Everglades National Park, just 35 miles from Miami, is the third-largest national park in contiguous United States. The Everglades are actually a slow moving freshwater "River of Grass," 50 miles wide but only 6 inches deep, flowing from Lake Okeechobee through marshy grassland into Florida Bay. You can explore the wilds of the Everglades alone or on one of many Everglades tours but either way it is good to bring along a good Everglades map and plenty of mosquito repellant.
As the only subtropical preserve in North America, Everglades National Park is a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. The Everglades are home to such rare and endangered species as the American crocodile, Florida panther, manatee, brown pelican, southern bald eagle, and loggerhead turtle. Alligators are common, and fast at close range, but human attacks are extremely rare. But do look out for diamondback and pygmy rattlers, water moccasins, and coral snakes.
It is home to 347 species of birds, including anhingas, Cape Sable sparrows, great white herons, white ibis, short tailed hawk, roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, and sand hill cranes. Exotic plants include ferns, orchids, and bromeliads. The most common plant is the deceptively graceful sawgrass that bare sharp teeth on the edges of their leaves.
Big Cypress National Preserve is part of the greater Everglades watershed, and is made up of 2,400 square miles of marshlands, grasslands, slash pine, mangroves, and both dwarf and rare great bald cypress, some of which are up to 700 years old.
Main visitor centers include the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and Royal Palm Visitor Center. Cyclists will enjoy the 15-mile paved road of Shark Valley. Naturalist-led open-air tram tours run from the park’s Shark Valley entrance. The Anhinga Trail starts near the Royal Palm Visitor Center using a combination of pavement and boardwalks over marshy sloughs, home to alligators, turtles, herons, and the namesake anhinga birds. The Gumbo Limbo trail takes you through a jungle of ferns, orchids, palms, wild coffee, and peel-barked gumbo-limbo trees.
Airboats are actually prohibited in the park. A better way to explore the waterways is by kayak or canoe, letting you glide silently and unobtrusively past wildlife. The 2-mile Noble Hammock Canoe Trail and the 6-mile Hell's Bay Canoe Trail are clearly marked.
For a sense of the Everglade’s first inhabitants, visit the Miccosukee Indian Village. Here you’ll find Native American beadwork, moccasins, dolls, pottery, and baskets for sale.
The 1928 Ivey House inn and B&B offers eco-tours and discount rentals on canoes and kayaks. There are tent and RV campgrounds at Flamingo and Long Pine Key, plus 48 primitive campsites.
The Everglades are deservedly one of the top Florida attractions for visitors. Sadly, they are threatened by urban sprawl and agriculture. The wading bird population is down to less than a tenth of what it once was. Originally, alternating floods cycles maintained the wetland wildlife habitat, but then government flood-control system began diverting water to canals running to the gulf and the ocean.