A Day (and a Half) in Everglades National Park

According to the National Park Service, Everglades National Park "protects an unparalleled landscape that provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species." It's also a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.

A Liguus Tree Snail along the Tree Snail Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Clearly, it's a special place, all 1.5 million acres of it. My husband and I opted to include 36 hours in the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve as a stopover between Philadelphia and Belize on our honeymoon, and it quickly became clear that deciding what to do and see was going to be a challenge.

After doing research, looking at the park map, and seeking help from one of my favorite locals, we came up with a plan. We'd spend our first full day in the northern part of the park and the next half day in the south, doing our best to see as much as we could in the time we had. If you find yourself in the Everglades with a limited amount of time, based on our activities, here's what I'd recommend planning into your schedule.

Take an Airboat Tour

Given the majority of Everglades National Park is only accessible by water, one of the first things we did was to find an airboat tour.  Airboats, or fanboats, are ideal for environments in which submerged propellers motors either don't make sense, or are harmful. We chose Coopertown because they're an authorized National Park Service concessioner, and they've been operating in the park since 1945. (Tours are available from other companies on the north side of US-41 as well).

Gator spotting on our airboat tour with Coopertown Airboats.

We didn't reserve tickets ahead of time, given it was a weekday during the low season, and arrived just in time for a mid-morning tour. We hopped in a large airboat with a dozen or so others and tooled around the wetlands, stopping often to listen to our tour guide and driver. He explained that colonial settlers did a number on the wetland areas trying to turn them into land for farming, and the park was established in 1947 to prevent further degradation of the landscape, plants, and wildlife by humans. We also got the chance to spot a few alligators, one of the park's most well-known large predators.

Drive Loop Road (and Take Your Time)

After a quick alligator and frog leg lunch at Coopertown, we asked the staff what they recommended we do with the rest of our afternoon in the northern part of the park. One member recommended driving Loop Road (County Road 94), a narrow dirt path off of US-41, technically within the boundaries of Big Cypress National Preserve. And boy am I glad she did.

The view from one of the drainage pipe bridges. I wish I could capture sounds and smells in photos!

The 24 mile stretch of dirt and gravel has quite a history. But for folks like us, it was an incredible chance to do some bird watching, 'gator spotting, and to really listen to the ecosystem on an almost deserted road. We learned by watching the one other car we saw on the road ahead of us stop on top of every drainage pipe bridge that those are great places to spot alligators, look for fish, and see birds. Once we figured that out, our pace along the road slowed dramatically; we stopped at almost every pipe, got out of the car, listened, and watched. We also took the time to do the Tree Snail Trail, which was absolutely worth it.

Stroll Along the Mahogany Hammock Trail

One of the best things about a "no plan" plan for exploring a new place is the ability to just pull over when something looks interesting. As we were driving along US-41 after our airboat tour, we saw a sign for the Mahogany Hammock Trail, decided it would be neat to see, and turned on to the trail access road. (There are no bathrooms at this trailhead, much to my chagrin in this particular case.)

A great egret perched on the boardwalk across Shark Valley Slough, leading in to the Mahogany Hammock.

In the case of the Everglades, a "hammock" refers to a tree island. The 0.5 mile loop boardwalk winds through giant, ancient mahogany trees, giant air plants, reddish peeling gumbo-limbo trees, and strangler figs. The flora seemed to, at points, be trying to take over and engulf the invasive boardwalk. We had the place to ourselves and took our time watching, listening, and observing. It was a great introduction to hammocks and the wonders of the Everglades!

Look for Manatees at the Flamingo Visitor Center

The Everglades are clearly and seriously impacted by climate change and severe weather, and the affects of Hurricane Irma are still clear a year later. The majority of the large buildings around the Flamingo Visitor Center are closed, and the devastation to native plants and habitats is evident almost everywhere you look. Our first goal there was to find a small freshwater drainage pipe near the original visitor center; it's a drinking water haven for manatees. Sure enough, we found half a dozen of them there!

Manatees seem to gather here to drink from the freshwater pipe. They were all over the place!

After manatee watching, we stopped into the makeshift visitor center to chat with a ranger. Though we wouldn't canoe or kayak on this trip, he shared water-based trails and overnight trip options with us I'd love to go back and do someday. One of the best routes, he said, is a seven day paddle up through the glades with the option of paddling along the shore in the ocean, but it requires some serious map and compass navigation skills. A stop in the visitor center is definitely a must!

Wander along the Anhinga Trail

Though it's less than a mile long, and it's quite popular (read: crowded), a walk along the Anhinga Trail was a highlight of our visit. It's named after the anhinga, a moderately sized water bird, because they frequently nest there. We had this trail on our list because we'd heard it's a fantastic spot to see birds, 'gators, and other wildlife. (We saw a juvenile anhinga on our Loop Road drive, but didn't see any on this trail, ironically.) 

This little guy perched on one of the Anhinga Trail walkways is a Cuban tree frog, and an invasive species. 

The Anhinga Trail starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, and though we chose to explore on our own, there are numerous ranger-led programs as well. We didn't see much with respect to wildlife that we hadn't already seen, but this video is a great example of the diversity of plants and animals it's possible to see there. According to rangers, the winter, or dry season, is the best time to visit.

Other highlights of our visit to the area included stops at Robert Is Here for smoothies and fresh guanabana, hours spent trying basically every beer at the M.I.A. Beer Company, and trying Cuban food at La Carreta in Doral. 

The one Everglades activity we didn't do was a wet walk, but hopefully next time! If you've been to the Everglades, did we miss any of your favorite activities? Anything else you'd recommend to visitors with only a day and a half to visit the park? Leave a comment!

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