Everglades National Park
|The Florida Everglades (Robin Hill/Digital Vision/Getty)|
The landscape of Everglades National Park is utterly unique among American vistas. The River of Grass is a patchwork of overwhelmingly open saw grass marshes, tangled mangrove forests, and jungle-like tropical hardwood hammocks. Indeed, most of the park's 1.5 million acres are either fresh or brackish water wetlands, or are submerged beneath the shallow estuarine waters of Florida Bay. With no place more than eight feet above sea level, even the few hummocks of pineland or hardwood uplands succumb to the dominating force of water during high water events.
This is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States, and it's home to a veritable zoo of endangered, rare, and exotic species. The Everglades' simple, uncluttered vistas highlight wildlife's presence. Against the muted green and brown tones of the freshwater prairies, you can't miss the bright whites of great egrets and white ibis. Discordant ripples in the saw grass signal the movement of alligators.
Mix a spectacularly rich, diverse ecosystem with all that water, and it's no surprise that the truest way to get at the soul of the Everglades is by picking up a paddle. In wintertime, when the temperatures and swarms of mosquitoes abate somewhat, the park draws large numbers of kayak and canoe campers, along with birders, hikers, anglers, and plenty of car-bound curiosity-seekers with alligators on the brain.
Everglades National Park is the third largest park in the United States, outside Alaska. It may be hard to believe now, but when the Everglades were consolidated as a national park in 1947, it was quite a departure for the National Park Service. The popular imagination conceived of national parks in terms of magnificent mountain scenery—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, even the Grand Canyon. The immensely flat Everglades wetlands represented a shift away from this rocky vision.
And it still can be a shift. You don't visit the Everglades expecting to travel by foot or car or even bike to visit a checklist of stunning features. You go to immerse yourself in an environment. The highlights of the Everglades lie in the the total experience, the subtle differences and the surprises of light, plants, and wildlife.
Paddle the River of Grass
The undisputed champ of Everglades wilderness adventures is the journey by kayak or canoe down the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. You start in the Ten Thousand Islands, at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center; it takes five to seven days to wend your way through the mangrove thickets, shallow flats, and windswept bays to the trail's end at the Flamingo Visitor Center. Wildlife—from roseate spoonbills to manatees and dolphins to gators and crocs—is abundant, and you'll camp on chickees, wooden platforms much like those still used in the Seminole and Miccosukee communities north of the park.
This trip requires careful planning and the right equipment. There are no services or fresh water available along the trail. The heat, humidity, and clouds of salt-marsh mosquitoes can be truly overwhelming from April through October; very, very few people attempt this trip during the warmer months.
Explore at the End of the Road
Most people make a day trip out of the 80-mile, round-trip meander from Royal Palm Visitor Center down to the road's-end outpost of Flamingo, on Florida Bay. This is a great drive, guaranteed to give you looks at plenty of Everglades wildlife as you traverse the sea of sharp-toothed saw grass, pass islands of dwarf cypress forests, and skirt taller, denser hardwood hammocks of live oak, mahogany, and gumbo-limbo. As you approach Flamingo, you'll cross the ecotone, or transition zone, between saw-grass prairie and salt water-loving mangrove forests. But you'll deepen your Everglades experience considerably if, in the winter months, you pause at Flamingo for a few days of laid-back exploring. There are plenty of day hikes and canoe trails, along with ranger-led boat tours and unbelievable fishing opportunities. And whether you stay at the Flamingo Lodge or at one of the bayside campsites, just be sure to cap your day by watching the sunsets streak color over Florida Bay.
Tangle with Snook, Tarpon, and Redfish
From Apalachicola Bay to Islamorada, Florida is world-famous for its sportfishing—and the Everglades rank right up there among Sunshine State fishing destinations. The main draw is the tarpon, snook, and redfish to be had in the crystal-clear saltwater flats of Florida Bay and the deep green mangroves and tea-colored water of the hauntingly beautiful Ten Thousand Islands area. Most anglers pole a skiff across the shallows to sight-fish their prey; for those who've tried it, nothing compares with the thrill of seeing a 150-pound tarpon roll and then snaking a target cast out to it. Both fly casting and plugging are popular here, and the smart fisher will employ a guide for at least a day or two to get the hang of navigating and fishing these mazelike backcountry waters.
Hear the Night Noises
Whether on a ranger-led walk near Flamingo or a fan-boat ride outside the park proper, seeing—and especially hearing—the Everglades at night is an experience not to be missed. A full moon's ghostly illumination makes things especially resonant; you'll see the light reflect off the eyes of alligators and raccoons. You'll hear the intermittent roar of banks of mosquitoes coming and going with the breezes, the booming hoots of great horned owls and ceaseless phrasings of chuck-will's-widows, the soft swishing of unseen wings, the croak of countless frogs, and the hum of a million crickets. And for the luckiest, perhaps even the scream of a rare Florida panther.
Eyeball the Wildlife
When all's said and done, it's the wondrous diversity of the Everglades ecosystem that makes the park most special. Wetland ecosystems tend to be especially rich, and where fresh and saltwater meet in estuaries—as they do here—the diversity explodes. Walk an Everglades boardwalk at the right time and the sheer variety of critters crawling, flying, swimming, and otherwise sharing your environs can be just staggering; the Glades harbor some 350 species of birds, 50 reptiles (including both crocs and gators; they share turf nowhere else in the world), mammals from armadillos to panthers, more than 1,000 seed-bearing plants, and, of course, Mongol hordes of insects.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication