Everglades wildlife viewing and photography go hand-in-hand. One of the easiest and best places to see Everglades National Park wildlife is from the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center located only four miles from the the park’s Homestead entrance. At Royal Palm, the Anhinga Trail borders a man-made deep-water canal paralleling an asphalt pathway that marks the beginning of the nature walk.
When the Everglades’ water table drops during the dry season, this canal and the deep holes scattered in the grassy plain beside it become holding ponds for fish. In turn, the canal and ponds draw water birds and alligators. When wildlife gathers along the Anhinga Trail in the dry season, there is no better place to be. The birds are here to feed on fish and the alligators are happy to eat both.
The Anhinga Trail starts on a narrow ribbon of asphalt that is a remnant of an old highway built in 1916 to connect Homestead with Flamingo. Follow the pavement for a few hundred feet, ignoring a boardwalk coming in from the left.
The hard path ends at a Y-junction. Go right and in a few steps you will stand on a wood platform overlooking a muddy area where alligators like to sunbathe. This can be a very good place for photography, and it may be crowded. Wait for a turn. It usually is worth it.
Leaving the platform, return to the main Anhinga Trail where the paved trail connects to a boardwalk that loops around the edge of a large pond. Water birds are often present in the trees next to the boardwalk and alligators swim in the water or linger beside the sawgrass. Cormorants may sit just inches above your head as they perch on a shelter and survey the water.
From the pond, the boardwalk enters a valley of sawgrass and leads to a T-junction. The walk to the right leads to a fine overview of a marshy area where birds and alligators are common. Anhinga and cormorant may be busy there stalking (and catching) fish. Taking left leg is the final part of the boardwalk loop that takes you back to the paved section of Anhinga Trail.
The Anhinga Trail takes its name from one of Florida’s most distinctive birds that always are plentiful here in tree branches or in the water beside the walkway. The anhinga, also called water turkey or snake bird, swims almost totally submerged, only its head and snaky-looking long neck above water.
Other birds commonly sighted on the Anhinga Trail include a who’s-who of Everglades photo subjects: double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets and snowy egrets. Alligators and turtles are also plentiful. Late in the day, gators sometimes crawl up on the asphalt to keep warm. Feel free to take the gator’s photo but give it a wide berth.
For a serious photographer or anyone who has the time, the most successful way to view the Anhinga Trail is more than once. Obvious or not, something always is happening around you. It takes patience and close observation to notice it. Birds tend to feed most noticeably early in the morning near daybreak, near mid-day when cormorants go fishing in the canal, and in late afternoon.
A second nature trail at Royal Palm is the Gumbo Limbo Trail, a 0.4-mile loop winding and curving through a jungle-like moist forest. The trail is named for the tall tropical gumbo limbo trees native to the Caribbean but common here. South Florida is the tree’s northern-most range. The tree is often called “the tourist tree” because its peeling red bark resembles the burned skin of first-time South Florida visitors. The dense foliage of the Gumbo Limbo Trail is a reliable place to locate the tree snails that graze on the algae, fungi and lichen growing on tree bark. Use a detached flash to capture true shell color and detail; pop-up flashes may create a hot spot on the snail shell, predominantly white on this trail.
To reach the Royal Palm Visitor Center, drive south on the Main Park Road toward Flamingo for about three miles. Watch for a sign indicating a left turn. After turning, follow the road and signs to arrive in the parking lot next to the modest visitor center. The parking lot and restrooms are open 24 hours. During daylight, a small bookstore may be open and in the high winter season rangers use Royal Palm as a base for different programs from December to around the end of April. This is the last major visitor facility until Flamingo. Heed the vulture damage warning (below) before leaving your vehicle.
Vulture Warning: You need to take steps to avoid vulture damage to your vehicle before starting the Anhinga Trail. The vulture population at Royal Palm is quite large. In recent years, the birds have caused serious damage to windshields, hoods and other car parts.