Tracking all the way down from the Kissimmee River in Orlando to the vast Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the US. A complex web of ecosystems, its depths are positively teeming with rare and interesting wildlife, making it a must-see spot for nature enthusiasts.
Around 21,000 years ago, ice sheets retreated and sea levels rose. The limestone underlying the Everglades was eroded away, allowing an influx or fresh water that could support new vegetation. Generations of human tribes populated the area, trying and failing to adapt to its muggy conditions until 1848, when migrants proposed to drain the area to allow for the development of plantations. When this work was eventually attempted in 1882, a string of burst canals quickly proved that no such task would be possible.
In 1947, the US congress formed the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, diverting vast quantities of Everglade water to cities and allowing the growth of sugarcane farmland.
When proposals were made to introduce a large airport just short of Everglades National Park, mass public concern forced environmental organisation UNESCO to protect the area under an act of global importance, allowing it to return to its natural state. It is in this form that the Everglades remain today, attracting thousands of visitors a year to its unspoilt surroundings, vibrant ecosystem and unparalleled landscape.
Attractions: What not to miss
A half-mile boardwalk along a man-made canal, the Anhinga trail promises striking views and multiple wildlife appearances. With trekkers reporting the likes of alligators, turtles, herons and butterflies, be sure to keep a camera handy; locals say that the birds especially are prone to preen in front of a photographer. Of all the Everglades treks, this may be the most family-friendly – there are plenty of restroom stops nearby and the short length is unlikely to tire out youngsters.
For weary legs, the Shark Valley route is the best way to take in all the sights of the Everglades. Visitors can take the tram tour guided by a park expert, stopping at the very top of the observation tower for stunning views across the wilderness. If you don’t fancy paying the tram fee, you can hike or bring your own bike, but be warned; this route lasts for many miles without any water fountains en-route, so bringing along a well-stocked backpack of water and energy-rich snacks is a good idea.
Royal Palm Visitor Center
The original hub for the national park, the Royal Palm Visitor Center acts as a breakout area for lunch, clean bathroom facilities and a chance to pick a new boardwalk path. No matter which route you pick, expect to see alligators, fish and tropical fowl, including the beautiful Anhinga birds. Unfortunately, the wealth of wildlife also includes mosquitoes and greenhead flies, so insect repellent is a must for any visitor.
Formalised accommodation isn’t available within the parameters of the park itself, but for those who choose to visit the Everglades as part of the Florida Outdoor Adventure Kayak expedition, camping is available. For those who prefer to be slightly further away from nature, the local area has a wide offering of hotels and motels. The Everglades City Motel is as closely located as its name suggests, offering free bike rentals, on-site parking and complementary Wi-Fi. Captain’s Table Lodge and Villas offer a similarly competitive rate, around a 15 minute walk from the national park and just four minutes from the Everglades Museum and city fishing charters.
In keeping with the areas environmental friendliness, Ivey House is an eco-friendly bed and breakfast that hosts an outdoor pool, kayak rentals and various Everglade tours. Just 70 minutes away from Southwest Florida Airport, it makes for a great first or last holiday stop.
What’s in the area
As the Everglades area is meant to be left as unspoilt as possible, non-nature-related attractions in the immediate vicinity are reasonably few-and-far-between. However, a short journey by seaplane or boat will take you to Dry Tortugas National Park, a tiny cluster of islets that acts as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. Home to nesting sea turtles and a grand lighthouse, overnight camping is allowed between September and March.
If your holiday budget allows, a private airboat tour is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Departing from Orlando, you’ll embark on an hour-long airboat eco-tour of the swamps, enjoy a live alligator-handling demonstration and relax with a Floridian BBQ lunch. With prices starting at $158, this trip is best saved for couples who can handle the lengthy itinerary.