This is a place like no other. Established on 6 December 1947 to preserve the biological diversity and resources of the Everglades ecosystems, Everglades National Park protects 1.5 million acres of Florida’s southern tip. Most of the primaeval landscape—a mix of freshwater and coastal prairie, mangroves, marshland, pine and cypress woods, and the waters and islands of Florida Bay—is a federally designated wilderness (the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States). Famously called a “river of grass” by Florida writer and environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the hundred-mile-long Everglades ecosystem once flowed freely from Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. Although the park is a federally protected area at the downstream, southernmost portion of the Everglades, upstream development and agribusiness continue to diminish watery habitats (home to abundant wildlife, including tropical wading birds and the endangered Florida manatee). To help restore water flow and preserve one of eastern North America’s last remaining grassland and longleaf pine savanna landscapes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in 2011. Global interest in preserving the Everglades ecosystem has led to the park’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty.
December through April, join a ranger-led tour of the park’s Cold War–era Nike Missile Base. The now abandoned antiaircraft missile site was built in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The park is vast, so choose an entry point based on what you want to see and do. On the southeastern edge of the park, near Homestead, the Main Park Road runs from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center 38 miles south on Florida Bay. Self-guided and ranger-led activities here include scenic drives, hiking, biking, canoeing, and boat tours. In the northern part of the park west of Miami (off the Tamiami Trail), the Shark Valley Visitor Center offers naturalist-guided tram tours, biking, and hiking. On the western edge of the park south of Naples, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is the starting point for the 99-mile-long Wilderness Waterway Trail (experienced boaters only). Boat tours and boat and canoe rentals are also available. Dry season (December to March) is when most ranger programs and park concessions are available. This is also the best time to see wading birds and other wildlife. Wet season (April to November) is hot, humid, and buggy and has more limited park services. Look for wildlife on the wheelchair-accessible Anhinga Trail and on the two-hour Shark Valley Tram Tour (reservations recommended). Bike or hike the 15-mile Shark Valley Tram Road loop. See panoramic “river of grass” views from Shark Valley’s 65-foot observation tower. Take a guided boat tour from the Flamingo Marina or Gulf Coast, about 0.5 miles south of the Ranger Station in Everglades City.
The closest hotels are in Homestead (eastern edge of the park) and Everglades City (western edge). Inside the park, camp at Long Pine Key Campground, located six miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center (open November to May; first come, first served), or at Flamingo Campground on Florida Bay (open year-round; reservations highly recommended from December to April). Or backcountry camp on ground or beach sites or on “chickees” (elevated camping platforms). Most backcountry sites are accessible only by water and require permits and reservations (make them in person at the ranger station no more than 24 hours in advance). Originally published in 1947, the definitive Everglades book remains Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass (Pineapple Press, 2007). This 60th-anniversary edition includes an afterword by the author and former Time magazine correspondent Michael Grunwald. Credit: National Geographic Society.