The Everglades: It conjures up images of mysterious swampland, vibrant bursts of birdlife, alligators, big cats, and Old Florida flavor. Since 1947, when the federal government created Everglades National Park, nature lovers have realized the vital environmental importance of the Everglades’ wetlands, hammocks, islands, and mangrove forests. A number of other federal and state parks have joined the preservation efforts, the largest of them Big Cypress National Preserve, the nation’s first national preserve. Tucked into all that wilderness, Everglades City, Chokoloskee Island, and Ochopee add a dimension of backwoods grit, fishing ways of life, and unique Everglades dining. Explore the River of Grass with our insider’s guide from A to Z.
Alligators and Crocodiles
My, what big teeth you will see in the Everglades! In terms of population, the Everglades are the New York of American alligators. Look for them in Big Cypress National Preserve at H. P. Williams Roadside Park and in front of the Oasis Visitor Center. Or on your plate as fried gator tail in local restaurants. Their cousin, the American crocodile, is a rarer sighting, distinguishable by its lighter color and narrower snout.
Everglades National Park Boat Tours takes you out on the water, where you have an optimal chance of spotting wildlife. On the Ten Thousand Island Cruise, you motor through saltwater habitat to look for dolphins, manatees, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, and other spectacular birds. The Mangrove Wilderness Tour visits backwaters to spy alligators, bobcats, and the rare mangrove cuckoo.
Often called “the Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” Butcher captures the mystery and stunning beauty of the Everglades with his oversized camera and complete readiness to submerge himself in his work and swamp waters. He originally led the swamp tours still offered outside of his Big Cypress Gallery in Ochopee. Whether or not you plan on getting wet, you should not miss a visit to the gallery.
Photographer Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery offers guided swamp walks through March, and cottage rentals year round.
Photo by Woody Waters
Tamiami Trail by Clyde Butcher
Delicious Frog Legs
The French have nothing over the ’Glades when it comes to this delicacy. Local fishermen supply many of the finest French restaurants in South Florida. Nearly every restaurant in Everglades City serves them up deep-fried, but a couple of our favorite spots include the Oyster House Restaurant, which is also something of a natural science museum, and City Seafood on the docks.
Everglades National Park is home to around 20 federally listed endangered creatures, one of the most prominent and critical of which is the Florida panther. Others include the smalltooth sawfish, Eveglades snail kite, West Indian manatee, and Cape Sable seaside sparrow, all of which breed in the park.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve
Most famous for its wild orchids, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve protects a wonderland of subtropical flora and fauna. Here’s yet another place you can get knee-deep in nature during seasonal swamp walks. If you prefer to stay high and dry, walk, bike, or drive the 12-mile (one way) W.J. Janes Memorial Drive and offshoot trails. Or head out on the shorter boardwalk trail. You are likely to see alligators, birds, and habitat for Florida panthers and black bears.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
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Marjory Stoneman Douglas first coined the phrase “river of grass” to describe the Everglades in her book The Everglades: River of Grass, a classic Florida work that convinced lawmakers to create a national park in 1947. The iconic grass is called sawgrass for its “cutting-edge” blades, but the ’Glades claims more than 100 species of true native grasses. In fall, muhly grass puts on a billowy show of blooms.
The Everglades are much more than swamp and slow-moving river. From the Seminole word for “shady place,” hammocks rise from the wetlands like great islands of hardwood forest. The clusters of gumbo-limbo, palms, and pine trees provide habitat for raccoons, Florida panthers, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and myriad species of birds.
Photo by NPSphoto, G.Gardner
The Everglades’ version of snow flurries, white ibis travel in great flocks that at times white out the sky. The rarer glossy ibis also makes its home here. They both share the trademark down-curved beak characteristic. These birds dwell among the more than 350 species in the Everglades.
The white ibis, with its long, down-curved bill, is the most commonly spotted wading bird in the Everglades. Ibis tend to travel in flocks that can number into the hundreds.
Junior Ranger Program
Everglades National Park can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but its Junior Ranger Program helps introduce youngsters to the flora and fauna in ways that engage their sense of curiosity. Kids can earn badges by picking up a Junior Ranger booklet at park visitor centers (or from nps.gov/ever) and completing required activities such as (gently) feeling sawgrass or keeping track of how many birds they spot.
The Everglades National Park’s Young Ranger Program
Photo by NPSphoto
A few species of kite birds live and breed in Everglades habitat. Most common, the swallow-tailed kite imposes a distinctive V silhouette against the sky. Everglades snail-kite populations sadly dwindle as the apple snail it snacks on feels the pressure of Florida development. Birders also occasionally spot white-tailed kites.
Bring your binoculars for spectacular birding in the Everglades, which includes a few species of kite birds, like this Everglades snail-kite.
Loop Road Scenic Drive
Starting at Monroe Station off Tamiami Trail, this 24-mile, mostly gravel road loops through cypress swamp, sawgrass prairie, and three counties before it reconnects with U.S. 41 in the east. It reveals some of the best wildlife viewing available by car in Big Cypress National Preserve: alligators, raccoons, river otters, huge turtles, wood storks, and more.
More than 40 species of mosquitoes buzz the Everglades. Although they are at their most ferocious during the wet months of summer, their year-round presence means visitors should come armed with repellant and anti-bug wear when planning to tour the area.
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During winter months, rangers at Everglades National Park conduct a variety of nighttime programs, including new moon stargazing events with telescopes available for viewing the night sky.
Both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress host ranger programs during the winter and spring seasons. They range from easy boardwalk strolls, birding walks, and night-sky astronomy programs to 3-mile guided hikes and four-hour canoe paddles.
One of the easiest accesses to Everglades habitat, Collier-Seminole State Park explores local history and ecology. A garden memorial pays homage to Barron Collier, who was responsible for building Tamiami Trail across the Everglades. The park displays the only remaining “walking dredge” used to build the Trail. You will also find a replicated Civil War blockhouse, which holds the park’s interpretive center, and authentic Seminole chickee structures.
When you’re in the mood for a good paddle, the Everglades flood you with opportunities to get as serious or laid-back about it as you wish. Super paddlers can take to the 99-mile Wilderness Trail from Everglades City to Flamingo across the state. Day paddlers kayak the Paradise Blueway Trail or hook up with Everglades Area Tours for a combo powerboat and kayaking excursion.
There are many ways to explore the Everglades by kayak, with guided tours from sunup to sundown.
The eye-blink town of Ochopee could fit in your pocket. Its biggest claim to fame is the smallest post office in the United States. The twin towns of Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island make for an escape to Old Florida times. Get your fresh seafood from Everglades City’s working waterfront and scope out local history at the Museum of the Everglades. Chokoloskee is a good place to shop for a fishing charter and visit the historic Smallwood Store.
The Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee Island serves as a museum for Florida pioneer history.
Photo by smallwoodstore.com
Big pink birds that eat with spoons? They may sound like something out of Dr. Seuss, but these marvelous shorebirds exist in real life. Often mistaken for flamingoes, roseate spoonbills too derive their pinkish tint from crustaceans they eat with their flat, spatulate bills.
Stone Crab and Other Seafood
You could say that as an edible delicacy, stone crab was “invented” in the Everglades, because it was here that people first started eating what was previously considered a garbage by-catch. Today it receives delicacy status and has its fishery headquarters in Everglades City. The working waterfront sees all manner of local seafood brought to port—from blue crab to grouper. The town celebrates its commercial and recreational fishing industry this month with the annual Everglades Seafood Festival.
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Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, along with Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, supports the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s mission of “wildlife first” by protecting important mangrove habitats and native wildlife. They both also offer recreational opportunities with hiking trails and beach camping on some of the islands.
Acclaimed black-and-white landscape photographer Clyde Butcher captured this image in the Ten Thousand Islands after he was “struck by the mangrove’s sculptural beauty.”
Invented by early Everglades froggers, airboats are designed to navigate shallow waters. Local hunters, on the other hand, invented big-wheeled swamp buggies as transportation through muddy wetlands. Today both go to work to tour visitors around the Everglades’ uniquely challenging environment.
One of the best interpretive centers in Everglades parks and preserves is the newest: Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center in Ochopee. Inside, you’ll find modern hands-on exhibits that educate about Everglades habitat and wildlife. Outside, visitors can tour a boardwalk where alligators, manatees, and birds are often spotted. Gators galore swim the waters in front of the Oasis Visitor Center down the road a bit. At Everglades National Park, a small visitor center in Everglades City provides orientation and natural science exhibits.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center | Photo by NPSPhoto, R. Cammauf
One of the Everglades’ earliest roadside attractions, Wooten’s went into business in 1953 after some tourists begged R.R. Wooten to take them along on a frogging mission aboard his airboat. Today it has grown to include swamp-buggy tours and wildlife exhibits with tons of alligators, as well as crocodiles, snakes, river otters, and big cats.
Wooten’s swamp buggy tours | Photo courtsey of Wooten’s
X-tra Large Manatees
The teddy bears of Florida’s waters, West Indian manatees bob along Everglades waterways, placidly chewing up to 9 percent of their body weight in seagrass and freshwater vegetation each day. Considering the manatee’s average weight hovers around 1,000 pounds, it comes as no surprise that the marine mammal must spend about five hours a day at the Gulf’s underwater salad bar.
Yeti of the Everglades
Hairy, big-footed, and smelly, the Skunk Ape, if you believe the age-old legends, wanders the wetland backwoods of the Everglades. Native Indians and certain locals swear by its existence. Among them, David Shealy has appeared on national television and operates his funky roadside attraction called the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. Even if you don’t believe, you will get to see live animals that really do exist around the site.
Overnighting in the Everglades is known more for its ruggedness than its glamour. However, you can find accommodations less rustic than camping in and around Everglades City. The Rod & Gun Club’s cabins are simple, but they are air-conditioned. At nearby Ivey House, accommodations include rooms in the inn and lodge, a cottage, and a three-bedroom house, which make comfortable headquarters for explorers. Port of the Islands has a lovely lodge feel with available adventure packages.
Camping under the stars at Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge