Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, spanning from southern mainland Florida and into the Florida Keys. It is the 4th largest National Park in the US and spans over both freshwater and saltwater environments. With being so expansive, having a guide, like this one, to navigate Everglades National Park is key to having a great experience visiting this park.
Everglades National Park is home to many different unique species including manatees, panthers, numerous birds, the American crocodile (prefer saltwater) and alligators (only live in freshwater). Fun fact: this park is the only natural habitat in the world where alligators and crocodiles live among one another.
Our favorite part of visiting Everglades National Park was seeing heaps of Alligators while biking in Shark Valley but we also enjoyed our time hiking and seeing many different species of birds. We recommend spending 1-3 days in the park, depending on everything you want to do while visiting. Here is our quick guide on Everglades National Park.
FYI: This post was written based on a trip taken in mid-March
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What to Do in Everglades National Park
Visit Shark Valley
In Shark Valley, located in the northern section of Everglades National Park near Miami, you will have the opportunity to see more alligators in nature than likely ever before. If you only do one thing in Everglades National Park, do this. Here, you can rent a bike or take a tram ride on the paved Shark Valley loop trail that abuts the water. We recommend renting and riding bikes (if you are physically capable) over taking the tram as you can stop and look at/take pictures of wildlife as you please. However, if riding a tram is more of your jam, you will get to hear a bit of history from the tram guide and still see plenty of wildlife.
Wildlife on the Trail
Along the trail, you will see loads of wildlife. On our 15 mile bike ride, we saw 50+ alligators (including about 5 babies), 100+ birds and several turtles. Some of the alligators were even right on the trail! Don’t worry though, we felt completely safe while passing these alligators on our bikes and, most of the time, we were 15+ feet away (which is considered a safe viewing distance for an alligator). These alligators seemed to care less that we were there and seemed more concerned about soaking up the sun.
This trail is 15 miles in total and almost completely flat. It is a loop trail and at the halfway point, there is an observation tower you can climb up to see the Everglades horizon, which seems to stretch endlessly. From this observation tower, we were also able to see many alligators from above.
Bike Rental Logistics
Make sure to plan ahead if you want to rent bikes at Shark Valley. Make reservations online for the day of your choosing ($20/bike/day) and then you can pick up your bike that day between 8:30am and 12:30pm. Although you do not need to pick up your bike first thing in the morning, we highly recommend picking it up as close to 8:30am as possible. At this early time, there are very few trams (we only saw 2 on our whole ride) or other people on the trail. It is really nice to have the trail and observation tower to yourself as much as possible. The weather is more mild/less hot in the morning, making for a more pleasant ride at this time as well. Additionally, you have first choice from the group of bikes at that park as many of the bikes are operational but weathered.
If you do not make reservations online (you may not be able to if all sold out), you can get a bike on a first come, first serve basis when they are returned from the morning riders with reservations. However, there is no guarantee you will get a bike through this method. When we returned our bikes a bit before noon on a Monday, there were a good 30+ people waiting for bikes and the parking lot was completely full. If you plan to take a tram, be sure to book that in advance as well as only a handful of tram rides operate each day.
Hiking in Everglades National Park is a great way to see many different species of birds and to see some of the variable scenery. To hike in this park, you’ll head to the Ernest F. Coe Visitors Center Entrance in Homestead (northeast corner of the park) and then drive along the approximately 40 mile road that leads you to the Flamingo Visitors Center (southwest corner of the park). There are many different hiking options along this road. You can drive the whole road and hike them all or just drive the first part of the road and hike a few. The choice is yours. Here are our top hiking recommendations in the park, starting from the closet to the Ernest F Coe Visitors Center to the furthest away from the Ernest F. Coe Visitors Center.
Note: Hiking in Everglades National Park is scenic but does not take you to one specifically exceedingly scenic destination like many other National Park hikes do. Do not expect an astounding viewpoint at the end but instead enjoy the journey. The trails here are more about seeing the different flora and for wildlife (mainly bird) viewing.
0.8 Mile, Out & Back/Loop, Royal Palm Parking lot
If you only have time to hike one trail in Everglades National Park, hike this one. You will likely see the most wildlife on this trail as the ample water supply here attracts both birds and alligators. We saw many different species of birds (including Anhinga) and fish during our hike. Although we did not see alligators on this trail, it is not uncommon for visitors to see them under the boardwalks so be sure to look under those for some. This trail is also conveniently located near the northeast park entrance.
Tip: BEWARE of the vultures in the parking lot and make sure to cover your car windows/windshield with a tarp.
The vultures that live in the Royal Palm parking lot (where Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail both start), for some unknown reason, love the rubber around the windows/windshield of the cars parked there. These birds literally will swarm a new car and start to try to rip off the rubber parts. Be sure to bring your own tarp or use one of the provided tarps in the large bin by the bathroom (limited supply, we had no problem getting some to borrow at the park but only enough for a handful of cars).
We have never seen such an odd phenomenon before but this is no joke. Although we covered our car’s windshield/windows completely with tarp and secured the tarp down, these vultures were ruthless and tore the tarp right off. They actually ripped out a piece of our windshield rubber! Thankfully, this piece of rubber was not actually damaged, laying right next to the car when we returned from our hike and just had to be put back into place. However, be warned, these vultures will stop at nothing to try to take the rubber off your car and may actually do some real damage.
Gumbo Limbo Trail
0.4 Miles, Loop, Royal Palm Parking Lot
This paved trail takes you through a tropical hardwood hammock. Along the trail, there are signs to identify the different flora. This trail is very easy to hike and be sure to combine it with doing the Anhinga Trail as it starts from the same parking lot. Again, beware of the vultures in the parking lot of this trail.
0.16 Miles, Loop
This short boardwalk leads to a raised observation platform where you can view out onto a grassy wetland area. No vultures at this parking lot. Phew!
0.5 Miles, Loop
This boardwalk trail takes you through tropical hardwoods and gumbo limbo trees. Also on this trail is the largest living mahogany tree in the US.
Snake Bight Trail
3.2 Miles Round Trip, Out & Back
Snake Bight Trail takes you through a tropical hardwood hammock to a boardwalk that ends at Snake Bight Bay. Many people like to spend some time bird watching at the end of the boardwalk. Also, bight is not a typo. Fun fact: a bight is a bend or curve in a coastline, river or other geographical feature, or it may refer to a bay formed by such a feature.
Tip: Make sure to have bug spray for this trail as it is the only trail (thus far on our guide) that is not paved and was much more buggy than the others.
0.5 Miles, Loop
This unpaved grassy trail loops around a pond and will give you a good opportunity to hear/see different birds. There are many other short pond loops along the main road you may wish to stop at too.
Kayak or Canoe
Kayaking or canoeing through the mangroves is a great way to see Everglades National Park. There are a lot of different tours offered but be sure to book in advance as these tend to fill up weeks in advance. We opted not to do this as we were kayaking through Mangroves at Biscayne National Park (see Biscayne National Park Quick Guide for more details on this) on the same trip but we would do this if we ever go back.
Go on a Pontoon Boat Tour
The pontoon boat tour we did through part of the Everglades was awesome, and we highly recommend it. However, it only visits a small portion of the southern saltwater part of Everglades National Park so be sure to explore the park other ways as well. On this tour, you will get a taste of the Everglades as you boat through the mangroves and see several types of birds. You may also be lucky enough to see Manatees and giant iguanas like we did too. This tour also takes you into John Pennekamp State Park and throughout some of the Key Largo canals. We learned some history about all the spots we visited on this tour as well as about the development of Key Largo.
Note: This tour leaves from Key Largo at Mile Marker 101.9. See our Florida Keys/Southern Florida Quick Guide for more information on visiting the Florida Keys.
Natalie has done this several times as a teenager and found the rides to be exciting. We opted not to do it on our trip because we got our fill of Alligators and the Everglades through biking and hiking but this is another fun way to see the park. There are lots of different airboat tour options near the Ernest F. Coe Visitors Center and Shark Valley. Pick one that works for where you’ll be. Typically, you do not need to reserve these in advance and will likely be able to walk up/get on the next airboat ride.
Tip: Try to pick an airboat tour that does not guarantee alligator sightings as it will be more realistic.
Further, some of these tours have an alligator show before/after the airboat ride and may be a bit reminiscent of Tiger King but with alligators instead of tigers. Do your research before booking and know what to expect. That being said, having done both, Natalie recommends biking shark valley over an airboat ride to see alligators.
Bonus: Visit Big Cypress National Reserve
Most people overlook this area, located less than 20 minutes from Shark Valley, but don’t be one of them. Make sure to go to the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress Reserve where there is a short boardwalk that overlooks a freshwater area with many alligators. Here, we got to see alligators actively hunting fish. It was really neat to see them stalk and pounce at the fish.
Further, you can drive the scenic loop road (unpaved, will take about 1.5 hours without stops) to see more alligators and birds as well. We opted to only go to the visitors center here, as we had seen plenty of bird and alligators at Shark Valley, but seeing the alligators actively hunt fish from the boardwalk was completely worth the short additional drive.
Note: An America the Beautiful Pass will get you into this National Reserve for free so take advantage if you have this!
Where to Eat near Everglades National Park
Robert is Here Fruit Stand
This fruit stand has been in operation for over 60 years and for good reason–their delicious fresh fruit shakes/smoothies are unmatched. Make sure to stop here for a shake or smoothie! We also got a tasty Cuban Sandwich here that did not disappoint either. This stand is located in Homestead near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center.
La Quebradita Mexican Grill
This authentic Mexican restaurant located in Homestead has a classic menu. The food is great here and can be enjoyed on the very pretty garden filled patio. We had the shrimp fajitas and a chorizo burrito, both were delicious!
Another place you could stop to eat is at one of the many fruit stands you will pass traveling from Shark Valley to Homestead on Fl-997 S. Unfortunately, most of these were closed on a Monday when we went passed them but these local stands looked like a great place for a simple and unique meal as well.
Where to Stay Near Everglades National Park
Stay in Homestead or Key Largo
We opted to stay on the northern end of Key Largo, which is about 35 minutes to the Ernest F Coe Entrance and about an hour to the Shark Valley Entrance. We stayed at a cute Airbnb, perfect for two people, right on the Atlantic that we found to be an excellent place to unwind and would recommend it.
On our trip, we were also visiting Biscayne National Park (see Biscayne National Park Quick Guide), Dry Tortugas National Park (see Dry Tortugas National Park Quick Guide), the Florida Keys (see Florida Keys/Southern Florida Quick Guide) and Miami so we wanted a more central homebase than Homestead. However, if only visiting Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and/or Miami, you may want to stay in Homestead as it is closer to all three of those.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Everglades National Park. Anything you’d add to our Everglades National Park guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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