Established: December 6, 1947
Size: 1,542,526 acres
Annual visitors: 1 million
Visitor centers: Ernest F. Coe, Flamingo, Shark Valley, Gulf Coast
Entrance fees: $25 vehicles, $8 per person
Why go and what to know
Sprawling between South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and the Gulf of Mexico, the Everglades is one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands. About 20 percent of the region is protected within the confines of Everglades National Park, the third largest national park in the lower 48 states. While the park’s main purpose is preserving a wilderness like none other in North America, the Everglades also provides plenty of scope for outdoor adventure. (Check out our travel guide to Florida.)
Although technically a wetland, perhaps it’s best to think of the Everglades as the nation’s slowest, widest river—a constant stream of freshwater roughly 60 miles wide, moving at a speed of around 2.5 miles per day as it makes its way south to Florida Bay. The Seminole people called the region Okeechobee (“river of grass”). And while a large part of the Everglades is covered in razor-sharp sawgrass, the region also encompasses mangrove swamps, tropical hardwood hammocks (island forests), pine and cypress forests, freshwater prairie, and various marine and estuarine habitats. (Plan a trip to Everglades National Park with kids.)
The hundred-mile-long Everglades ecosystem once flowed freely from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Although the park is a federally protected area at the downstream, southernmost portion of the Everglades, upstream development and agribusiness continue to diminish watery habitats (home to abundant wildlife, including tropical wading birds and the endangered Florida manatee).
To help restore water flow and preserve one of eastern North America’s last remaining grassland and longleaf pine savanna landscapes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in 2011. Global interest in preserving the Everglades has led to the park’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
Although the entire coast is open to exploration via watercraft, land-bound visitors have three options for entering the park: Flamingo in the southwest, Shark Valley in the northeast, and Gulf Coast in the northwest.
The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is the place to start for those making the 38-mile drive to Florida Bay. Some of the park’s best hikes are just beyond the visitor center, including the short, easy Gumbo Limbo Trail (0.4 mile) and Anhinga Trail (0.8 mile), which wind through a wildlife-rich hammock called Royal Palm, and the 6.1-mile Long Pine Key Trail through the park’s largest remaining stand of native pines.
Main Park Road continues through a variety of ecosystems—the freshwater prairie, stunted cypress forest, mangrove and coastal marsh—to Flamingo on the shore of Florida Bay. Badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the area has slowly recovered with the reopening of the Flamingo Visitor Center, beachfront campground, and boat and bike rental facilities.
In addition to paddling along the shore of Florida Bay, the area boasts a number of inland routes, including the Nine Mile Pond Loop and the Bear Lake Canoe Trail. Flamingo is the southern terminus of the Everglades’ ultimate kayak/canoe experience—the Wilderness Waterway—a 99-mile meander through mangroves and marshes with raised platform “chickee hut” campsites along the way. An entire week is recommended for those who want to make the complete journey between Flamingo and Everglades City.
Reached via the historic Tamiami Trail highway across the Everglades, Shark Valley Visitor Center is the gateway to a much different park experience—a chance to explore the freshwater grasslands and hammocks of the Shark River Slough. You won’t come across any sharks, but this might be the best place in the entire park to view crocodiles, turtles, and bird life at close range. The 15-mile Shark Valley Tram Road expedites hiking, biking, and a narrated tram tour to a 65-foot Observation Tower with views across the wet wilds. Seasonally, rangers lead full moon and meteor shower bike rides to the tower.
Thirty-six miles from Naples, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and the town of Everglades City anchor the park’s northwest corner. Daily boat tours are available to the remote Ten Thousand Islands archipelago along the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Coast is also a jumping-off spot for the Wilderness Waterway, as well as shorter paddle routes like the Turner River Canoe Trail. Everglades City is home to several airboat tours that explore parts of the Everglades outside the national park.
Plan your trip
Get around: The park is vast, so choose an entry point based on what you want to see and do (see above).
When to go: Dry season (December to March) is when most ranger programs and park concessions are available. This is also the best time to see wading birds and other wildlife. Wet season (April to November) is hot, humid, and buggy and has more limited park services.
What to do: Look for wildlife on the wheelchair-accessible Anhinga Trail and on the two-hour Shark Valley Tram Tour (reservations recommended). Bike or hike the 15-mile Shark Valley Tram Road loop. See panoramic “river of grass” views from Shark Valley’s 65-foot observation tower. Take a guided boat tour from the Flamingo Marina or Gulf Coast, about 0.5 miles south of the Ranger Station in Everglades City. December through April, join a ranger-led tour of the park’s Cold War–era Nike Missile Base. The now abandoned antiaircraft missile site was built in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Where to stay: The closest hotels are in Homestead (eastern edge of the park) and Everglades City (western edge). Inside the park, camp at Long Pine Key Campground, located six miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center (open November to May; first come, first served), or at Flamingo Campground on Florida Bay (open year-round; reservations highly recommended from December to April). Or backcountry camp on ground or beach sites or on “chickees” (elevated camping platforms). Most backcountry sites are accessible only by water and require permits and reservations (make them in person at the ranger station no more than 24 hours in advance).
Read before you go: Originally published in 1947, the definitive Everglades book remains The Everglades: River of Grass by Florida writer and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
This article was previously published on November 5, 2009, and last updated on September 9, 2019. Part of the piece was excerpted from the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.