River of Grass – Everglades National Park, FL

Everglades National Park is one of the places that David and I have wanted to visit for some time now. Since we started full-timing, we have spent several winters in Florida but had not ventured down to southern part of the Florida peninsula until this year.

Everglades National Park was a real surprise for us because it was not at all what we expected. We thought that most of the park would be swampy and have lots of cypress trees. While there are some sections that are similar to what we had imagined, the area has nine distinct habitats. Some of those include grassy prairies, pine forests, saltwater marshes, freshwater swamps and mangroves, and marine estuaries. President Harry S. Truman established the National Park in 1947 to protect this unique ecosystem. This park is the third largest in the lower 48 states and is the only one that is tasked with restoring and managing this complex and interdependent biosphere.

In the late 1800s, many developers and farmers wanted to drain the Everglades. Since these wetlands depend on the water flow from Lake Okeechobee, they built dikes around the land. Congress approved the Central and South Florida Control Project which redirect water to agricultural lands and urban areas via a series of canals. As a result, the Everglades’ ecosystem suffered significant damage. Ernest Coe, nicknamed the “Father of the Everglades,” became very alarmed at the destruction that the Congressional act had on this unique part of south Florida. He began lobbying Congress to pass a bill to create a park to preserve some of the Everglades. In 1934, they did establish a park and they began acquiring tracts of land and setting firm boundaries for the park. Coe continued working steadfastly for the next 20 years to help preserve these habitats. While the park is considerably smaller than he had hoped it would be, today it boasts 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush signed the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act that helped extend the park’s boundaries and also addressed the park’s access to its essential resource, water. Eleven years later, Congress approved a 35-year $10.5 billion plan “to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem.” To this day, Everglades National Park continues to battle the devastating effects of decisions made over 100 years ago.

Water is critical to the preservation of this ecosystem and for many of the animals and plants there. Some of these can only be found in this unique habitat. Among them are the famed and illusive Florida panther. There were signs everywhere warning of its presence but the park ranger said that he had been there for 10 years and never seen one. There are also American crocodiles, West Indies manatees, 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 types of mammals and 50 types of reptiles. We were fortunate to see some of these as we explored different sections of the park.

We were surprised to learn that Everglades National Park has four park Visitor Centers: Gulf Coast Visitor Center and Shark Valley Visitor Center on the north side along Hwy. 41, Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at the east entrance to the park, and Flamingo Visitor Center in the southern part of the park. We visited 3 of the 4 areas. Given the size of this park, there are very few roads or trails and most of the park is inaccessible. There are some canoe and kayak trails and some boat tours that leave from Flamingo Visitor Center. Private concessionaires near Homestead, FL and along Hwy. 41 will take you on an air boat tour if you so choose.

Our first adventure was in Shark Valley. Shark Valley is on the western edge of the grassy prairies that extend from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. Many have wondered if there are sharks in the valley. The valley received its name from the Shark River that is farther south. That river does have bull sharks in it.

Although there are several trails there, the primary one is the Tram Trail. The Tram Trail is a 15-mile paved loop road that you can explore by walking, riding a bicycle or by taking a two-hour tram tour. You can rent bikes and also book the tram at the Visitor Center. We decided to take the narrated tram tour and booked it in advance. The Tram Trail passes through about seven miles of the grasslands where there were alligators, ibis, roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and other wading birds.

Near the Visitor Center was an alligator nest. Our guide told us that only one in ten of them would survive the first year due to predators. He also pointed out that much of the valley’s surface was covered in periphyton. This gray, spongy layer that floats on the water, protects microscopic life until the rains return and it also absorbs contaminants. The presence and health of this organism is something that the Park Service monitors regularly. Along the way we also saw numerous hardwood hammocks that rise several feet above the valley floor and are often home to black bear, red foxes, deer and even people have lived on these islands in the grasslands.

The trail takes you to an Observation Tower that is 70 feet tall. From the observation platform, we had a great view of the expansive land and down into one of the sloughs. There was a very large alligator sunning itself near the water. We also were fortunate enough to see an American crocodile nearby. It is unusual for a crocodile to be this far away from salt water. On the return, the trail goes along a canal where we saw many anhingas and alligators sunning along the banks and in the mangroves and ibis, herons, and a purple gallinule.

We had a wonderful tour of Shark Valley. Should you decide to go there, be aware that it can be difficult to find parking during busy times. Their parking lot is small and when it fills up, the rangers do not allow the next vehicle to enter until someone else leaves. We waited in line for 45 minutes and missed our tour. Fortunately, they rescheduled us on the one departing the next hour.

After visiting Shark Valley, we agree with Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ assertion in her book, The Everglades: River of Grass, that “There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Read more about our Everglades National Park adventures in our next blog post.

8 thoughts on “River of Grass – Everglades National Park, FL

      1. We have traveled many times across US41 through the Everglades and Big Cypress. We camped in Flamingo a couple of times and at Midway in Big Cypress once. Your post brought back many happy memories of those adventures. Looking forward to your next Everglades post.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. We originally planned to go to the Everglades and take the tram on our trip to Florida last winter but decided to go to the Gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama instead as well as Florida’s panhandle. This write-up may spur us to take another trip to Florida. We will miss seeing you tonight!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Everglades NP has not been high on my list of places to visit. After reading this, I will add it! As always, great writing and great pictures! We’re so glad to have you as friends.

    Liked by 1 person

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