Exploring the Everglades‘ Shark Valley in a day is possible because this section of Everglades National Park is so compact. Located at the northern border of the park, Shark Valley’s paved loop road allows you to explore 15 miles into the Everglades aboard a guided tram tour, by cycling on a rental bike or on foot. The midpoint of Shark Valley’s loop road boasts the Everglades’ tallest vantage point, a 65-foot high observation offering a panoramic view for as far as 20 miles.
Private vehicles, banned from the paved loop road, are confined to the designated parking area near the Shark Valley Visitor Center. Due to its compact area, you can easily view Shark Valley’s highlights in a single day even with its limited operating hours. The paved loop road also allows Shark Valley to offer several ranger tours available nowhere else in Everglades National Park, such as sunrise and moonrise bike rides.
Despite its name, Shark Valley has no sharks of any shape or form, including fossilized prehistoric shark teeth. Shark Valley’s name derives from its location at the Shark River Slough, a depression in the Everglades’ sawgrass prairie that funnels the most concentrated flow of fresh water into the national park.
Shark River Slough is considered a valley by South Florida standards since land elevation 10 miles to the east and 10 miles to the west is 1 foot higher. Thus the name Shark Valley, which is shorter and easier to pronounce than Shark River Slough Valley. TIP: You may find limited cell phone service at Shark Valley.
The loop road was built in the 1940s by the Humble Oil Company when the company drilled for oil on the site where the visitor center is located today. When the National Park Service took over the land, one of its first actions was to erect a steel frame fire tower. Today, the observation tower stands in its place. The park service also paved the loop road, now called the Tram Road after the popular tram wilderness ride.
The large alligator population living near Tram Road and the visitor center has lost all fear of humans. The reptiles, both large and small, laze everywhere beside the road. When nestled into the grass bordering the canal they are not always obvious, including the yellow–striped babies. At Shark Valley, it is not always easy to stay the recommended 15-foot distance away from an alligator. Families need to keep young children close by.
Anyone who has taken an airboat ride knows the loud engine noise scares animals away. The Tram Tour is a much quieter approach but not entirely noiseless. A naturalist accompanying each two-hour tour explains the area’s natural features and facts about the animals spotted. The narration is broadcast over loudspeakers in each tram car, so animals know when the tram approaches. A highlight of the tour is ascending the spiral stairway to the top of the open observation tower. It offers an excellent vantage point for seeing far across the Everglades and both sides of the loop road.
On the Tram Tours, you should see animals any time of day but consider taking the last tram trip, the one closest to sunset. TIP: Always sit in a front tram car. Tram drivers seem to forget those in the back cannot see what the driver does. Too often the rear cars simply drive by an animal the front cars stopped beside to photograph. Camera tripods are useless on the bouncing tram ride.
With a backpack suited for carrying your camera gear, cycling the Tram Road allows you to approach animals quietly and to stay in one place for as long as you wish. The circuit takes 2 to 3 hours, depending on pace. Cycling Tram Road is thirsty work. Staying hydrated is critical. Cyclists travel opposite the tram’s route, so you must start out along the straight road bordering a canal.
After passing the observation tower, the return leg turns zigzag and passes four “borrow pits” (quarries) used to build this road section. The deep water pits are like African waterholes during the dry season, attracting animals and birds from many nearby areas. For cycling, bring your own bike or use a rental from the tram ride concessionaire. Bicycle rentals do not start until 8:30 a.m. and bikes must be returned by 5 p.m., before the park closes. You miss the best light at both ends of the day unless you join one of the special ranger programs (see Ranger Programs below).
Two short walks start from the visitor center. The Bobcat Boardwalk crosses the wilderness separating the east and west tram roads. It is located about a hundred yards from the visitor center.
The Otter Cave Hammock loop trail starts about a half-mile from the visitor center, the only entry to it from the west tram road.
Visitors are welcome to hike the full 15-mile Tram Road. To do it, an early start, snacks and plenty of liquid are essential.
Although these have a short season, from January through the end of March, all the programs are memorable. Especially the slough slog, or muck walk, into Shark Valley’s river of grass. Participants need a spare set of old clothes, old tennis shoes, a walking stick for balance, hat and sunblock. Call (305) 221-8776 to reserve a messy walk in the wild wilderness.
A three-hour sunrise bike ride the length of Tram Road is perfect for exploring Shark Valley. The sunrise trips, held only on certain Sundays, leave the visitor center in time to watch the sunrise from the top of the observation tower. As the sun starts to rise, you can watch the Everglades start to glow from the high vantage point. Riders need to bring their own bikes and meet with the ranger 30 minutes before the designated departure time. Reservations taken up to two weeks in advance. Call (305) 221-8776 to reserve a spot.
Special three-hour full moon bike tours depart in time to watch the sunset over the grass prairie and then view the moonrise. Everglades’ night sounds can be either soothing or jarring, depending on what creature makes them. (The park service has collected a soundscape of Shark Valley night and day sounds.) After watching the moon rise, riders take in a moonlit view of the grassy plains from the top of the observation tower.
Shark Valley is open daily. The access gate and parking lot are closed outside of operating hours. The Shark Valley Visitor Center has limited facilities but offers educational displays, books and souvenirs. The entrance pass is good for 7 days at all park entrances.