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Florida Everglades

Photo by Timothy O'Keefe

Florida Everglades Itineraries

Everglades Big Cypress Bend Walk

Everglades for First-Time Family Visitors

Everglades National Park Driving Tour

Everglades Wildlife Viewing and Photography

Everglades’ Shark Valley in a Day

Exploring Big Cypress National Preserve

A top wildlife photography and birding destination

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The Florida Everglades National Park (ENP) is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states after Yellowstone and Death Valley. Unlike most national parks, it was created to protect a unique tropical wilderness ecosystem and not to safeguard dramatic geologic formations. About 1.1 million people a year visit Florida’s Everglades National Park (ENP) to see the profusion of bird and animal life that is America’s birding equivalent of an African big game safari.

Many animals are so accustomed to seeing humans they allow people to approach closely. They are not bashful about having their photo taken. In addition to photographers, Everglades National Park attracts birders, anglers, campers, kayakers, hikers, anyone who wants to experience part of America’s largest tropical wilderness.

Note:  Weather events including hurricanes and tropical storms may cause flooding and wind damage, which has a significant and sometimes long-lasting impact on park facilities. It may take several months following a storm for park functions to return to normal. In planning a trip to Everglades National Park, always check its current operational status.


Wildlife of the Everglades

With more than 360 different sighted bird species, the park is one of North America’s most significant breeding grounds for tropical wading birds. In addition, the park is home to 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish, 40 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles and various amphibians. It also protects numerous endangered and threatened species such as the Florida panther, Florida manatee, American crocodile, snail kite and wood stork. In summer, endangered sea turtles nest on beaches closed to the public. The brackish mix of salty and fresh water makes the Everglades the only place in the world you can see both alligators and salt water crocodiles living next to each other in the wild.

Moving quietly, it is possible to approach many birds closely. These include blue and white and tricolored herons, even roseate spoonbills, an emblematic symbol of Florida birds. American alligators sometimes litter parts of the landscape like fallen logs. Many tropical plants, such as orchids, grow nowhere else in America.


Everglades Plants and Trees

Oddly enough, a visit to the Everglades is almost like a visit to the Caribbean. Many Everglades plants and trees are more akin to Caribbean species than those of North America. One of the best known examples of a tropical tree found in the Everglades is the gumbo limbo with its distinctive reddish, peeling bark.

Although tree hammocks grow throughout the park, the Everglades essentially is a shallow plain of sawgrass growing in water only six inches deep. The terrain of the Everglades is extremely low and flat. The highest point only about eight feet above sea level. Obviously, the terrain has  not risen much since it was part of the sea bottom about 10,000 years ago.

Although no noticeable current is apparent, a sheet of fresh water from the north advances through the Everglades about a quarter of a mile per day. The mild flow nourishes and flushes the plains of sawgrass before emptying in the mangrove estuaries on Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. At first look, the endless expanse of level terrain in this “river of grass” may appear monotonous because of the absence of dramatic peaks and valleys found in most national parks. Give it time to work its charm on you as the sun crosses the sky. The colors of the Everglades change throughout the day.


Entrances to Everglades National Park

Access into the Everglades National Park is provided at three locations spaced many miles apart. The entrances are at Homestead, Shark Valley and The Gulf Coast.

Homestead Main Section
The Homestead entrance south of Miami, which has more drive-up access areas than the two other sections combined, is the best known part of the park. This park main entrance is just past the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center which is open every day of the year.

Park admission is collected just past the visitor center at the the main park entrance, which never closes. Beyond the entrance, a paved road known as the Main Park Road runs south for 38 miles,to the former fishing village of Flamingo. Just beyond the Flamingo Visitor Center, the Main Road Road ends at the Flamingo Campground.  Boat tours into the Everglades backcounty and Florida Bay leave from the Flamingo Marina next to the visitor center.

Shark Valley
The Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park, about 30 miles west of Miami, is reached by the Tamiami Trail (US 41). Not as well known as the Homestead entrance, Shark Valley attracts quite a few visitors who take its tram ride 15 miles through the Everglades. The tram road also is a popular paved bike trail.

After Shark Valley, the Tamiami Trail enters another protected section of Everglades, the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve.  Established in 1974, Big Cypress Preserve protects wetlands and swamp as valuable as those in the national park. On national preserves, however, activities such as hunting, ATV and off-road vehicles and other activities— including drilling for oil — are permitted. They are banned in most national parks.  Big Cypress has quite a few campgrounds, convenient for those with tents or RVs. These camp sites are the only place to stay overnight between Homestead and Everglades City.

Gulf Coast/Ten Thousand Islands
Leaving Big Cypress and continuing west on the Tamiami Trail leads to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, the park’s entrance to the Ten Thousand Islands. The visitor center is located in the town of Everglades City,  a distance of 45 miles and about an hour’s drive west of Shark Valley. Most importantly, Everglades City has  motels and restaurants, the first since Homestead.

Boat tours from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center explore the mangrove islands hugging the Florida coast. These islands are home to osprey, pelicans, bald eagles, and manatees.

Those craving a challenging experience launch at Everglades City to explore the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway by canoe or kayak. A marked trail leads from Everglades City south to Flamingo, though some paddlers opt to end their journey near the Homestead entrance, a 92-mile trip. This journey of six to eight days is sensible only during the cooler dry season when mosquitoes are not a major problem. The trip is tough enough, especially when the wind churns up the wide bays that must be crossed to the next campsite. Once was enough for me.

Note: Check conditions in Everglades National Park for any weather-related closures.


When To Go

The Everglades is inhabited year-round but visitors usually limit their visits to the cooler, less mosquitoey months from November to April. Most ranger programs are offered from mid-December to April and some visitor centers are open only during that time. Everglades National Park’s Homestead entrance is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Most park concessionaires stay open throughout the year.

The best wildlife viewing is during the driest months, from December to April. Dry weather means the water level in the park drops. Fish will start to congregate in deep canals and ponds. Wildlife will concentrate around the food-filled fishing holes. Visitors come to see the wildlife. This makes December to April by far the best time to visit the Florida Everglades. In a dry year, November can be equally good but fewer park facilities are open at that time.

How Much Time To Spend

You can take a quick peek driving through the Homestead section of Everglades National Park to the end of the road at Flamingo and return in just a day. People who do that usually are disappointed in what they see: a bland landscape and little wildlife. The park is not a zoo and wild animals appear when it pleases them.  Also, no one is likely to see anything interesting if they take only a quick look around at every stop.

Many Everglades visitors prefer to spend several days or a week or more pursuing a special interest such as wildlife photography, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking or camping. Photographing wild animals and landing fishing are the two most unpredictable activities. Photographers should plan on a minimum of 5 to 7 days. Anglers may need from 3 to 4 days depending on tides. Canoeing or kayaking is usually done as a day trip although it is possible to make a week-long trip on the remote Wilderness Waterway and camp on land or on wooden platforms above the water known as chickees.

In the Homestead section of Everglades National Park, it is easy to fill many days with programs lead by park rangers. Programs that differ significantly from those at Homestead also are offered at the Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast Visitor Centers. Ranger programs can easily fill most of a week.

High and Low Season

The most visited months are December to April when the weather is cooler, mosquitoes are fewer and wildlife is easiest to spot. Naturally, motels near Everglades National Park raise their rates during this time.

Everglades National Park attracts people throughout the year, particularly anglers. Photographers will always find something of interest. Summer is orchid season, and nowhere else in the U.S. has more wild orchids than the Everglades region. In summer months, dolphin and the endangered manatee are most active in the Everglades’ coastal waters, with boat rides still available to find them.

Summer also is the time to photograph dramatic weather: Florida is the lightning capital of North America. Most summer afternoons you can expect a thunderstorm whenever the wind  blows across the Everglades. Photographically, there truly is not a bad season in the Everglades. Much depends on which subjects appeal to you: animals (winter) or landscapes (which may vary seasonally).

However, because far fewer people visit in summer, the popular free ranger programs are curtailed after the beginning of April.

Weather and Climate

The subtropical climate of South Florida and the Everglades do not have four seasons like many other places. There are only two seasons: wet and dry. They determine the water flow cycle of the Everglades and when most tourists visit. Yet even in the dry season it rains, typically just under 2 inches each month.

In November the rainy season normally ends and the sawgrass sea starts to dry up. Fish usually move to the deeper holes and canals from mid-December to early January, depending how wet the previous months have been. With fish concentrated in limited areas, birds and alligators take up residence around water holes and canals. By the end of February the Everglades is as dry as it is likely to be in a particular year and the annual bird and gator harvest of fish is at its height. This schedule, however, can be disrupted if heavy or steady rains occur in November, December and/or January.

Everglades winter daytime temperatures may reach the mid-70s or hover in the 60s. Winter temperatures normally do not drop below the 50s unless a serious cold front arrives, plunging temperatures sometimes into the 30s. Breezy winter weather can create uncomfortable wind chill. Have a warm jacket handy.

Everglades summers are characterized by heat, humidity and rain. High temperatures stay in the high 80s or low 90s. with humidity over 90%, and a heat index of over 100°F. Not a comfortable time. June often is the wettest month with up to almost 10 inches of rain. July and August may have an inch or two less of rain but once tropical storms appear, all the monthly norms are irrelevant.

Events and Holidays

Visitor Centers Hours
Except possibly at Christmas, normal holidays are not observed by Everglades National Park visitor centers. The visitor centers operate on their own special times schedules determined more by seasons than holidays.

Everglades National Park is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. Homestead’s Coe visitor center is open every day. Other visitor centers may close seasonally. See the four Everglades National Park Visitor Center schedules here.

Big Cypress National Preserve visitor centers close December 25 only. The preserve is open throughout the year.

Seasonal Ranger Programs
Activities of some sort are offered most of the year. At Everglades National Park, they are most frequent during the tourist season from December to April. At the Royal Palm Visitor Center, daily programs feature slough (pronounced “slew) tromps through the shallow grass to a cypress dome and guided tours along the Anhinga Trail both during the day and after dark. The night tours listen to the frogs and watch the menacing red eyes of the alligators near the Anhinga Trail.

At the Flamingo ranger station, programs are quite different. They include canoe trips, bird walks and discussions about crocodiles and pythons. See also the ranger programs at Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast Visitor Centers, which also differ from the others.

Big Cypress National Preserve also offers ranger program at various locations from November to April only.

Time Zone

The Everglades region is in the Eastern Time Zone (UTC-05:00). Daily sunrise and sunset times are important to know since animals tend to be more active just after sunrise and and shortly before sunset. Visitors tend to be scarcer at both times.

What To Pack and Wear

Bring a cell phone for communication. Have a portable GPS for finding your way. Bring old tennis shoes and socks for slough slogging. Sunblock is needed anytime of year. Bring or buy an ice chest for holding drinks and snacks. Other items you may need: binoculars, camera with a good telephoto lens, flashlight for early morning or evening walks and mosquito repellent with DEET (20-25%) or picaridin (20%). Consumer Reports names both as the most effective repellents.

Casual clothing such as jeans and lightweight long sleeve shirts are suitable for much of the dry season. Good walking shoes and comfortable socks are also essential. So is a broad-brimmed hat to protect against sun and polarized glass to reduce glare. In winter, it can be chilly so have a jacket or windbreaker handy. If a severe cold front arrives, the wind chill may require layered clothing.

Other

Mosquitoes and More
The Everglades makes one remember that 95-percent of all the earth’s animal species are insects. And in summer the Everglades seems to be home to the majority of all the world’s mosquitoes. Florida has 67 species of mosquitoes, both saltwater and freshwater varieties. The saltwater mosquito is active year-round in the coastal Everglades, particularly around mangroves. Freshwater mosquitoes are most active during the rainy season. In summer, there can be great clouds of mosquitoes that make people want to stay indoors or stay away from the Everglades altogether. Early settlers dealt with mosquitoes by firing smudge pots

How to Repel Them
Use repellent with DEET (at least 20%) or picaridin (20%). Citronella and natural ingredients are not nearly as effective. Consumer Reports rated picaridin as among the most effective insect repellents when used at a 20% concentration. Loose fitting long pants, long sleeve shirts and a hat also help against mosquito bites.

Another way of discouraging mosquitoes and ticks is to spray clothing with permethrin. Treated clothing is effective at repelling insects for as long as two months. Permethrin is not as effective when used directly on the skin since it is quickly absorbed by the body. Put permethrin on clothing, DEET on the skin.

Beware No-see-ums 
Normally only around beach areas at sunrise and sunset, shore anglers and hikers are the ones who normally need to worry about no-see-ums. Also called midges and sand flies, no-see-ums are so tiny they seem invisible. When they land, they seem all teeth. Along with a DEET-based spray, long pants and shoes/socks are the best protection especially if treated with permethrin.

 

What it Costs

Costs for visiting the Everglades are those a traveler pays anywhere: transportation, accommodations, food and tours. The Everglades is a drive-to destination. Many east coast residents simply drive there. Those living in other parts of the county or visiting from Europe may want to fly into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and rent a vehicle for a week or more.

How much an Everglades vacation costs depends largely upon when you visit, where you stay and where you dine.  How much does a week-long Everglades vacation cost?  For a family of four, expenses should range between $300 and $400 per day including hotel, meals and car rental. If you are camping, your daily expenses will be much less.

The least expensive time to visit the Everglades is when there are the fewest visitors: May through mid-November, which tend to be hot and wet.

When booking a hotel room, don not forget that AAA, CAA, AARP and other association members often receive discounts as high as 10% to 15% from many chain hotels. The smaller privately owned hotels in Everglades City are not likely to offer such discounts.


Where to Stay

Unlike most destinations, Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve lack any modern accommodations. Both are true wilderness areas, with hotels and motels located some distance away. For this reason, a considerable number of Everglades visitors prefer camping over commuting from their hotels. Note: The old Flamingo Lodge was damaged severely by hurricanes and demolished in 2009.

Florida City
Located where the Florida Turnpike junctions with U.S.1, Florida City has the closest accommodations to the Everglades’ Homestead main entrance. The Tropical Everglades Visitor Association  with information about area attractions and accommodations is located here. Additional motels also are available in Homestead city, just to the north of Florida City.

Many area hotels and motels are older but still demand a premium of up to $200 a night in the popular Everglades season or on Homestead-Miami Speedway race weekends.  Use Kayak, Expedia or your favorite hotel booking site to make reservations.

Camping in Everglades National Park 
Camping in Everglades National Park is divided into two categories called  “frontcountry”–the drive-to campsites–and the “backcountry” campsites, reached only on foot or by boat. The frontcountry sites are the busiest and require advance reservations during peak months. The fees vary with location but pet regulations generally do not. Pets are required to be on a leash for their safety. Alligators in Florida are notorious for eating even leashed pets being walked near the water. Dogs are not allowed on any Everglades National Park trails.

Long Pine Key Campground   Just 7 miles from Homestead’s main entrance, the campground  has 108 sites for tents and RVs. The campground is open only between November and May; no advance  reservations available for tent campers, only for RVs. $-$$

Flamingo Campground: Located on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, this popular campground has 234 drive-in sites and 40 walk-ups, some at the edge of Florida Bay. For RVs, 41 of the 65 sites have electrical hookups in a T-loop. The campground is not far from the visitor center and marina. Reservations recommended at 1-(877) 444-6777 or online $-$$

Flamingo Houseboats: Two 35-foot rental houseboats available, each capable of sleeping six. The houseboats are allowed only in the backcountry on White Water Bay. No boats allowed on Florida Bay. Reservations required at least a week in advance. $$$

ENP backcountry sites: These provide a feel of true wilderness, reachable only by canoe, kayak, motorboat, or on foot. The sites are located on  ground, a beach or an elevated platform called a chickee, the Seminole name for house. No reservations accepted. A free backcountry permit must be obtained first.

Camping in Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress offers more than a half-dozen drive-in campgrounds varying in size from 9 to 40 sites. Some campgrounds are limited to tents only, others open to tents and RVs. View the online descriptions and locations before making a decision. Only one campground has drinking water. Some locations have a short season lasting from January to the end of April. Maximum length of stay at any Big Cypress campground is 10 days. Check the campground regulations. Reservations advisable. $

Big Cypress backcountry camp sites have specific rules and regulations for using them.  A  backcountry permit is required. This can be filled out online or at the trailhead to the camping area.

Everglades City
Located almost at the doorstep of the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, the ENP gateway to the Ten Thousand  islands.  Unlike other Everglades NP entrance areas, Everglades City offers nearby motels and camping. Online booking usually provides discounts. $$


Everglades Tours

Ranger Guided Tours
Most Homestead, Flamingo, Shark Valley and Gulf Coast ranger guided tours are free. More daily tours are offered from December to April. Far fewer (if any) are available during the summer months.  Free

Commercial Tours
Everglades NP Tours:  ENP boat tours are a bargain. You can take a boat tour in Flamingo and on the Gulf Coast and a Shark Valley tram ride totaling under $100 for all three. $$

Flamingo Boat Tours to the backcounty and Florida Bay vary in price based on age. Adult fare starts at age 13. $$

Flamingo Canoe and kayak rentals
available for two hours or a full day. Costs depend on length of rental. Substantial credit card deposit required for kayaks. $$$

Flamingo fishing skiff rental of a 17-foot boat with 40-hp engine is available from two hours to a full day.  No skiffs allowed in Florida Bay. All boats must be returned by 5 p.m. $$$

Shark Valley Commercial Tours
A two-hour open-air tram ride along a paved road includes a stop at an 80-foot high observation tower. $$$

Bicycle rentals for riding the tram road start at 8;30 a.m. and bikes must be returned by 5 p.m. $$

ENP Gulf Coast/Ten Thousand Islands Tours
Concession operated boat tours boat tours narrated by a naturalist through the Ten Thousand  Islands  and the Mangrove Wilderness  are available year-round. Ranger canoe and nature tours also available. $-$$

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Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do

N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfares
Airfares are a fickle thing, up and down all the time. Finding the best fare is not easy. Set up notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type in your destination and the dates you want and, when there is a deal, you will hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting different airline sites. But never ignore an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their best deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Many airlines also share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their emails.

Car Rental
Miami and Miami International Airport have an abundance of rental cars. Miami International Airport is one of the top three airports for international arrivals and receives more than 40 million passengers annually. However, renting a car is more involved than many other locations since no rental car facilities exist at the airport. Instead, visitors must take a free mile-long trip on the MIA Mover  to the MIA Rental Car Center at 3900 N.W. 25th Street.

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, car rental agencies are headquartered in a building next to Terminal 1. Off-site rental cars also available. The airport website shows current rental rates.

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping. There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell them what you’ll pay and they hook you up with a car rental company. For best price, do not be too picky about the make and model of a rental.

Money Saving Tip
Because of their behemoth size and price negotiating power, Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club members often receive substantial discounts on car rentals; sometimes hotels and airlines, too,

Did You Know?
Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs or spouses) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day for a second driver.

Insurance

Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), insurance is probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling at a hurricane-prone time of year, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case”

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover unexpected costs and assist when problems arise. Policy fees typically are based on the cost of the trip, the length of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Credit card insurance
If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many cards have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

How do I choose a travel insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with one of the above companies).

If you have pre-existing health conditions
This is an important reason to consider buying travel insurance. Many policies have exclusions  for pre-existing medical condition. However, companies may waive that exclusion if you purchase their policy within a certain time frame of booking or paying for your trip. Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Cancel For Any Reason
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. The cost of these may be greater(often 10% or more) but this type of policy it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Other insurance coverage
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip cancellation
About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical
Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone cost from $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip interruption
If you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick and you have to return home before your trip is scheduled to end, the insurer may often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel delay
Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage
Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage up to the insurance policy limit. An airline credit card could also help cover costs.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Only U.S. dollars are accepted. U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. The bills are all the same size and often the same color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents) and quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.  Travel with a number of $1 bills for tipping porters, bellmen and others.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards
Only U.S. currency accepted. ATMs available in city areas but not in Everglades National Park or Big Cypress National Preserve.  ATMs are convenient but often charge $2 or $3 per transaction. Credit cards are accepted at most Everglades area hotels and motels but not at all small restaurants.  You may need to use more cash than normal. Don’t forget to inform  your debit or credit card company about your your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in Florida. Also call your company immediately to report loss or theft of a credit card.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping
It usually is not included in the total amount of the bill. Check to see if a “service” charge was added. If not, a 10% to 15% tip is standard in restaurants. Waiters in Florida and most of the U.S. still earn their living mostly off their tips.

Everglades NP Entrance Fees
Compared to the costs of most famous Florida destinations, Everglades National Park is a bargain. The private vehicle entrance fee is good for 7 consecutive days at all park entrances. The Everglades National Park Annual Pass with unlimited visits and a senior park pass are available at the Homestead, Flamingo, Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers.

Incidental Costs
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you are traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores usually are cheaper than tourist shops.

Transportation

The three Everglades National Park entrances are drive-to locations. A private or rental vehicle is necessary to see these wilderness areas. The same holds true for Big Cypress National Preserve, which you must drive through in order to reach the national park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center. Big Cypress has its own attractions you might want to explore.

Examine this map of Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Yes, the park and the preserve cover a huge area. So check your fuel gauge at the beginning of each day. It is wise to have at least half a tank of gas or more. Gas stations are rare outside of Homestead and Everglades City. If you run out of fuel, you will probably have difficulty finding someone to bring some to you and the wait for it could take hours.

Getting There

Driving to the Everglades
There are a variety of ways to drive to Everglades National Park. From whatever direction, the last leg usually places drivers on Florida’s Turnpike, a toll road, and the Homestead Extension, the most heavily traveled segment of Florida’s Turnpike.

From the northwest: Follow I-10 to Lake City and join I-75 south. Unless you want to continue south on I-75 to Naples and then drive across the Everglades to Fort Lauderdale–a needlessly long route– join the Florida Turnpike near Wildwood. At the Miami/Dade County line bear right onto Florida 821, the Homestead Extension of the Turnpike that travels west past I-75, avoiding much of the Miami area traffic. The Turnpike ends at U.S. 1 in Florida City, gateway to the park’s Homestead main entrance.

From the north:
Take I-75 into Florida and join the Florida Turnpike near Wildwood where I-75 continues south to Tampa. At the Miami/Dade County line bear right onto Florida 821, the Homestead Extension of the Turnpike that travels west past Interstate 75, avoiding much of the Miami area traffic. The Turnpike ends at U.S. 1 in Florida City, gateway to the park’s Homestead main entrance.

From the northeast:
Take Interstate 95 from Jacksonville. You should leave I-95 well before arriving in Miami. I-95 ends in Miami and when it ends you will have slow going the rest of the way to Everglades National Park.

Consider joining Florida’s Turnpike somewhere between Jupiter and West Palm where the Turnpike and I-95 are parallel and close together. You will want to take Florida 821, the Homestead Extension of  the Turnpike that begins at the Miami-Dade/Broward County line and travels west past Interstate 75, avoiding much of the Miami area traffic. The Homestead extension ends at U .S. 1 in Florida City, gateway to the park’s Homestead main entrance.

Florida Turnpike Toll System
The Florida Turnpike, from south of Ft. Lauderdale to the Homestead exit is an electronic cashless system. There are no toll booths.So, how do you pay?

Out of state drivers: cameras will take a photo of your vehicle’s license plate and mail  to the registered owner a monthly toll-by-plate invoice for the tolls plus an administrative charge. This is actually less expensive than the cost of a SunPass transponder.

EZPass: At present, this is not compatible with SunPass.

Reciprocal States: the Georgia Peach Pass and North Carolina Quick Pass are accepted at SunPass tolls.

Florida drivers without SunPass: The same toll-by-plate billing system is used for Floridans without a SunPass.

Rental cars: the car rental company will bill you for the fees, plus a service charge. Each company handles the situation differently so see how it is handled at the rental desk at time of booking. Sun Pass customers who have portable transponders can carry their unit with them but must make sure the rental car’s toll system is disabled.

A SunPass transponder can be purchased online or at numerous retail outlets.

Getting Around

From Florida City to the Homestead Main Entrance
At Florida City, take Palm Drive (State Road 9336/SW 344th St.) and follow the signs to the Everglades National Park main entrance and the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. This is a distance of about 10 miles and a 20-minute drive, depending on traffic. On the way, you will pass the famous Robert Is Here! milkshake stand.

Homestead Main  Entrance to Flamingo Visitor Center
The Main Park Road covers a distance of 38 miles. Driving time to the Flamingo Visitor Center without stops is about 50 minutes. See a complete description of all the major stops along the Main Park Road.

Homestead Main Entrance to Shark Valley Visitor Center
The distance from the park’s Homestead entrance to the Shark Valley Visitor Center is about 60 miles and a driving time of an hour and 15 minutes, depending on traffic. Because of the numerous turns designed for the fastest route, supplement these directions with Google Maps or your GPS.

Directions:
1. Leave park and rejoin State Hwy 9336.  Drive for 2.7 miles.
2. Turn left onto SW 217th Ave. Drive for 10.1 miles.
3. Turn right onto SW kneed St. Drive for 2.3 miles.
4. Turn left onto SW 25th Ave. Drive for 2.5 miles.
5. Turn right onto SW kneed St / Grossman Dr / Grossman Farm Rd –
Drive for 1.8 miles.
6. Turn left onto FL-997 N / SW 177th Ave / Krome Ave. Drive for 12.1
miles.
7. Turn left onto US-41 W (Tamiami Trail). Drive for 17.8 miles.
8  Turn left onto Shark Valley Loop Rd. You have arrived at the Shark Valley Visitor Center


Shark Valley to Gulf Coast/Ten Thousand Islands Visitor Center
The distance to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center is about 46 miles and should take only 50 minutes of driving.

Directions:
1. Turn left onto US-41 W. Drive for 40.2 miles.
2. Enter the Big Cypress National Preserve and pass its Oasis Visitor Center; consider stopping for a look.
3. Turn left onto County Rd 29. Drive for 3.3 miles.
4. Continue onto Collier Ave. Drive for 0.6 miles.
5. Turn right onto Broadway Ave East. Drive for a short distance.
6. At the traffic circle, take the 4th exit onto Copeland Ave. Drive for
0.8 miles.
7. Turn right onto Oyster Bar Lane. Destination will be straight ahead.

Discounts and Passes

Seven day passes to Everglades National  Park are available at all 4 park visitor centers (when the Flamingo visitor is manned). Other options include an annual pass valid for 12 months from the date of purchase offering unlimited visits to the park and the $10 senior lifetime pass for those 62 and over who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

There is no fee to enter the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is open 24 hours every day.

Background

The Florida Everglades often is called America’s last untamed frontier, although it is becoming increasingly settled outside of the protected areas. Widely regarded as inhospitable to humans by early pioneers, the region was first settled by native tribes perhaps as long as 10,000 years ago.

Everglades, The Name
The first known reference to the area is by British surveyor John Gerard de Brahm who called it “River Glades” on his 1773 map. The name “Everglades” first appeared on a map in 1823, spelled as “Ever Glades.” The Seminoles named it “Pa-hay-okee,” or grassy waters.

Approaching Animals
Although many wild animals allow humans to approach them closely, respecting their personal space is essential. When a person’s presence alarms an animal, it will often will respond is a way showing its discomfort. A bird will end its feeding and stare at the intruder. Or it may become aggressive or skittish by dive-bombing or circling overhead.  Respect the space of all Everglades’ creatures, especially that of the alligator, which can run faster than many humans.

History

The Everglades’ First Inhabitants
Indians traveled through the wettest parts of the Everglades by canoes and camped on dry land when possible. The more than several hundred archaeological sites; found in south Florida indicate some places  were occupied for long periods.  At least several dozen Indian tribes lived in the Everglades before Europeans arrived. Among the better known are the Calusa, Mayaimi and Tequesta. The Mayaimi and Tequesta today are remembered in the names of two South Florida cities.

Following European settlement, many Florida Indians succumbed to introduced diseases such as smallpox. The infection had an estimated fatality rate of up to 75-percent. Most of the Native Americans you see in the Everglades today are descendants of the Seminole Tribe who moved into the area in the 1800s. They remained free and unbothered only because the land was considered so worthless no one else wanted it. (See more about the Seminoles under Culture)

Plume Hunting
By the late 1800s, the feathers of Everglades’ birds were highly prized for women’s fashions. Bird feathers actually became more valuable than gold. Plume hunters decimated the flamingo, roseate spoonbill, and snowy and great egret populations. In 1900, the Florida legislature passed a non-game bird protection law with the assistance of a new organization now known as the National Audubon Society.

Man Alters the Natural Water Flow
The greatest damage to Everglades’ birds and animals occurred after several thousand fertile acres of the Everglades was opened to farming. As far back as 1882, plans were made to drain the wetlands and recover the land for agricultural and residential use. Following a 1928 hurricane that killed 1,800 settlers, the federal government dammed and diked Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades’ main water source. This change to the region’s natural water flow was catastrophic to Everglades’ wildlife.

Lake Okeechobee’s floodwaters have always been essential to maintain the proper, delicate balance in the river of grass. By reducing Lake Okeechobee’s annual overflow, life in the Glades was severely disrupted and water quality seriously declined. Today, efforts are underway to restore the natural water flow. Latest threat to Everglades’ animals is an imported exotic, the Burmese python, believed to be killing off numerous small Everglades mammals.

Everglades National Park History
Ernest F. Coe was a landscape architect who loved the outdoors and the Everglades in particular. It was his life’s goal to protect the Everglades by turning it into a national park. In 1928, Coe established the Tropical Everglades National Park Association, later renamed the Everglades National Park Association. In 1934, Congress was persuaded by members of the association to designate 1.5 million Everglades acres as a national park but the park was not officially established until December 6, 1947. The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at the park’s Homestead main entrance is named for the man who worked so hard to make ENP a reality.

Everglades National Park was the first national park created to protect a fragile ecosystem and its biological diversity instead of  a unique geologic feature. In 1947, as the park was established, Florida author and environmentalist  Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her famous book about the Everglades. The book’s title was The River of Grass, a term that has become the classic description  of the Everglades.

Culture

Florida Indian Culture & History 
Florida’s two tribes, the Seminole and the Miccosukee, deserve special mention since anyone driving the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) to different Everglades entrances will notice Miccosukee airboat rides, pass a Miccosukee Indian Village and a Miccosukee restaurant.

The Seminole Tribe is more prevalent  farther north in the Everglades at the Big Cypress and other reservations in Florida. It is worth nothing the Seminoles do not object to the name “Indian.” The Seminoles strongly support the long-time use of their tribe’s name and of Chief Osceola’s image that are displayed at Florida State University athletic events and printed on FSU athletic wear. The Seminoles regard these presentations as good “representatives” of the tribe.

Florida’s oldest surviving traditional cultures belong to the Seminole and  Miccosukee Tribes, both relative newcomers to Florida. They did not replace any indigenous people, who were virtually extinct around the time of their arrival. The migration of Creek and other Indian tribes to Florida began around 1760 and continued into the early 1800s. Escaping land-grabbing European settlers, they were welcomed to Florida by the Spanish, who owned the territory and where the English had no authority. By the 1770s the Spanish collectively named these new arrivals as  Seminoles, a term meaning “wild people’ or “runaway.”  Escaped slaves found refuge with the Seminoles who welcomed them as equals.

U.S. Government vs. Seminole Indians
Three years before Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. (1821), the American government waged the first of three wars against the Seminoles in an attempt to remove them. The Second Seminole War alone was one of the costliest wars in American history, with a loss of 1,500 U.S. military, thousands of citizen soldiers and at a cost $30 million. (The entire U.S. budget in 1836 was $25 million.)  Thousands of Seminoles died in the wars and most survivors simply were shipped off to Oklahoma.

Seminoles who refused to surrender fled into the Everglades, living in hammock-style camps and avoiding contact with outsiders until around the 1950s. Today, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is the nation’s only tribe able to boast it was never conquered and never signed a peace treaty with the U.S. The Seminole Tribe has the status of a sovereign nation with a government-to-government relationship with leaders in Washington D.C. The Miccosukee tribe did not officially exist until the 1950s when some Seminoles split off and gained official recognition as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

As sovereign nations not subject to Florida tax and regulatory laws, both Florida tribes are involved heavily in bingo and casino gambling. The Seminoles were the first tribe to offer high stakes bingo halls. In 2007,  purchased the Hard Rock franchise and all its worldwide locations.  Revenue from these ventures provides income to raise the standard of living for tribal members.

Census figures say the Seminole Tribe has between 2,000 and 3,000 members, scattered over six Florida reservations. The Miccosukee Tribe has about 600 members living in the Everglades.

Etiquette

Wildlife Etiquette
Do not disturb the wildlife.

Stay at least 15 feet away from an alligator.

Never go near an alligator nest or a young alligator. The mothers are very protective, and you cannot outrun them. Running in a zig-zag pattern will not help.

Do not crowd other photographers or bump into them when taking pictures. Such intrusions are never welcome.

Cuisine

Typical American food with an emphasis on fish, especially fried fish. The Seminole Indians are known for their fry bread, boiled swamp cabbage and sofk, a drink made of grits or roasted corn.

Religion

Christianity is the predominant religion. The Seminoles approached Christianity with caution.

Language

The majority of people speak English and/or Spanish. Some Cubans and Puerto Ricans in South Florida speak only Spanish. The Seminoles speak Miccosukee and  Creek. The Miccosukee speak Mikasuki, a language of the American Southwest.

Recommended Reading

The River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Your All-in-One Guide to Florida’s 99-Mile Treasure plus 17 Day and Overnight Trips by Holly Genzen and Anne McCrary Sullivan.

Exploring Everglades National Park and the Surrounding Area: A Guide to Hiking, Biking, Paddling, and Viewing Wildlife in the Region  by Roger L. Hammer.

The Photographer’s Guide to the Everglades: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them by M. Timothy O’Keefe

Art

The black and white fine art of Clyde Butcher has been famous for decades. Besides his South Florida galleries, his website sells individual photographs, videos and books.  Butcher’s photography has earned international recognition through museum exhibits in the United States, an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Prague and in other forums.

Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery is located in Ochopee.

Movies

Surprisingly, no decent film about the Everglades has been made in decades. This one might show up on Turner Classic Movies or on Amazon:

Wind Across The Everglades (1958) with Burl Ives, Christopher Plummer, Gypsy Rose Lee and Emmett Kelly.

The Orchid Thief (2002) based on the book by Susan Orlean.

Websites and Maps

Everglades National Park map

Everglades National Park website

Everglades National Park fees

Homestead Visitor Center plan your visit

Flamingo Visitor Center plan your trip

Shark Valley Visitor Center plan your visit

Gulf Coast Visitor Center plan your visit

Big Cypress National Preserve map

Big Cypress National Preserve plan your visit

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