Spanning 1.5 million acres of freshwater and coastal prairie, marsh, mangroves, pine and cypress woods, and the waters and islands of Florida Bay, Everglades National Park contains the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. For first-time visitors, the park’s size and relatively inaccessible terrain can make it difficult to figure out where and how to experience the Everglades in a meaningful way. This main entrance, located on the eastern edge of the park in Homestead, is a convenient option for a half- or full-day visit or for planning a backcountry trip. Stop at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center (open 365 days a year) to watch the orientation films, pick up maps and brochures, and participate in ranger-led programs. From here, it’s only a four-mile drive west to the Royal Palm area’s two accessible trails—the Anhinga (0.8-mile loop) and the Gumbo Limbo (0.4-mile loop). Alligators, turtles, herons, egrets, and, yes, anhingas, are regularly spotted when walking the first trail, one of the most popular in the park. On the less traveled Gumbo Limbo, you’re more likely to see songbirds and butterflies. Inside Tip: Arrive prepared to go slough slogging, off-trail hiking through the shallow, freshwater slough—the Everglades' iconic “river of grass.” Standard slough-slogger gear includes mosquito repellent; water; sturdy, waterproof hiking boots or trail-running shoes; and clothes you don’t mind getting muddy and wet.
When to Go: December through March is the best time to visit due to the cooler temperatures, dry weather, increased ranger programs, and abundant wildlife-viewing opportunities (particularly along the Anhinga Trail).
Must Dos: Walk the Anhinga Trail. Take a scenic 38-mile (one-way) drive along the main park road from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center on Florida Bay. Stop at the Long Pine Key picnic area (six miles from the main entrance) to park, picnic, and hike or bike part of the 43-mile pinelands trail network. Just before reaching Flamingo, pull off to hike the Snake Bight Trail. The 1.6-mile (one-way) trail leads to a viewing platform overlooking a bight (small bay) on Florida Bay. Best Bet: December to April, join a ranger-led tour of the Nike Missile Base, an abandoned antiaircraft missile site built in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fun Fact: The 1960s CBS television series Gentle Ben, starring Dennis Weaver as Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe, included many scenes filmed on location in the national park. The series’ namesake was the pet black bear of Wedloe’s young son (played by director Ron Howard’s brother Clint). While the short-lived (1967-69) series was lauded for promoting conservation, it also received criticism for portraying a wild, adult bear as a tame, lovable, and approachable animal.
The Everglades’ Flamingo Visitor Center
The Everglades’ Flamingo Visitor Center is located on Florida Bay, 38 miles south of the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. From late November through April, this section of the park buzzes with water-based tours and rentals (boat, kayak, and canoe) and wildlife. Look for alligators, American crocodiles, and the occasional manatee in the Florida Marina boat basins. Outside the visitors center, watch wading birds gather on the exposed mudflats at low tide. To maximize the wildlife views, paddle one of the canoe trails leading inland from Flamingo or (if you’re an experienced paddler) out into Florida Bay. Get maps and ranger advice (mid-November to mid-April) in the visitors center. Rent canoes at the marina. And apply plenty of mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Inside Tip: Free guided canoe trips are typically offered from December to March and fill up fast. Call the park to make reservations and to get the most current schedule of programs available. For unguided trips, the Nine Mile Pond shortcut route (a 3.5-mile loop) is a smart choice for beginners.
Photograph by Wim Wiskerke, Alamy
Shark Valley, located off U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) near Miami, is the best area in Everglades National Park for scenic bike rides (rentals available). The most popular attraction here is the naturalist-led tram tour. Pedaling instead of riding the flat, 15-mile Tram Road loop provides a more intimate view of the Shark River Slough, the freshwater heart of the Everglades. Plus, when you bike you can go at your own pace and spend extra time perched above the park on the 65-foot observation tower (located at the southern end of the loop). Inside Tip: Dry season (generally December to May) is the best time for wildlife viewing. Since Shark Valley is a freshwater source year-round, alligators, turtles, waterfowl, and other animals congregate here when water is scarce in other parts of the park.
Photograph by Bill Bachmann, Alamy
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is located on the northwestern edge of the park in Everglades City. This is the starting point for the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway Trail to Flamingo (experienced paddlers only). Also accessible from Gulf Coast are shorter, scenic canoe trails where you can paddle creeks and shallow coastal estuaries to look for fish, alligators, wading birds, and other wildlife. Boat, kayak, and canoe rentals and boat tours are available. Inside Tip: Since tides, weather, wind, and passing powerboats can make any paddling trip challenging, talk with the rangers and review the park’s Wilderness Trip Planner before heading out.