Everglades National Park at the south end of the Florida peninsula is a vast, coast-to-coast expanse of soggy sawgrass prairie and mangrove swamp. The park is huge — only Yellowstone and Death Valley are bigger among the national parks in the lower 48 states — and best seen from the bow of a canoe because most of the park is wet.
Everglades National Park, wrote Daniel B. Beard, the park's first superintendent, is a place of "lonely distances, intricate and monotonous waterways, birds, sky, and water. To put it crudely, there is nothing (and we include the bird rookeries) in the Everglades that will make Mr. Jonnie Q. Public suck in his breath." But anyone who has witnessed an 8-year-old spot an alligator for the first time knows Beard was only partly right.
While the U.S. Congress authorized the creation of Everglades National Park in 1934, it did so with the provision that no money would be allotted to the project for at least five years. The park was dedicated Dec. 6, 1947.
Things to do
A tram tour is a good introduction to the complexities of the Everglades. Shark Valley Tram Tours offers a two-hour tour through a 15-mile loop of the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park. The open-air trams provide a good vantage to spot wildlife such as alligators and whitetail deer. The tour includes a stop at a 45-foot high observation deck.
The Shark Valley loop is also a good spot for a flat, two- to three-hour bicycle ride.
There are miles and miles of canoe trails through the freshwater marsh, mangrove swamp, and the open waters of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail is a five-mile loop through marsh and mangrove and past tree islands where buttonwood trees festooned with a variety of air plants grow on the dry high ground.
Those who want to stay on dry land will find a number of hiking trails near the Flamingo Visitor Center.
Why you'll want to come back
You want to find out if you have the nerve to spend the night deep in the swamp camping atop a backcountry chickee, an elevated platform accessible only by boat.
Flora and fauna
If you don't spot an alligator while visiting Everglades National Park, well, you're not looking too hard. There are thousands of the big reptiles in the park. Far less numerous — though their numbers are rebounding — is the American crocodile (pictured above), federally listed as endangered.
Everglades National Park is home to more than 50 species of reptiles, including one that isn't supposed to be here. Burmese pythons, one of the largest snakes on earth, that were released in the wilderness by thoughtless pet owners are now breeding in the national park. The first confirmed Burmese python nest was found in 2006. The pythons feed on native wildlife including raccoons, rabbits, birds and even alligators. Park officials have removed more than 1,300 Burmese pythons since 2000 and more than 50 in 2011.
More than 350 different species of birds have been spotted in Everglades National Park, including the white ibis, the wood stork, the green-backed heron and the roseate spoonbill.
By the numbers:
- Website: Everglades National Park
- Park size: 1,509,000 acres or 2,358 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 915,538
- Funky fact: The highest point of the park is the top of an Indian-made shell mound just 20 feet above sea level.
Editor's note: This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States.