Everglades National Park
Mention the Everglades and water comes to mind. After all, it is known as the "River of Grass." The Everglades is actually a mosaic of numerous ecosystems, from sawgrass plains to pinelands to tropical hardwood hammocks to coastal prairies to sandy islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, the pinelands are the most diverse of environments, which is the primary park range of the endangered Florida panther. Rich tropical hammocks dot these pine forests, which are underlain with limestone.
Birds can be observed nearly everywhere you can go. And yes, there are alligators, especially in the canals alongside trails. Things get a bit more salty down Flamingo way. Lush tropical woodlands mix with more salt tolerant mangrove forests.
Explore the Coastal Prairie
The 5.6-mile Coastal Prairie Trail is the most southerly path on the U.S. mainland. It parallels the coast of Florida Bay, in a mixture of buttonwood forest and open marl prairie, to end at Clubhouse Beach. These coastal prairies are formed by the deposition of mud from Florida Bay that is spread inland during violent hurricanes.
The trail traverses hostile yet beautiful terrain: The marl prairie breeds mosquitoes but offers long vistas; the path can become impassably muddy yet cruises under shady buttonwood hammocks; and the sun can beat mercilessly but a breezy beach lies at trail's end. Smart hikers will be wearing a hat, long pants, long-sleeve shirt and have bug repellent and a headnet nearby.
Birdwatch at Eco Pond
The Eco Pond Trail makes a loop around a wildlife-filled pond. Get here early in the morning and join park rangers on a guided walk. There are more birds and other Everglades inhabitants than you can identify without outside help. Otherwise, use the many kiosks around the pond to help you learn. The park service has constructed a viewing platform that should be your first stop. Birds will be feeding below. Photographers will be snapping pictures galore.
Investigate a Tropical Tree Hammock
Mahogany Hammock is one of the larger tree islands in the vast sawgrass prairie. Walk an extensive boardwalk over the sawgrass to reach a rich tropical forest featuring huge mahogany trees and other tropical vegetation. These tree islands lie just a few inches above the surrounding lands. An elevated wooden boardwalk makes a loop in the heart of this fascinating ecosystem.
Bike the Pinelands on the Long Pine Key Trail
Pedal through the pine rocklands, prairies, and tropical hammocks to reach Pine Glades Lake. Long Pine Key is the most westerly extension of the Miami Rock Ridge, most of which has been developed, which makes Long Pine Key that much more botanically important. Interesting erosion patterns of limestone in the ridge have many pointed sharp edges, resulting in what is known as "dogtooth" limestone. The slash pines here are considered a distinct subspecies called Dade County Pine. A prominent understory plant is the coco plum. This fruit bearing plant was a diet staple for all Indians that roamed the 'Glades.
Discover a Cypress Strand
Start on a short boardwalk extending over the clear waters of the sawgrass prairie and look down on the surprising amount of life beneath you. Climb the Pay-ho-kee Overlook with a 360-degree view of the park. Leave the overlook before descending among the tops of bald cypress trees, which are another important component of the Everglades. Finally, return to dry land while bypassing other moisture-loving Everglades trees.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication