Picture of wh_sign The photos on this page are primarily from a trip taken in February 2003 although we've included some older pictures as we've been traveling to the Everglades and surrounding region regularly for many years. Most of the commentary is sort of our collective opinion and advice to those who are visiting for this first time.
Picture of marsh The Everglades is basically a very wide, very shallow river flowing from the Lake Okeechobee basin southwest to the Gulf Of Mexico. Most of the Everglades is a vast featureless marsh. It might look like there are features in this photo but one clump of pines and palmettos looks very like another after a few hours of hiking or paddling.
Picture of hammock Unlike many national parks, the Everglades has no one awesome dominating sight to see. There is no real postcard view of the place, in fact very few geographical features even have names. That is partially because it changes rather quickly compared to a mountain landscape. Hurricanes, forest fires and the mobility of mangrove islands mean that a section of the Everglades might look substantially different than it does now in just a few years. This boardwalk is at Mahogany Hammock, one of the more stable areas in the park and the only easy access to a hammock environment. A hammock in this case is a mound that is a few inches higher than the surrounding marsh, and thus larger foliage can survive there leading to a sort of mini-jungle.
Picture of salt_prairie There is an area in Everglades national park called the Pinelands which is a relatively high stable forest area primarily composed of pines. The rest of it is marsh although there are subtle variations. This area is a coastal prairie or salt marsh. If you were to walk across this it could easily go from solid sandy ground to a few inches of mud and water to a deep pool. This makes backcountry hiking more or less impossible. In fact, backcountry hiking in the Everglades is technically known as slogging and there are ranger led tours available if you want to learn the finer points of it.
Picture of melanie If you aren't visiting the Everglades for an outdoor experience unlike any other in the United States, you must be visiting for the wildlife. It's out there but it's hard to find, or you can just go to the Anhinga Trail (first turnoff after the main entrance) where the National Park Service has conveniently collected quite a lot of it and built a boardwalk around it for you. There are always plenty of alligators, wading birds, turtles, fish and raptors around this part of the park. These animals are not tame however, on this visit one of the gators had wandered up to the gift shop and taken up residence just outside the door, effectively closing it.
Picture of anhinga_fishing Perhaps the most distinctive bird in the Everglades is the Anhinga. The white markings on its wings make it easy to spot and it tends to display its wings prominently, usually holding them out to dry after swimmng. This bird actually spears fish on the end of its bill and then pulls them off to be consumed.
Picture of anhinga_spread Needless to say they are excellent swimmers. We have been canoeing and seen anhingas swim past under the water looking much more like a fish (albeit with feathers) than a bird. Unfortunately we don't have a picture of that.
Picture of mangroves At dusk anhingas (and egrets, herons, etc..) tend to clump together in a few select trees and grassy areas that for some reason are superior bird clumping areas. One of these is Eco-Pond near Flamingo. Flamingo is a 'town' 40 miles into the National Park from the main (east) entrance. It's really a small lodge, a general store, some boat tour operators and a campground. It is a superior campground to those in the Pinelands area for a couple reasons, one of which is Eco-Pond at dusk. As night falls all sorts of birds return to this little pond which is an easy walk from the campground, and even if you don't visit in person you'll be able to hear it from some distance away.
Picture of cormorants There area great variety of birds in the Everglades, these are cormorants which are closely related to the anhinga. Having lived in Florida for many years we are desensitized to most of them though as they often wander through our backyard so lets move on to reptiles.
Picture of bank_gators This really means alligators. Sure there are zillions of turtles and they're easy to come across but most people coming to the Everglades want to see an alligator. Alligators are common in most of Florida but the easiest spot to see big ones is at the Anhinga Trail boardwalk. For true alligator lovers out there, other good sites in Florida include Highland Hammocks State Park, Paynes Prairie south of Gainesville, the Loxahatchee River near West Palm Beach and other parts of the Everglades including the fairly accessible canal area just outside Flamingo.
Picture of gator_front First to deal with the standard myths: Alligators are dangerous. As you can see from this one they have exceedingly sharp teeth. They're much faster than you in the water (and on the land for short distances) and they have unbelievable strong jaw muscles (for biting down). On the other hand they generally want nothing to do with you. We have seen hundreds if not thousands of alligators hiking, biking and paddling across the state and have never been approached by one. We have however had them drift along the wake of a canoe or kayak which they seem to like to do for some reason but this was generally non-threatening.
Picture of heads There do tend to be alligator-related deaths periodically, mostly to small children. Do not approach an alligator, don't go swimming where they are clearly hanging about and don't ever try to feed them a hot dog on the end of a stick (this actually happened while we were camping at Flamingo once). There are five in this picture (at least) this is generally the most you'll ever see of an alligator in the water.
Picture of baby_gator There are two exception to the live and let live philosophy between alligators and humans. The first is dogs. We're told that alligators consider dogs to be a bit of a delicacy and there is at least anecdotal evidence to back it up. We've never really pushed the envelope, our dog stays home on freshwater canoe trips. The second exception is babies (young alligators that is). This is an extremely young alligator that we had the good fortune to be able to photograph with a serious zoom lens. That is the very tip of mom's tail in the bottom left corner. Nesting season tends to be January and it's not a good time to go randomly stomping through marshlands. Alligators mate and nest on land.
Picture of baby_gator2 Here is one of his siblings. There were a few more around and probably more that we couldn't see. Most of them won't survive to adulthood, being easy prey for just about everything (including other alligators). In this picture, those are individual blades of marsh grass. This baby alligator was probably less than 6 inches (15 cm) long.
Picture of alligator_closeup
Picture of cobweb There are some mammals in the Everglades; deer, bear and a horde of intelligent raccoons that assault the campground in Flamingo every night. The important remaining wildlife group however is insects. There are a wide variety of spiders, most of which are not poisonous (but often still painful) and there are the mosquitoes. The campground check-in center at Flamingo has a six-level mosquito scale which has entries like 'Annoying' and 'Aggravating'. The 5th level is 'Blood Sponge'. There is no avoiding them so you should accept it and cover yourself in Deet - this includes under your clothing because they will happily bite through t-shirts. We have seen reports as bad as 60 bites per second on unprotected skin. The keys to lessening the mosquito impact are staying inside (a tent for instance) at dusk and dawn as it's actually not quite as bad after dark, wearing baggy clothing that covers as much as possible, and staying in areas where there is a wind (which basically means the coast).
Picture of ninemile_pond Now to paddling which is the primary outdoor activity in the Everglades. Of course the grandaddy of paddling trips is the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway which takes about 7 to 10 days to complete. Alas, we've never had the time available to devote to that so we've done quite a few day trips instead. The Flamingo area is interesting but fairly full of other boats so some of the canoe/kayak exclusive areas a bit north of Flamingo are better trips. This is Nine Mile Pond which has an extensive canoe trail loop through it. This area is open water, once you get back in behind the first row of mangroves it tends to be choked with weeds making for difficult paddling. This trail is fairly well marked however so you're unlikely to get lost.
Picture of canoe Also a good trip is a canoe launch on the west side of the road a few miles north of Flamingo. There is no sign, but there is an obvious launch site into a tunnel between mangroves. It leads out eventually to Hell's Bay Chickee which is about 5 miles away. A chickee is an elevated platform which is nice for camping purposes in the Everglades. Along the way you'll pass one other chickee (about 4 miles from the put-in) and a solid ground campsite called Lard Can (about 3 miles in) shown here.
Picture of lard_can Following the Hell's Bay trail is difficult. PVC pipes have been stuck in the water or the mangroves with numbers on them but the tides and the islands themselves make it hazardous and inevitable that some of them will be missing. Get a good map and be sure you know how to read it. Many of the islands are moveable. In fact you can push some of them around with a paddle so many of the apparent paths through them are in fact rather temporary. Lard Can is a little clearing on an island in a fairly open section of the trail. We've found it to be a nice lunch spot if you can deal with the mosquitoes. Consider using mosquito netting to encase your entire dining area [or canoe].
Picture of clubhouse_beach The Everglades contains many hiking trails most of which are short. Those in the Pinelands section are longer but fairly uninteresting. The most isolated trail in our experience is the Coastal Prairie Trail. The trailhead is at the far western end of the Flamingo campgrounds from whence it winds 7.5 mi (12 km) one way to Clubhouse Beach where it ends. Don't expect a tropical paradise of a beach, it's mostly mud flats and it's absolutely covered with crabs (sit in one place for a few minutes without moving and you'll see them start to come out of the sand). On the other hand it is nearly always deserted and the only evidence of humans you'll see is the occasional sailboat out amongst the keys.
Picture of cp_trail Much of the trail winds through coastal prairie like this section here. Some of it goes through wooded sections where one should be aware of the abundant cacti in the area should one need to go off the trail. Ahem. When we hiked this trail (on a holiday weekend mind you) there was one other set of human footprints in the sand and about a hundred sets of raccoon tracks (and a few raccoons making them) plus some sort of cat tracks that probably belonged to a bobcat. Bring lots of water, lots of bug-spray, and lots of protection from the sun but then that applies to the whole park for the most part.

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