It's hard to believe that early settlers once considered the Florida Everglades a swampland needing to be drained. Today, this national treasure is the only subtropical preserve in North America and its endangerment has placed it at the forefront of a massive restoration movement. In reality, the Everglades are a massive but shallow 50-mile-wide "River of Grass," with a current that moves little more than 100 feet per day. This freshwater circulation originates at Lake Okeechobee and flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Animal and plant life have adapted to alternating wet and dry seasons, shaping the very nature of this natural wonder.
The Everglades region is a veritable textbook of natural habitats. Temperate and tropical plant life exists in nine different environments, including mangrove and cypress swamps, sawgrass prairies, estuaries and coastal marshes. This amalgam of environs is home to wading birds like the wood stork, great blue heron and roseate spoonbill. More than 14 endangered species call the Everglades home, and visitors are often privy to sightings of rare sea turtles, the Florida panther and the West Indian manatee.
Exploring the Everglades can seem daunting, and a visitor's best bet is to check out one of the park's exceptional visitor centers. The Flamingo Visitor Center, at the southwest end of the park, offers boat tours and canoe rentals and is the starting point for a number of wilderness and canoe trails. At the northwest end of the park, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center offers access to Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways that lead out to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Chokoloskee Bay, Turner River and the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway.
More than 6 million years ago, as glaciers from the ice age melted, water levels in southern Florida rose and fell, limestone deposits built up and the region gradually developed a slight tilt toward the south. Lake Okeechobee, in the northern part of the Everglades, provides a constant but slow sheet-like spread of water southward, and acids from the lush vegetation eventually formed sinkholes in the limestone, creating ponds, sloughs, sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammock and forested uplands.
Ranger-led activities include bird-watching trips, trail walks, slough slogs, bike hikes, canoe trips and evening programs. Canoe, boat and tram tours offer up-close glimpses of the marine and plant life that have created the Everglades. Particularly interesting is the tram tour from the Shark Valley Visitor Center, which delights tourists with outstanding alligator- and bird-viewing opportunities. Fishing is permitted in a limited number of water flats, channels and mangrove keys.
Where to Stay
The Flamingo Lodge Marina and Outpost Resort is the park's only on-site lodging facility and offers lodge rooms, cottages, a swimming pool, houseboat rentals, canoes, kayaks, guided tours, a general store and two restaurants.
A far cry from the tranquility of the Everglades, but only an hour away, is sexy, sizzling Miami. Trend-setting restaurants, an unsurpassed arts circuit and notorious nightclubs make this city a side trip not to be missed.