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Everglades National Park - Florida

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In The Old Days

100,000 years ago, there was the Floridan Plateau with its annual water supply. Then, vegetation developed. First came sawgrass, the resilient, ancient sedge (not a grass). The wildlife that had occupied regions to the north came into the area to occupy the swamps, the sawgrass river, and the hammocks. Long before the emergence of the Glades, there were alligators and crocodiles, dragonflies, butterflies, flamingos, snakes, and myriad sea creatures, including crabs and corals, all of the species that migrated south and from the West Indies to take up life in the glades, swamps, and the mangrove islands along the shore.

Habitat

The essential elements of the Everglades habitat are the water, and then sawgrass and slash pines which grow on the hammocks; palmettos which grow under the pines, plus willows, elder trees, shrubs, and ferns -- all growing on the bottomlands; and the mangroves, with their contorted legs reaching into their undersea sand islands.

Each of these plant environments harbor different families of birds, mammals and amphibians. The pines and palmetto forests attract woodpeckers -- downy, piliated, hairy, red-bellied, and others -- plus deer, wildcats, rattlesnakes, rabbits, grasshoppers, spiders, and ground birds including quail. Buzzards and turkey vultures fly over the hammocks, looking for prey. In the air and on the trees, warblers have migrated to spend the winter. Amphibians including green lizards occupy space on the lowest of the hammocks, among the live oaks and ferns. It is here that the strangler fig grows, sending its multiple, twisted trunks toward the sky, overtaking less hardy trees and shrubs to gain a dominant foothold.

Alligators prowl the sawgrass sloughs, retreating into the pock-marked, muddy depressions in the limestone during the dry season. Water moccasins slither from the bottomlands into the sloughs and water holes. To the west, the area of rivers and the Big Cypress Swamp, grow water oaks. Royal palms grow in the northern areas, close to the two species of cypress: dwarf (pond) cypress, and river cypress, which are covered with Spanish moss and other epiphytes, the hanging air plants.

The Big Cypress Swamp, lying west of the sawgrass reaches, is a vast area of standing water, not flowing like the great river of the Glades. It is called "Big Cypress," not because of the presence of large cypress trees, but because there are so many cypress, and the area is so large. This is home to black bears, the omnipresent otter, and the vanishing panther. Herons and vultures rule the bird kingdom, while the wood ibis -- in stark black and white -- flies high to survey the swamp. This is a jungle of cypress, cabbage palmetto, willow, elder, and myrtle, set on low hammocks. There is moss everywhere.

Mangrove islands line the coastline, most prominent west of the Glades and to the south, along Florida Bay, and on low hammocks near the sea. The thousands of islands at the edge of the Everglades, and the water in-between, is a habitat for ducks, pelicans., spoonbills, herons, as well as sandpipers and other peeåœps, including sanderlings,. Resident mammals include otters and raccoons. Alligators and crocodiles are also here in great numbers, amongst the red and black mangroves in this largest mangrove forest in all of the Western Hemisphere. The red is found in the lower intertidal zone, while the black occupies the higher high-tide line.

To see all of this vegetation and animal life, the visitor cannot remain on land, sitting in a park campground or peering from vista points along the park road and the Tamiami Trail. You have to take to the water, by canoe or motorboat, to realize the full extent of this unique natural environment. A short visit to the national park will satisfy a temporary urge to capture the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp, but only in your imagination. Only a prolonged stay, touring the watery interior of the glades, will reveal all that is going on.

How to Get There

There are two major car entrances to Everglades National Park. The western Glades and the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway are accessed from the small town of Everglades City, at the south end of Highway 29, reached by taking Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, which connects Miami and Naples. The Tamiami Trail marks the northern boundary of the park.

The main entrance is on the park's eastern boundary. From Miami, drive south on Interstate 95 and then take U.S. Highway 1 to Florida City. The park headquarters, with an information center, is located in Florida City, at the junction of U.S. 1 and West Palm Drive. To reach the park gate, turn left at Tower Road and drive another nine miles. Beyond the gate is the park road (Road 9356) which leads 38 miles to Flamingo. Don't count on a hurried drive to Florida Bay. You'll want to take your time, stopping at several viewpoints along the way, and even to hike on some of the short trails that lead from the road.

There is a third park entrance that offers a short view of the sawgrass river, off the Tamiami Trail (Hwy. 41), at the northern edge of the park . A road leads south into Shark Valley, past another park visitor center, 25 miles west of Miami and about 50 miles northwest of the Florida City information center. Here, a wildlife tram tour takes visitors through the sawgrass, including a stop at an observation tower.

Boaters exploring the Florida Keys, and those planning to visit the Glades after a car trip to the lower keys, may wish to stop at the ranger station in Key Largo, 38 miles from the park headquarters in Florida City.

Park Essentials

It is very helpful to obtain information from the park in advance of your visit. Park headquarters will mail you current maps, brochures on wildlife and the wetlands environment, and information on accommodations and commercial park tours. For information on the park, write Everglades National Park, P.O. Box 279, Homestead, FL 33030, or call (305) 242-7700. For Flamingo accommodations information and reservations, along with schedules of boat tours, write Flamingo Lodge, Marina and Outpost Resort, Flamingo FL 33030, or call (305) 253-2241, or (813) 695-3101, or 800-600-3813 (for reservations). Shark Valley tram tour information and reservations may be obtained by calling (305) 221-8455. For boat tours and boat rentals at Everglades City, write Everglades National Park Boat Tours, P.O. Box 119, Everglades City AL 33929, or call 800-445-7724 (in Florida), or (813) 695-2591.

Car Campgrounds

There are two car campgrounds operated by the Parks Service reached via the main park road: at Flamingo on Florida Bay, at Long Pine Key inside the eastern park boundary via the park road. An isolated camping area, Chekika Campground is located near the northeastern corner of the park, reached by taking Road 997, Krome Avenue, north from Florida City or south from the Tamiami Trail. Then turn west onto SW 168 Street (also called Richmond Drive), and drive into the park through agricultural lands and across one of the many canals which run through this former (reclaimed) Everglades region.

Special Camping Note:
A campground reservation system is in effect. For information and reservation numbers,
go to this page.

Enjoying the Park

If you're not inclined to venture on the water routes by yourself, in a canoe or powerboat, the best way to get a brief introduction to the park is to drive the main park road leading from the western entrance and Flamingo, on Florida Bay. In these 38 miles, you'll cross Taylor Slough, one of the two main paths the slow moving river takes to reach the bay. Featured along the route are several hammocks which offer walking trails, and a dozen scenic viewpoints. If you have lodging reservations in Flamingo, you could do no better than spend most of the day exploring the short roads that lead off the main route to the trails, get an appreciation for the wildlife of the park, and have lunch at one of three picnic areas.

There is only one way to fully explore the park interior, and that is by canoe. Two short canoe routes are located along the park road, and you might wish to drive to the put-in points to help plan future water activity.

Those who have powerboats or who want to explore the Wilderness Waterway by canoe should drive to the western entrance at Everglades City for the 100-mile trip to Florida Bay, or drive to Flamingo and begin your tour from the south end of the Waterway. In any event, you will want to drive the main park road to see Taylor Slough and the impressive hammocks on the west side of the park.

Climate

Understanding the climate of the Everglades is essential to a rewarding visit. The wet season lasts from May to late November. At this time of the year the climate is humid and very rainy. Almost every day, torrential rains fall over the glades from towering clouds that roll in from the Gulf of Mexico. The rains cease at the end of November, and the park slowly dries to reveal the limestone base which is largely covered in winter. Between early December and the end of March, the air is dry and relatively cool. Gentle winds waft over the glades during the daylight hours. While mosquitoes, horseflies, yellow flies, and other critters are fewer (they don't completely disappear), many more people are in the park than during the wet season. This is the high tourist season in Florida and like the theme parks to the north, the park attracts visitors from afar.

Accommodations and Information

Accommodations are less expensive during the summer months, canoes are more readily available for rent, and boat tours are easier to arrange, although the temperatures often soar into the hundreds.

Whatever time of year you choose to explore the park, plan carefully for your stay, including obtaining insect repellent, and bringing clothing that will keep the bugs away from your skin. This is especially important should you wish to take the canoe routes.

Purchasing food and other camping supplies can be done in supermarkets in Florida City (if you're entering from the west), or Naples (for the western section of the park). While there are some camping supplies in Flamingo, it is best to be well prepared to avoid a long time-wasting drive to a large store.

Be sure to visit one of the visitor centers near the entrances to pick up several park brochures on the Everglades wildlife, and whatever navigational maps you require for canoeing or powerboating.

Three nautical maps, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are required for the Wilderness Waterway: Whitewater Bay (No. 11433), Shark River to Lostmans River (NO. 11432), and Lostmans River to Wiggins Pass (NO. 11430). You can also obtain a color chart covering the hiking trails and canoe routes in the Whitewater Bay and Flamingo area. This is a handy guide to campsites and the chickees on stilts located along the Wilderness Waterway.

Several books on the park ecology and waterways are available at the information centers, including the informative Guide to the Wilderness Waterway of Everglades National Park, by William Truesdell. Another handy guide, available from the stores of the Florida National Parks & Monuments Association (in the visitor centers) is the Topographical Map of Everglades National Park. This waterproof map shows all hiking and canoe routes within the park boundaries.

Highly recommended for reading before you leave home, is the monumental history Everglades—River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, published by Pineapple Press and available by writing the Florida National Parks and Monuments Association, 10 Parachute Key, # 51, Homestead FL 33034-6735, call or fax (305) 247-1216. This passionate overview and defense of the Everglades environment was written in 1947, and was updated in a new 1988 edition. This book is also stocked by many libraries, and is available through bookstores across the country (ISBN number 0-910923-38-8). Park leaflets and nature books, plus standard field guides, are also available by mail-order through the Association.

Attractions on the Main Park Road

Just inside the western park boundary is the Royal Palm Hammock and Visitor Center, reached via a short spur road leading south off the main route. This is your first opportunity to stop to take photographs of birds and animals. Taylor Slough flows through this area. Like most of the other stopping points, this hammock offers short nature trails, from which you can easily spot alligators, and water birds including herons, egrets, anhingas, gallinules, and moorhens.

Four miles down the main road is Long Pine Key, with a basic campground, picnic tables, and a backcountry trail (seven miles, one-way). Two additional trails offer shorter loop walks. Another two miles down the main road takes you to the trailhead for the short Pineland Nature Trail, and eight miles from the campground is an observation deck at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, off the Highway via a short spur road.

One of the finest hammocks along the route has an access road seven miles past the overlook road. This is Mahogany Hammock, where a trail using a boardwalk leads through an impressive grove of large mahogany trees, including one that claims the U.S. record for size.

A picnic area is located beside the main road, to the south at Paurotis Pond, home to a collection of unusual paurotis palms. This is one of the entrance points for canoeists wishing to explore the saw grass river. Next, to the west of the park road, is the Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail, and a little farther southwest is the Hells Bay Canoe Trail (west of the highway). This route leads into the southern waterways of the park, offering a chance to paddle to remote chickees at Pearl Bay and Hells Bay, and to the remote Lard Can campsite. The Noble Hammock Canoe Trail, running southeast from the main park road, is a short loop route. You'll also find a boat ramp and short nature trail at the put-in point.

The last major canoe route found before reaching Flamingo is the West Lake Trail, heading southeast from the park road. This is a 7.7-mile (one-way) canoeing adventure, passing along the south shore of West Lake, and through a series of small lakes and swampy creeks (with some fine mangrove groves), before ending at a campsite on Florida Bay. The put-in site also offers a boat dock on West Lake, restrooms, and a 1.6-mile walking trail through a hammock. This road is also used by tour busses operated by the park concessionaire.

Two ponds are found on opposite sides of the park road, Mrazek Pond (east) and Coot Bay Pond (west). Both ponds offer great spots for looking at and taking pictures of birds and other wildlife.

Approaching Florida Bay, the park road crosses Buttonwood Canal, a major access route to Whitewater Bay and the rest of the Wilderness Waterway, as well as to Bear Lake, the Bear Lake Canoe Trail, and the Mud Lake Canoe Trail. The road ends at , where you'll find the Flamingo Lodge, a park visitor center, marina with canoe and boat rentals, a park campground, and the boat tour docks.

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