By Terry Ward
One of the great dualities of Florida is the presence of spectacular natural places and wildlife within easy striking distance of the most people-packed urban areas. And Everglades National Park — covering more than 1.5 million acres in South Florida — is as off-the-charts-wild as U.S. parks get. While the most remote areas of the park are largely inaccessible, there are plenty of spots within a stone’s throw of Miami and Naples (around the small towns of Florida City and Everglades City) where you can get a real feel for the “River of Grass.”
The Everglades was originally given protected status in 1947 in order to preserve its extreme biodiversity, and the vast sub-tropical wilderness here continues to flourish as a habitat for alligators, Florida panthers, manatees and crocodiles as well as hundreds of species of plants and birds. For one of the wildest Florida escapes, this is the place.
Day 1: Afternoon & Evening
For the easiest and quickest approach to the Everglades from Miami, head south to Homestead and make your way to Florida City and the park’s southern entrance. The Royal Palm Visitor Center here is the departure point for one of the Everglades’ most accessible and rewarding walks. The area also happens to teem with wildlife during the late afternoon hours when the resident animals emerge from their sun comas to hunt (don’t forget the mosquito repellent). The stroll along the Anhinga Trail here (just under a mile long) follows a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk over a saw grass marsh for much of the way. And in addition to seeing the namesake birds (anhingas are the ones diving for fish or sitting with their wings outstretched, bat-like, to dry) you’ll also see alligators galore and countless wading birds.
Exit the park back the way you came in, leaving time for a quick stop at Robert is Here in nearby Florida City — the legendary fruit and vegetable outpost sells all kinds of locally grown exotic tropical fruits (think dragon fruit and guava) and you can sip on a fresh fruit milkshake for just a few bucks. Then hit the road to Everglades City for a delicious seafood dinner (don’t miss stone crabs when they’re in season) at Camellia Street Grill.
Day 2: Morning
Wake up in Everglades City and get ready for a full day of activities that range from the adventurous to the cultural. Everglades Area Tours on tiny Chokoloskee Island runs 4-hour kayak tours led by Florida Master Naturalists in the maze-like Ten Thousand Islands part of the park. An engine-powered support boat shuttles you and your kayak into some of the Everglades’ most remote areas to reduce the paddling time, and you’ll likely spot ospreys, manatees, dolphins and sea turtles throughout the morning. The kayak trip finishes up just in time for an authentic Cuban lunch at My Havana Café, also on Chokoloskee Island. The medianoche and mahi-mahi sandwiches are always winners.
Day 2: Afternoon & Evening
After lunch, hit the historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which operated as a post office from 1906 till the 1970s but has now been turned into a museum. Browse the fascinating collection of animal skins, wagon wheels, canning machines and other odds and ends that tell the story of Florida’s pioneering history. Then make your way to the park’s Shark Valley entrance where you can rent bikes to cycle past gators sunning along the trail. Alternatively, opt for the tamer option of a two-hour open-air tram tour through the park that includes a stop at a 45-foot-high observation tower for bird’s eye views. End the day at the Rod & Gun Club, a historic hotel in Everglades City just outside the park’s border, where you can sample things like Florida alligator, frog legs and fried soft-shell crabs in an Old Florida setting complete with cypress woodwork.
Wake up for one more culture-meets-adventure activity at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery in the tiny town of Ochopee (home to the country’s smallest post office). Start by browsing Butcher’s collection of black and white photography that spotlights Florida’s natural beauty. Then head just behind the gallery into Big Cypress National Preserve for a guided swamp walk to admire rare bromeliads and ferns and learn more about the Everglades’ fragile and fascinating eco-systems (October–March only).