Everglades National Park
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 sport fishing 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.
Take the Family Houseboating
When you're traveling en famille, it can be an expensive logistical nightmare to get the whole clan into a wilderness setting, a sobering truth that causes many parents to opt for Disneyworld over the unique educational value of a truly out-there national-park vacation. But here in the Glades, the Park Service comes through with a brilliant alternative: the Flamingo Lodge rents houseboats a sporty, 37-foot Gibson and a pokey but roomier pontoon boat for up to a week at a time, and for reasonable rates. Where you go and what you do is your business, cap: Tow along canoes or kayaks for mangrove explorations; fish the bays and creeks; see alligators and spoonbills at close range; or simply loll back in the midst of this strange wilderness, a long, long way from anywhere.
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.
Turn a naturalist's eye on the park. At Royal Palm, the Anhinga Trail is a pavement-and-boardwalk cut right through the heart of Taylor Slough, a marshy river that's home to alligators, turtles, marsh rabbits, anhingas, herons, purple gallinules, and hundreds of varieties of fish. Scan the saw grass for the white jagged arms of the swamp lily. In contrast, the Gumbo-Limbo Trail, which also originates at Royal Palm, meanders through a shaded hammock of royal palms, wild coffee, gumbo-limbo, lush ferns, and orchids. Nine miles south of Royal Palm on the main road, the Pahayokee Overlook Trail ends at an observation tower, from which you can see a sweeping vista. Look for indigo snakes, vultures, and red-shouldered hawks among the wildlife in this area. Seven miles further on is the Mahogany Hammock Trail, which leads into a cool, dark hardwood hammock, the largest living mahogany tree in the United States, and looks at the tiny, jewel-hued Liguus tree snails. Eco Pond near Flamingo is a good place to observe herons, white ibis, roseate spoonbills, white-eyed vireos, red-shouldered hawks, and numerous species of butterflies. And Flamingo's West Lake Trailis one of the best places in the park to see the American crocodile. If kicking back and relaxing is more your speed, tram tours led by naturalists are available in the dry months (during the wet season, the roads are often underwater) from the Flamingo Visitor Center.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication