best ten-day Brazil vacation; 11 instant weekend escapes; and new watches, cameras, and sunglasses for summer.