The Everglades National Park driving tour begins shortly beyond the Coe Visitor Center. As soon as you leave the main park entrance, you begin the 38-mile long Main Park Road that leads to Flamingo. Along the way are a variety of park stops, all different and all must-sees.
Expect animal action as you drive the Main Park Road. Anytime you spot something interesting or photo worthy during the drive, you normally can pull off onto the road shoulder if you move entirely off the paved road. But if it has been raining heavily, consider how soft the ground may be before you do.
When suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere to photograph an animal or landscape, be certain another driver is not tailgating before you step hard on the brake.
The first scheduled stop on the Main Park Road is the turnoff to the Royal Palm Visitor Center, just four miles from Homestead’s main entrance. The short detour goes to the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail, so outstanding they deserve their own itinerary.
As the road continues past the Royal Palm Plaza turnoff, it moves from open sawgrass plain to the higher, dryer ground of the Pinelands. This sizable pine forest undergoes controlled burns periodically to eliminate young hardwood trees which might otherwise take over the forest.
Seven miles from the Homestead entrance is the 108-site Long Pine Key Campground, the hub for more than 28 miles of well-mapped interconnecting trails through the pine forest. You would have to stay here a couple of days to walk all the pathways. Campsites are on a first-come basis.
If you prefer a short Pinelands hike, from the campground the Main Park Road leads to the Pinelands Trail, a short scenic quarter-mile loop into the slash pines that is and well worth taking.
Stunted cypress trees line both sides of the Main Park Road. The trees actually have a small fall color change.
Rock Reef Pass, south of the Pinelands, is only 3 feet above sea level but in the Everglades that is considered notably high. A short boardwalk on the right leads into a forest of dwarf cypress, trees stunted by the lack of nutrients in the shallow soil. This area can be quite colorful in late fall.
Thirteen miles from the entrance gate is Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, an elevated platform and a brief 0.25-mile boardwalk. The observation platform offers an excellent glimpse of the enormous Everglades’ sawgrass prairie. It is hard to imagine anyone ever could survive such hostile conditions, yet the Seminoles did.
At 20 miles, the half-mile Mahogany Hammock boardwalk trail leads to the nation’s largest mahogany tree, boasting a 12-foot girth and topping out at 90 feet. A so-called “champion tree” because of its huge size, it is a disappointing photo subject because of the thick foliage around it and the inability to stand back far enough to capture the entire tree.
Continuing south, Paurotis Pond is a fairly small body of water known for its concentrations of nesting birds in spring and summer. When the birds are present, kayaking and canoeing are not permitted.
For canoeing and kayaking, Nine Mile Pond is home to a popular 5-mile long wilderness trail. Wildlife is sparse near the parking lot except for black vultures and sometimes lazing alligators on the bank. The canoe trail offers a good view of the backcountry. For canoe rentals, check at the Coe Visitor Center or the Flamingo Marina.
The West Lake boardwalk provides a close-up look of the mangrove forests growing in brackish Everglades lakes and on Florida’s coastline. Not only are all three types of mangroves present, red. black and white. Mangroves, a vital part of the Everglades ecosystem, act as nurseries for shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and small fish: the tight mangrove roots make wonderful hiding places to protect the tiny marine life from predators. Mosquitoes and mangroves go hand in hand, so have repellent. However, this is your first opportunity where you could see the once almost extinct American crocodile.
Located 7 miles north of Flamingo, Mrazek Pond is empty of birdlife most of the year but for about two weeks towards the end of March or early April this is one of the hottest birding locations in America. The only way to learn when this occurs is by calling the Homestead or Flamingo Visitor Centers.
After passing several hiking trails, you finally arrive at the Flamingo Visitor Center sturdily built on concrete pylons many feet above ground. This is a modest facility with seasonal staffing, but the wildlife sightings posted here are invaluable. Look for salt water crocodiles on the opposite bank behind the marina. Boat tours can be booked at the marina.
Worth a look for the variety of bird life. The short Eco Pond trail loops around for good views of the wildlife and the coastal prairie.
The Main Park Road ends the Flamingo campground on Florida Bay.
This video from the National Park Service highlights the stops along the Main Park Road.