It’s time to finally cross the Everglades off your bucket list. Here’s what to do

This alligator is welcoming you to the Everglades! Pay no attention to his open jaws.Photos by Connie Ogle

People in Miami love to complain about traffic. They yammer about crowds and construction and how there are too many people and how those people are ruining everything. And by “they” I mean “we.”

But at Everglades National Park, there is little traffic. Minor construction. Fewer annoying people.

And yet many people haven’t bothered to visit Florida’s River of Grass. Or they haven’t visited since they went on a field trip to Shark Valley 20 years ago.

So maybe it’s time to return.

Everglades National Park is an amazing place. Remote but not too remote. Easy on the eyes, stimulating for the brain. You can be walking along, enjoying the peace and quiet, and then you see something like this. Just a gator doing gator things (no, that is not a severed arm, what’s wrong with you?)

 

But planning a trip to the Everglades National Park can be confusing. Do you want to hike? Kayak? Take a boat tour? Here are the best ways to enjoy the River of Grass, depending on what you want to do. And remember: Winter means fewer mosquitoes. Get out there before it’s summer again.

Shark Valley

Once you get past the first mile or so, the loop at Shark Valley is quiet and empty. Except for alligators.

Shark Valley is what most people in Miami think of when you mention the Everglades. It’s a straight shot west on Eighth Street, past Miccosukee Resort & Gaming and numerous spots to stop and take an airboat ride. (Note: the park doesn’t offer airboat rides – stop outside if that’s what you want to do.)

Here’s what you can do at the park: Look at nature. SERIOUS nature. There are gators everywhere, plus tons of wading birds – herons, wood storks, even the odd spoonbill. (We saw two, though they usually don’t show up until later in the winter.) If you’re into birds, bring binoculars.

Shark Valley is the Great Blue Heron Superhighway.

There are three ways to see the wildlife: Walk, rent and ride a bike, or take a tram seven miles out to the observation tower. You don’t have to walk the whole loop – it’s a 14 mile round trip – but know there are TONS of alligators along the side of the road. Choose wisely.

The tram ride takes two hours and biking takes as long as you want it to. When you get to the observation tower, walk to the top for a view that will remind you Florida was a lot nicer before we all got here.

Just don’t topple over the side. Here’s a dude on the walkway:

What’s that down there by the water?

Let’s zoom in on what lives below the walkway:

This, by the way, is a crocodile hanging out with some gators. Who says we can’t all get along?

Pro tip 1: If you are a local, bring your own bike. Your butt will thank you and you will enjoy shifting gears when you head back against the wind.

Pro tip 2: Take this sign seriously.

File under “things you don’t have to tell me twice.”

It is a very bad idea to seek an alligator selfie. More on this later.

Pro tip 3: On your way home stop for some barbecue at The Pit BBQ, which smells like heaven. Don’t sleep on the cod fritters. They’re delicious. Also we may now be addicted to the honey mustard sauce.

Shark Valley Visitor Center: 36000 SW Eighth St., Miami ; 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. Park entrance fee is $25 per car (good for seven days at all park entrances); $20 for a motorcycle; $8 for bikes. Annual park pass $40.

Homestead entrance

A gator minds his own business along the Anhinga Trail. Do not, we repeat, DO NOT try to pull him out of the water for photos.

There’s lots to do on this stretch. You can walk on the Anhinga Trail, a boardwalk from which you will absolutely see alligators. Visit the Nike Missile Base Historic Area. Drive along the road and stop for scenic overlooks and short hikes. The folks at the visitor’s center are happy to help you plan your day.

There’s also a campground and something you can sign up for called “slough slogging,” which we were not about to do because we are pretty sure it involves tromping around in the water where, we have learned, THERE ARE GATORS. We are totally cool with viewing them from afar.

Pro tip 1: Take this sign seriously.

Your crappy Hyundai offends the vultures at the Anhinga Trail.

The vultures at the Anhinga Trail parking lot enjoy eating the rubber off your windows and windshield wipers. Usually the park leaves out tarps to put over your car. Be wise and take one if offered.

Pro tip no. 2: Don’t try to take a selfie with a gator. This should be obvious but apparently is not.

See this gator?

Hi. Remember me?

He is peeved because idiots keep getting too close to him. Like this tourist, who sat down next to him so her husband could snap a shot.

We do not think this is a healthy marriage.

Here is the proper etiquette when you’re walking past a gator:

 

Just BE COOL. Act like everything’s normal even though there’s basically a dinosaur-looking creature RIGHT OVER THERE.

Pro tip no. 3: On your way to or from the park, stop at Robert is Here and treat yourself to a key lime and strawberry shake.

Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center: 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Flamingo

Follow the signs and about 38 miles from the park entrance in Homestead, you will reach Flamingo. Which feels like the edge of the world in the best possible way. It’s the anti Miami. It’s so unMiami you can camp there.

You can also rent kayaks, canoes, houseboats, pontoon boats or bikes. There’s a public boat ramp. If you don’t have your own boat, you can take a ride on one for half a day or a couple of hours.

Manatees love to hang out in the waters of the little marina, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot a crocodile.

This tree at Flamingo is super dramatic.

Pro tip: Pack a lunch if you’re just driving down for the day. The restaurant and visitor center took a beating during Hurricane Irma and won’t reopen until 2020, most likely. You can grab snacks and drinks at the marina market.

The visitor center at Flamingo, shown here in 2017, is being renovated.

Flamingo: 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway (note: there is no lodge); 239-695-2945; 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.

Gulf Coast Visitor Center

If you aren’t interested in getting out on the water, this is not the visitor center for you. It’s all the way across the state, and it’s the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, which means  there’s nowhere to hike without getting very, very wet.

You can, however, rent a kayak or canoe or book a boat tour.

Pro tip: After a blow from Hurricane Irma in 2017, the  visitor center is operating temporarily out of a double-wide trailer. The only restrooms are Porta Potties. Consider yourself warned.

Gulf Coast Visitor Center: 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City; 239-695-3311; 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily through April.

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