The Everglades Nationalpark – located at very southern point of Florida – covers almost the entire southern part of the Florida peninsula. The Nationalpark extends over an area of 6000 square km, roughly 600,000 hectares or 840,000 football fields. The Everglades is a huge wetland, a maze of swamp areas, jungle and water streets. The park has many different faces in the sea- and fresh water area. A world natural heritage since 1979 – the everglades suffer from hurricanes and environmental destruction and are an endangered ecosystem.
Three Entrances to the park
The national park at the very southern end of Florida needs to be on every Florida travel route. In the Everglades, the ocean becomes land and land becomes ocean. This tropical wilderness between sea water and fresh water has created a special environment and a biodiversity with a vast variety of species.
The northern border of the park is highway 41, leading from Naples in the east to Miami in the west. There are three different entrances to the park; we have visited two of them. Both offer an entirely different program.
If you are lucky, you get to see manatees, alligators and crocodiles (since one of it prefers fresh water the other salt water, that is very rare), several water- and wading birds (e.g. cormorant and heron) and lots of countryside and nature. Information about current problems is available with focus on environmental destruction and invasive species and as well as information about its history of settlement.
Gulf Coast Visitor Center and 10,000 islands: Sea Water Area of the Everglades
It takes 1 hour (60 km) to drive from Naples to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, the visitor center closest to Florida’s gulf coast. In terms of ecology, the national park is split into two parts: the first part is called 10,000 islands and describes the sea water part, hundreds of small and tiny islands in the ocean, a maze of water streets, mangroves, trees and tiny islands. The second part describes the fresh water part of the park. Here the ocean is no longer visible but has become a swamp area, already mainland but still full of water. The ranger lady stood in the water of the swamp waist-deep, all the fresh water pushes up from the ground.
The 10,000 islands – salt water part of the Everglades – are a colorful collection of mangroves and waterstreets that can only be explored by boat. To me it felt, as if I had already reached the ocean and was no longer on the mainland. Due to the sheer size and variety of the area, I would not have been able to find the right way without a tour guide. The visitor center offers a boat tour. If you are lucky, dolphins will be there. Birds will definitely be there and even if you are unlucky and do not see a single animal, the nature of the Everglades itself is worth the trip. It absolutely stunningly beautiful!
The visitor center can be reached on Highway 41 and Interstate 75. Just follow the signs that say “Everglades City”. Parking is available at the visitor center. The visitor center provides all information about tours and prices.
815 Oyster Bar Lane. Everglades City, Florida 34139
Contact by Phone: 239-695-3311
Shark Valley Visitor Center
The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located another 50 minutes (70 km) east (following highway 41). This entrance to the Everglades offers an entirely different face of the park: water has become mainland: a huge swap and even a paved road are there. This is the fresh water part of the park. Except from the street, it feels like being in a jungle. It is a wetland full of reed, swamp with water waist-high and alligators that live in fresh water.
The paved road is a leftover from the time before the area was protected as a national park. It’s nowadays used for guided tours by train (not on tracks but on wheels). In addition, there are two smaller hiking paths and bicycles for rent. We did the train tour which was lead by a ranger. The tour took us through the swamp area, was fully narrated and the ranger talked about flora and fauna. We saw birds and an alligator.
The Shark Valley Visitor Center can be reached via highway 41, approximately 1 3/4 hours (130 km) from Naples. Parking is available in front of the visitor center.
6000 SW 8th Street. Miami, FL 3319
Contact by phone 305-221-8776.
Recommendations and Information about Different Tour Options
A quick first thought could be: why would I want to visit the Everglades twice? The answer is simple: because you get to see two totally different areas. The 10,000 island are water with many little islands and Shark Valley is a swamp land where hiking is possible. The Everglades look entirely different in both cases.
Before I was there, I imagined the Everglades to be a swamp area – just about what I saw in Shark Valley. The 10,000 islands was something totally new to me.
The third entrance Flamingo Center is located at the southern end of the Everglades. We ran out of time and could do all three entrances in one day. The Flamingo entrance was simply too far away. If you rush from one place to the other, it might work but we wanted to have time. Flamingo entrance is the main entrance to the park (reachable via Florida Turnpike from Miami or Florida City from the Keys). Flamingo has a port, a café and a campground. I didn’t see it so I cannot say anything else.
Time wise, we could only do two entrances in a day. If you want to do the third, plan an extra day. Coming from Naples, Flamingo Center is a bit off the route and difficult to reach.
Manatees – Floridas Mascot and Symbol in the Park
The “mascot” of Florida is the manatee. It’s a large, brown mammal living in the water. Manatees prefer fresh water and very warm water, shallow water, water with very little salt and like living close to the coast. Manatees are good-natured and herbivores. That is why Florida is a perfect place for them. Unfortunately, they are an endangered species. They like the water streets of the Everglades very much. I didn’t see any of them on our tours. I guess they are easier to spot in a kayak and in a smaller group of people outside the main roads somewhere between the mangroves and the smaller water streets.
Airboat Tour? – An Option?
To me the answer is no. On highway 41, there are many offers about air boat tours. Their ads follow you all the way along highway 41. I read in a travel book that these airboats are too loud and upset various animals. Also, these boats are causing many problems to manatees in Florida. As described above, manatees live in shallow water close to the coast. That is why they tend to crash the airboats’ screws and propellers. Manatees are a bit slow that means they hear the airboats coming but are to slow to get away. Supposedly, most manatees in the Everglades have airboat scars on their skin. I don’t know if all of this is true, but it could be and that is enough to know for me. That is why I would not recommend an airboat tour.
I know, environmental conscience, protection and tourism is an issue itself. Anyways, I think we should always prefer anything that is offered officially from the national parks and its rangers. At least, this way the national park makes money and the national park’s purpose is to protect and maintain nature. Also, the tours in the national park and entrance fees to the park are rather low, compared to for example all the parks in Orlando.